In honor of Tommy Chong’s 83rd birthday, we’re republishing Eileen Polk’s interview from the June, 1989 issue of High Times.
Tommy Chong Interview (1989)
In his latest film, Far Out Man, Tommy Chong plays an eccentric rock star who has achieved wealth and fame, but longs for the lady he lost on the way to stardom. A psychiatrist convinces the Far Out Man (played by Tommy), to leave his mountain retreat and go back on the road with a rock band, because that’s where he was truly happy. Naturally, a series of wacky adventures ensue. Along the way, there are cameo appearances by Cheech Marin, Rae Dawn Chong, and Martin Mull, among others.
I went on a quest for Tommy Chong in the beautiful Santa Monica mountains of California. We found him scouting locations at Moonfire Ranch, a 600-acre mountain citadel that will be the Far Out Man’s hideaway in the movie, owned by vegetarian activist and New Age composer Louie Moonfire. Louie and Tommy were discussing a Beggar’s Banquet-type scene at “Hippyland” in which the rock group Dokken plays for the Far Out Man ’s supper.
We then headed up country for a photo session. There were some strange green things growing above the snow line. We thought maybe they were pods left over from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
High Times: When did you first get into comedy?
Tommy Chong: I got into comedy in 1969, a good year. I got out of music because I was fired from Motown. I was in a group called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. He’s a singer. In fact, Bobby and I are back together again, after 20 years—he’s in Far Out Man.
When the group broke up, I went back to Vancouver. My family owned a strip club. Actually, I owned it, but they managed it for me. When I saw how boring the strippers were, I wrote a show, like a topless improvisational group. It was a real hit.
My main actor quit, so I filled in, and I liked it. I put the word out for actors, and then this mutual friend of Cheech and I got us together. Cheech came down, looked at the show, liked it, and joined up. The club went broke because it turned into a legit theater and the audience never supported it. Actually, my brother fired us. So Cheech and I came to LA.
HT: Were you doing dope comedy then?
Tommy Chong: A little bit. Very, very little. Then we came to LA in 1970, determined to make it as comedians. That’s when we started doing a little more dope humor. We worked a club in the Valley, a bunch of white kids and chícanos, and that’s where we discovered “Lowrider.” As soon as we hit that bit, we had our identity—the outlaw lowrider. You know, a guy in love with his car, and cruising, and getting stoned, and yelling at girls. My character was a hippie, this lost soul wandering around getting stoned on everything he can find.
Then we played The Troubador, and Lou Adler saw us. He owned Ode Records, and asked us to cut a record. Adler was a master promotional person. He had us open for the Rolling Stones in the Forum here. We were a big hit, and the record went crazy.
HT: Was your act rehearsed or spontaneous improvisation?
Tommy Chong: Because our live show was so visual, it was hard to translate on record. We’d just fool around with a tape recorder. That’s how we got our very first bit, “Dave’s Not Here.” We had a brand new tape recorder. I was inside this little theater room on the A&M lot they let us rehearse in. Cheech was outside in the hot, hot sun. He was banging on the door, but the door was locked. I kept saying, “Who is it?” And he kept saying, in character, “It’s me, man, it’s me.” And I wouldn’t answer for a long time. I wanted to see how long it would take before he knocked again. Then he’d knock and I’d say “Who is it?” I kept starting the same thing over and over again. He started getting mad. “It’s me, man, let me in.” And the third one was the funniest thing we did. He got really pissed, and started screaming. “Quit fucking around man, it’s hot out here, let me in!” When he came in, we played it back, and we laughed our ass off.
HT: At any point did you think this was fate—your first meeting with Cheech or your first record?
Tommy Chong: Looking back on it, yeah, it was fate. It was all about the right timing. We were very unique, because we weren’t traditional comedians. We came from such a musical background—Cheech was a singer and I was a guitar player— so I never really felt like I was a comedian, I felt I was part of a group.
HT: You have a lot of Jimi Hendrix references in your movies. Is he a favorite of yours?
Tommy Chong: Yeah. Jimi was the man.
HT: Did you know him?
Tommy Chong: Yeah, played with him once. We played this little club in London called the Speakeasy. He said (imitates Jimi in a low drawl), “Hey man, can I sit in?” He played bass. It was empty, and we had little Motown suits on at the height of the peacock era, the psychedelic era, so we were a little bit out of step. Jimi knew us from Vancouver. I had another club there, before the strip club, called the Elegant Parlor, where Jimi used to hang out when he was growing up in Seattle. He’d come up to Vancouver and watch us play. I’d been playing R&B since 1955. I was into black culture pretty heavy. Jimi would listen to our band before he started doing his stuff.
HT: Did you consider yourself a hippie then? Were you doing acid?
Tommy Chong: We did all those things, but no, I was never really a hippie. I was more like an R&B guitar player going along for the ride. It was girls that turned me on to drugs.
Tommy Chong: No, actually, a Chinese guy turned me on to pot. The same guy turned me on to Lenny Bruce and jazz. A girl turned me on to acid.
HT: What was that like?
Tommy Chong: It was in those days when it was called “try this.” I did it, and it was very good for my head. I only went on about ten trips. Three or four really good ones, spiritually-awakening ones.
HT: Want to tell us more about it?
Tommy Chong: Actually, I’ve found those moments are best kept secret, because you want them to remain special secrets. They were very meaningful moments. Changed my life.
HT: In what way?
Tommy Chong: I was married at the time. I soon became unmarried. After acid, I became focused on the fact that I wasn’t really focused, and that that was okay. It’s okay to sort of try a little bit of everything in life, and not have to worry about having to follow one path. I sort of wandered around after that. It made everything very clear. It sort of polished the windows—I could see through real clear.
It’s funny, I was never a big indulger of anything. So as a result I never really acquired any habits, except weight lifting, or body building. That was the only habit I ever acquired.
HT: That’s a good one.
Tommy Chong: Yeah, it turned out to be the best one I could have done.
HT: When were you turned on to pot?
Tommy Chong: It was neat—when I first got turned on to pot, it was almost legal in the sense that no one really knew what it was, so no one really cared about it, especially in Canada. I remember smoking it behind this jazz club with the guys that turned me on, and the police came and searched the car for booze. And we were all laughing hysterically. They wanted to know what kind of tobacco that was, and we told them it was Italian tobacco.
HT: So these cops didn’t have any idea what you were doing.
Tommy Chong: None. For years in Canada we used to smoke it openly. No one knew. We used to go to concerts and sit up and smoke. No one bothered us. It was very civilized—a lot of fun. I liked it a lot better than booze. Before that we were into a heavy booze culture, and the thing to do was buy the beer or the wine or whiskey, and slosh it down and get as drunk as you can, fight, and throw up. That was considered fun in those days. When I got turned on to music and pot, I just sorta got real cool.
HT: Why did you avoid dope humor in your last Cheech and Chong movie?
Tommy Chong: We had mixed feelings. Cheech didn’t want to do dope movies after Still Smokin’. Then we were contracted to do The Corsican Brothers, and we made a conscious effort not to do any drugs in it, just to make it a period piece.
Tommy Chong: Cheech is very wise, and very intelligent. I think he saw a trend coming. We had ridden a crest as far as we could take it, as far as he was concerned. I personally disagreed. I still disagree, but he felt it coming, and that’s why we’re not together now. He just didn’t want to do Cheech and Chong anymore, let alone dope movies. He didn’t want to do anything. Without the dope, we were just two other actors, as far as he was concerned. As far as I was concerned, too.
HT: So you feel that if you take the dope out of Cheech and Chong, there’s no more Cheech and Chong?
Tommy Chong: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what happened. I think The Corsican Brothers proved that. You look at the movie now, it’s fine, very pure Cheech and Chong. It just wasn’t accepted with the Cheech and Chong audience.
HT: Do you feel that the political climate was causing these things to happen?
Tommy Chong: No, it’s just that people get tired of it. Everything comes and goes. Nothing stays forever. There was a heavy dope era in the ’20s and ’30s, and there will be another one coming up.
HT: Do you think Cheech wants to be a serious actor?
Tommy Chong: Yeah. All of that. I don’t know. I can’t really speak for Cheech. I really don’t understand where he’s coming from. I know that he doesn’t want to get back together again.
HT: Do you?
Tommy Chong: I wanted to very badly. I came to a conclusion when I was doing my movie by myself, that apart, we’re just guys trying to make it, together, we already had it made. After 18 years together, we built a huge constituency. And we could capitalize on it if we wanted to, and that means concert tours and movies and whatever. We could just go forever.
Apart, I feel it’s a big struggle. Then you’re thrown into the competition. If he tries to be a serious actor which he’s trying to be, he’s competing with the AI Pacinos and the Robert DeNiros and the people who have been doing their thing for years and years. I think it’s the same thing as those guys trying to become Cheech and Chong. For my part, I’m going to be Chong without the Cheech.
HT: Did you have a falling out?
Tommy Chong: More of a growing up and changing. I think Cheech grew out of what we were doing. I’d been looking for something like this, while he fell into it. It wasn’t really what he was looking for. I think he was looking more for his own way of expressing himself. When we met, I was 30-some-odd. He was 20. We’re ten years apart. So he was just out of school a year or two. He was a baby. Then, he was Cheech and Chong for almost half his life. He never really had a chance to do what I had done, gone out and tried all these different things. I think that’s what he’s really looking for now, is to find out what he can do on his own by himself, without any of my influence.
HT: How did the political climate affect the wave you were riding?
Tommy Chong: In the ’60s, flower power, pot, acid, you could sleep outside, and hitchhike all over the world, and kiss and love, and it got you by. Nowadays you can do the same thing, and people are doing the same thing, only they’re doing it out of the glare of the public eye. There’s a lot of things happening now that happened during the ’60s.
HT: Do you think creativity will flourish in a time of repression?
Tommy Chong: Absolutely.
HT: And do you think we’re heading in that direction?
Tommy Chong: (sarcastically) I think when they confiscate your car for an ounce of pot, I think that’s kind of repressive. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. At the Canadian border, they’re turning people away if they have cigarette papers.
HT: I wanted to ask you about that. High Times can’t be sold anymore in Canada. A new Canadian law bans all media which shows the cultivation or manufacture of drugs, like growing a plant or rolling a joint. What about Cheech and Chong videos?
Tommy Chong: I think we’ve been banned. Every once in a while Canada shows you how stupid they are. What an ignorant government they have. Canada’s got a government that the United States would love to have, because the rich control everything. But that stuff can’t last.
The movie I’m doing now, I keep putting dope in, and the producers keep taking it out. It’s pretty funny. I’m going along with it because I don’t care. I really don’t care. I want to make a product for the people to enjoy, and if they don’t enjoy the dope humor, then fine. I don’t mind if it’s out.
HT: Do you feel it’s “the people” or somebody else?
Tommy Chong: It’s the people. Oh, yeah, it’s reflective of the times, the general audience. You turn on the news, there’s a dope-killing every day. It’s not a healthy image for the general public anymore.
I got to tell you the truth, I like it. I like repression. It was bothering me that everything was becoming too mainstream, because there are certain people out there, you know, they’re not jazz musicians, they’re not hip, and pot only makes them unhipper. Pot only makes them more stupid. When it was mainstream, those idiots were giving the rest of us a bad name.
I think pot is like religion. I don’t think it should be public. I liked it before, when it was like a secret society. It was more exciting then, more real to me. For a while there, it was no big deal. I like it when it’s a big deal. I like the price tag. I like an outlaw image. I feel I have accomplished something if there’s a price on my head.
HT: Do you still have that image?
Tommy Chong: Yeah, I do. I realized, when Cheech split because he didn’t want to do this anymore, I figured well, I guess it’s me. I’ll take the blame, and the credit.
HT: Do you feel like you’re doing something that could get you into trouble, or do you welcome that?
Tommy Chong: No, I don’t want to get in trouble. I don’t see any winners in the martyr business. I don’t want the holes in my hands, it’s not me. I’ve seen too many martyrs go down. Their lives are ruined, because that’s what those old fucks want, a target. They love a target, then they’ll eat you up. Because you see, it’s all money. Like these drug abuse programs and all that, it’s all an excuse to get money.
It’s the old fireman thing. They found that, in these little towns, a lot of fires were set by firemen, so they could keep their jobs. See, if the years go by and there’s no fire, all of a sudden people say, “Well, what are we paying these guys for?”
It’s the same thing with the government. The very people doing the biggest anti-drug thing are usually involved with keeping it happening. They scare the shit out of you and then say, “I’ll save you, but pay me. I need all this money.” The great minds of this country have already figured out how to make this country a paradise, but nobody listens to them.
HT: Who do you consider a great mind?
Tommy Chong: The mayor of Baltimore has to be considered. He’s in favor of legalization as a cure to the drug problem.
HT: All drugs?
Tommy Chong: All drugs, yeah. It’s a total logical answer. But he can’t convince anybody. They think he’s a kook.
HT: The drug war is a billion dollar industry now.
Tommy Chong: In fact, they burn up the billion dollars worth of drugs, and then they create all this graft, corruption, all this crime—can you imagine being a narc who’s making $20,000, $30,000 tops $50,000 a year, busting kids who have that much in their pocket? And all he has to do is lose half of it on the way to the police station. And the minute you start doing that you’re a thief. The temptation is ridiculous.
Like that TV show, Cops. They’re always busting some crack house, and that’s sick. That’s like going into a hospital and busting the patients, “All right, get out of bed! You! On the floor!” Pulling the IVs out of their arms, lining them up. They never show what they do with these people. As soon as the cameras are gone, they kick them in the butt and send them home. They don’t even book them—there’s no room in the jails for these people. It’s just to keep the drug war money coming.
HT: Tell us about Far Out Man.
Tommy Chong: Well, Far Out Man is my first venture without Cheech. Unlike Cheech, I wanted to keep my image. I wrote, directed, and acted in it.
I tried to do a parallel of my real life, but I got into trouble doing it that way. The biggest mistake I made was directing myself. I could direct Cheech, but I never realized how much Cheech directed me.
I thought you could cut corners. I thought, “I’m a writer. I don’t need a writer.” Wrong. You need every one of those people, everyone! Because at six in the morning, I don’t feel like writing. The creativity, the writer in me, he’s still in bed. And he ain’t gonna wake up ’til he smokes a joint on Sunday afternoon and comes up with a brilliant idea.
HT: So you started out as a writer, director and performer, and now…
Tommy Chong: Now I’m just a principal actor and writer, but I’m not the whole ball of wax.
HT: Are there Jimi Hendrix references in the movie?
Tommy Chong: Yeah, well, when they go up to Hippyland, Jimi is going to be like the Matterhorn of Hippyland, and the rides are going to be Jimi Hendrix’s balls. His dick is going to be another ride. You get in his dick, it fires off like a rocketship. I actually built the balls, big tire innertubes, and blew them up.
HT: Is Jimi there in spirit, or do you have an actor that plays Jimi Hendrix?
Tommy Chong: Oh no, Jimi’s there. I got a little bit of animation, and you see Jimi in the animation. Part of the problem when I tested the movie was that no one knew who Jimi Hendrix was. There’s a whole different world in the movies.
HT: You told us the producers said there were too many dope references in the movie, how have audiences reacted during screenings?
Tommy Chong: People walked out, they left.
HT: Because of the dope?
Tommy Chong: The dope and the language—there was swearing.
HT: But lots of movies have drugs, swearing… and violence.
Tommy Chong: They got a new thing on TV. They won’t show any dope. They’ll show dopers being killed, and murdered, and maimed. As long as they got a headband on and talk with an accent and get machine-gunned down, that’s okay, but they can’t show us having fun. They can’t show dope in a positive manner.
HT: What are you striving for in Far Out Man?
Tommy Chong: I thought, “Cheech says the dope thing’s over, I disagree. There’s fucking millions of dopers out there smoking dope.” Now, I’ve almost come full circle, because you can’t generalize. You can’t say, “I’ll do an exploitation movie,” and make a lot of money. You know how everybody follows trends, like five years of action adventure movies, and a couple years of Halloween chop-off-your-head movies, it’s the dog chasing the tail. As a moviemaker, the soul of the movie is most important. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
HT: Are you doing what you really want to do?
Tommy Chong: Yeah, actually I am. I’m becoming more of a filmmaker. It’s very tough trying to be Chong without Cheech. In the process I’m becoming Chong, the filmmaker. The first thing I’ve learned while doing the films is I have a great deal of respect for the process, which I never had before. It takes me a while to gain respect for anything, ’cause it’s just not my nature. But you’ve got to know your basics first, same with everything, same with life.