When Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made their groundbreaking movie “Up in Smoke” 40 years ago, marijuana and the culture surrounding it were much different. People smoked “Mexican brick weed,” and often had to search high and low to “score a lid” because it was illegal.
Nowadays, consumers vape, eat and smoke cannabis, which is much stronger and comes in so many strains that someone mimicked the periodic table to keep track of them all. And, of course, cannabis is legal in some form in much of the country.
So what makes “Up in Smoke” relevant today, other than Paramount’s release of deluxe versions for home viewing? It’s significant because it represented one of Hollywood’s first attempts to portray cannabis culture without demonizing it, a la “Reefer Madness” in 1936. “Up in Smoke” is still funny, a good sign of continued relevance.
Cheech and Chong discussed “Up in Smoke” and other marijuana matters during a phone interview with The Bee from their homes in Pacific Palisades. “We can’t be together anymore due to the terms of our probation,” Marin joked.
While some people criticize the two for promoting the image of marijuana users as dopey stoners, there’s no disputing that few people have shaped the popular imagination about marijuana like Cheech and Chong, starting with their first movie, “Up in Smoke.” Cheech and Chong wrote the script about two guys looking to score some weed, much of the time while they’re driving a van they don’t realize is made of it. Lou Adler directed and produced the movie.
The interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
In the interview you guys did for the anniversary video, Cheech said people were getting high back then but nobody was really talking about it. So you made the movie. Tell me more about what was happening that made you want to make the movie.
Cheech: There was this cool hippie street culture that was evolving in cities across the U.S. … We just thought it was really funny.
Chong: It really didn’t start out that way. Lou Adler wanted to do a movie called “Cheech and Chong’s Greatest’s Hits,” based on our records. We decided we wanted to use our most colorful characters from our repertoire. It all flowed from there.
This is comedy, so I hesitate to ask this question. What was the message of the movie?
Cheech: It was the culture. If we captured the rhythm of it, you would get the message. That’s why the movie has endured.
Chong: One day I came into the studio and told Lou and Cheech that I wrote a song. It was “Up in Smoke,” and that became the title of the movie and what it was all about. Up in smoke/That’s where all my money goes/In my lungs/And sometimes up my nose. That was what was happening then, and what is happening now on a much bigger scale.
Cheech: So there. All because of us. We should get a royalty on all that.
How have you benefited from marijuana?
Chong: Our life stories are a testament to the magic herb. When we met Lou Adler we were riding around on a scooter because we couldn’t afford a car. We were sleeping on couches. I’m a high school school dropout. Now, Cheech has a house in Pacific Palisades and one in the desert. I have a house in Pacific Palisades and one in Vancouver.. We’re living the American dream and it’s all because of our attitude toward marijuana. … One of acceptance.
Some people take exception with the stoner image you helped create. What do you guys think about that?
Cheech: (Makes farting sound with tongue.)
Chong: To each his own. It’s comedy and we created characters that people could feel superior to.
What do you think about legalization?
Cheech: I’m totally against it. … No, I’m not.
Chong: It validates what we have been saying all along. You have to remember that I want to jail for selling bongs. (He was sentenced to nine months in federal prison in Pennsylvania for selling pipes and bongs online through his California company, Nice Dreams Enterprises.) We’re on our way now and we’re glad that it’s happening.