It took a little prodding to get stoner icon Tommy Chong back to performing The Marijuana-Logues . He was brought on board during the show's off-Broadway run in 2004, while on probation after serving nine months in federal prison for endorsing his son's bong business, but pulled out as the show began to travel to pot-friendly cities like Vancouver and Seattle. According to reports, fans were throwing joints onstage and lighting up in the audience during the dialogue-driven play celebrating cannabis culture, forcing Chong to leave or risk a return to prison.
The 67-year-old has remained a stoner celebrity, the slower half of the Cheech and Chong comedy duo, a couple of washed-up looking dudes cruising the country and suffering frequent bouts of forgetfulness and miscommunication in classic pothead movies like Up in Smoke . Even now, as a frequent guest star on Fox's That '70s Show , he plays the hippy. There may be a few more lines in his well-tanned face, and a little less hair, but the easy, gravelly voice and sleepy eyes haven't changed. The hapless but harmless character he so often plays made Chong's arrest in 2003 particularly jarring for fans.
Swept up in a Justice Department sting called "Operation Pipe Dreams," because his image appeared on thousands of "water pipes" his son, Paris, was selling through the online company Nice Dreams Enterprises, Chong was the only one to receive time. Agents found almost a pound of marijuana at Chong's Pacific Palisades, Calif., home during the raid, too, but since they didn't have a warrant for it, that didn't factor into his sentence.
So began a more sobering point for Tommy Chong, and when he was freed from prison, he found he couldn't free himself of the contractual obligations of the show. Begrudgingly or not, Chong is back in The Marijuana-Logues , probation free, and, according to him, pot-free as well. And he's used the prison time to his advantage, not only enjoying his celebrity status among the drug offenders that surrounded him inside, but compiling enough reflections to fill a new book-- I Chong , enough experiences to fill a documentary-- AKA Tommy Chong , and enough material to support plenty of stand-up routines to come. Marijuana-Logues hits The Palace Theatre in Stamford this Friday night, a spoof on Eve Ensler's world-famous Vagina Monologues , with a lot more juvenile jokes and references to really killer weed. Below, Tommy Chong reflects on the long, strange trip.
Fairfield Weekly: Have you seen The Vagina Monologues ?
Tommy Chong: [Chuckles]. Not the play. But I've been married for 30 years, so I'm quite sure I've lived them.
FW: Does the play get into political issues like legalization?
TC: A little bit, a little bit. Nothing earth-shaking, but, oh, yeah, we have to a little bit. We mostly talk about how stupid it makes you.
FW: Can you tell me about the time during your probation when you first became nervous about performing in The Marijuana-Logues ?
TC: What happens when you're on probation, you're still basically in jail, but they're allowing you to kind-of live on the outside. So what happens, you don't have rights like citizens do. You're not innocent until proven guilty, it's like the other way around--you're guilty until proven innocent. And if you witness a crime, this is written in the rules, and you don't report it, then you've more or less broke your probation and you can go back to jail for up to five years. So what happened with me, being in the play, when I was in New York, everything was fine, everything was controlled. But when we took it on the road and started playing theaters then we couldn't control anybody. And the crowd would start smokin' up, people were smokin' up backstage. And so I had to report it, and when I reported it the probation officer immediately rescinded my travel order permission and I was unable to complete the tour.
FW: Now that you're back performing, does it still make you nervous?
TC: Yeah. Very nervous. Well, this whole government makes me nervous. I mean, when they raided my house and arrested me, and charged me with conspiring to ship bongs across the state line, I didn't own the company or anything, I was just helping my son publicize it. But they showed me then, the government can do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. So yeah, I'm nervous.
FW: What about when you do stand-up. Is it different, or are the audience members still lighting up?
TC: The few people who do violate, we can definitely deal with them. The club owners will do it. But I'm not on probation now, so it doesn't matter who lights up where as long as I don't light up. Or as long as I don't get caught lighting up. And I don't smoke anymore. I never did smoke that much and I decided just to take a sabbatical just until we get the Republicans out.
FW: So many of your roles, from your early movies to your character on That '70s Show revolve around a similar stoner/hippy guy. How close is that character to Tommy Chong?
TC: I've always adhered to "if it works don't fix it." When I realized I got typecast, I thought, well, "Wow, what a beautiful typecast." As opposed to say, Will & Grace , where the guy's [actually] straight. There's no way he's going to survive in the gay world. But Chong as a stoner, that was an easy one. You know, I'm a little brighter than--I'm bright enough to act stupid, let me put it that way.
FW: Are you and Cheech Marin still working on a sequel to Up in Smoke ?
TC: It morphed. It changed from a movie into a play. And we realized that in a play, we can have young Cheech and Chongs. So both Cheech and I said, "Wow. That sounds like a plan."
FW: Are you thinking of bringing the show to Broadway?
TC: Probably more Vegas. Probably more West Coast until it gets some legs. It could definitely hit Broadway, but start on the West Coast. Or wherever there's Mexicans. And the way it looks, that's everywhere.
FW: I read that you'd had a bit of a strained reunion with Cheech...
TC: Yeah. We both decided that we got old, you know... I look in the mirror and go, "Damn, I don't even recognize myself." And, you know, the thing is, when you do something as wonderful as we did with Up in Smoke , to try to do something similar or better just doesn't make sense. We did it. It's really tough competing against yourself. Especially when your old self was 30 years old and had all your hair.
FW: Your book I Chong is coming out in August, and focuses on your prison experiences. Were you doing a lot of writing while you were in prison?
TC: You know, I intended to do a lot more in prison than I did. You get this romantic notion that you're going to be locked away in a cell, you know, they're going to wake you up when it's time to eat. It's not exactly that. It's more you're counted four or five times a day and you're around people all the time, so it was very difficult. But I did manage to get a few chapters. I wrote it down while it was fresh. It was more like memoirs, really remembering. One thing you do in jail, you have a lot of time to reflect.