When it comes to legends of cannabis, there’s no one who has been more iconic as an entertainer, activist, and overall influence than Tommy Chong. His career in entertainment began during the early 1960s and he was soon discovered by the Queen of Motown, Diana Ross. Later on, while performing stand-up in strip clubs, he was introduced to a man named Richard Marin, also known as Cheech. The two went on to become the Grammy Award-winning duo, Cheech & Chong, who brought cannabis to the big screen and have been incredibly influential in establishing a culture for stoners worldwide. After parting ways in the eighties, Chong went down his own road with “That 70’s Show,” “Dancing with the Stars,” and now, “The Masked Singer.”
Throughout his nearly 60-year-long career, cannabis has played an integral role in Chong’s brand and his personal life. From smoking dope on camera to treating cancer with cannabis, there is no Tommy without marijuana. We caught up with the living legend at Dank City studios to better understand his journey of becoming an icon and vision for the future of cannabis.
While people may know you as an actor and activist, you got your start in music. Take me through Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers and working alongside the Jackson 5.
My life changed when I met Bobby. We met him in San Francisco when he was singing at a topless joint called Big Al’s. Then he got us a job playing there one night a week and when we left to go back to Vancouver, our drummer quit. I reached out to Bobby to see if he could find a drummer for us and he said, “I can play drums, motherfucka.” So he came up as a drummer, but he was such a good singer and attracted audiences just to hear him sing. We put a group together, played a few gigs, and then we got discovered by Diana Ross.
She came to club in Vancouver and flew in Berry Gordy who signed us. From there, we made our way to Detroit and wrote a song called “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” That song got on the Top 20 of the R&B charts and I made a name for myself.
We were then introduced to the Jackson 5, who opened for us in Chicago after winning a high school contest. Bobby, of course, saw what a genius Michael was and the whole family was great. He had them come and live in Detroit with him until they got auditioned by Motown and the rest is history.
How did you meet Cheech and what led you to become a comedy duo?
I met Cheech up in Canada. I had an improv show at a strip club and we were using the audience as part of the act because they didn’t expect comedy and just wanted to see the girls. At the time, I needed another man for our act and at the time Cheech was introduced to me through a mutual friend. He came down, saw what we were doing, and joined the group. We were later fired from the club and Cheech was the only one who wanted to keep doing something. He was also a singer, so we put a band together. However, we didn’t end up playing one note and just did comedy. That night driving home in a rainstorm, we were trying to think of a name and I asked if he had a nickname. He said “Cheech,” then Cheech and Chong just rolled off my tongue and that’s how it was born.
Was cannabis always a part of your act and how did the general public of the 1960s react to it?
Well, we never played to the general public. We played for guys in strip clubs and started doing open mic nights at colleges in the area. The thing that united everyone was marijuana jokes and we became pot humorists. Our act also helped to introduce the Chicano, not the Mexican but the Chicano. Before, the Chicano was a gang member with a headband but then it became happy-go-lucky Cheech. My character was every hippie son in the world; for instance, in “Up In Smoke,” I was the son of a rich guy who’d never worked a day in his life and just tried to be a musician.
Do you remember your first experience getting high and how did it become part of your everyday life?
Well, the first time I smoked, I was 17 years old and at a jazz club in Calgary. A bass player came in from LA with a Lenny Bruce record and a joint. It was the first joint I’d smoked and I remember that moment so well. I was listening to a record called “Lonely Woman,” by Ornette Coleman and it changed my life. The next week, I quit school. I was trying to finish grade 12 on the second try but as soon as I smoked pot, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to entertain, play music, and get high.
During the 1980s, you and Cheech parted ways for a period of time. Why did you decide to go separate ways professionally?
It was tough. When we broke up, he had another movie to do and he was actually the one who broke the spell. We had a couple more films lined up, but he didn’t want me directing anymore. Because when you become a director, you become sort of a megalomaniac and I was headed in that direction. So we broke up, then I made a movie called Far Out Man and had Cheech do a little cameo. That was harder than not having him in the movie because we work so well together.
In addition to knowing you for Cheech and Chong, many remember your role in “That 70s Show.” How were you approached about joining the cast and what was your experience like playing Leo?
The experience was great. I got offered two jobs at the same time, one was with Nash Bridges and the other was with “That 70s Show.” And of course, I took “70s” because it was about pot and that was the only reason I took it. That’s when I went to sitcom school because I had a lot of time to watch the director and everybody else do their job. It was a great experience because it’s who I really am, my character was Chong but called Leo.
At the same time, I was doing stand up with my wife and we were selling bongs on the side. Then I got busted for that and I had to take a hiatus. But that ended up working out well because I wanted a raise and they wrote me out of the show. Then I went to jail for nine months and when I got out, they wrote me back onto the show.
What led you to reunite with Cheech years after going your separate ways?
My son actually got us back together. We were being offered a lot of gigs to reunite in movies, but Cheech was adamant that he wouldn’t do a movie where I direct. We had a meeting and he wasn’t the Cheech I’d known during the movies, he’d changed drastically. So I went to send him an email and my son intercepted it before it was sent. He got us back together for “South Park” and then “The Simpsons.”
What are your top 3 favorite strains and how does Chong’s Choice represent the way you consume cannabis?
My number-one strain is anything handed to me by a naked lady. And my second favorite strain is anything given to me by anybody. And my third favorite strain is finding something at home and saying “Oh, I forgot about this.” I’m terrible at strains, I can’t even tell the difference between indicas and sativas because I smoke so little. I’m a one-toke, that’s enough for me. I function with one or two tokes, I never get blasted. I think that comes from my early training; when I first got high I shared a joint and only took a couple of hits. But the effect was so profound that even if I had all the dope in the world, I only needed a few hits.
Chong’s Choice is about name recognition and all we need to do is keep the integrity of the weed. But that’s easy to do because we go to the best growers and sellers to get a great product. There are a lot of people who can afford the best quality and we aim for those people.
What’s your most memorable cannabis experience and who have been your favorite celebrities to smoke with?
My most memorable cannabis experience was getting high with George Harrison of The Beatles. That was very special because he gave me the joint and I handed it to the next guy who was Tony Dow from “Leave It To Beaver.”
Another memorable experience was probably any time I smoked with Cheech; getting high and then getting lost on the way to a gig. It wasn’t weed, but it was close to it, acid. The first time I made love to my wife, we were both on acid. And our daughter, who appeared out of that union, is very brilliant and she was an acid casualty.
What is the future of cannabis and how will your legacy play a role in that?
I’ve always said that cannabis will save the world. Now, I really believe that because since hemp has been legalized we can experiment with hemp plastic which is biodegradable. We need plastic, but we need a plastic that will dissolve and not stay on the planet for a long time. So I predict that we will come up with a hemp plastic, just like there was hemp paper. The Bible was written on hemp paper and the sails that Christopher Columbus used to come over to America were made of cannabis — that’s where the word canvas comes from. So the future is really looking into the past.
What else should our audience know about Tommy Chong?
One project that I’m working on, you get a first on this one, every month I want to start doing rituals with the Natives for impoverished people. When they die, they’re too poor for funerals and people cremate them, then dispose of the ashes. Just have the drums, the Natives come to do chants, burn the sage, and welcome the spirits of the departed. I want to give them a nice send-off. I found that the more you do for others, the bigger your bank account grows. Our whole purpose is to help each other and even though we’re all individuals, we’re all connected.