Looking back at “Up In Smoke,” the film debut of Cheech & Chong, you could assume it was all part of the comedy duo’s master plan: Conquer the comedy clubs, capture their counterculture humor on a run of best-selling comedy albums, and then set their sights on Hollywood with a movie that with its release in 1978 launched the new genre of stoner comedies.
But to hear Tommy Chong tell it, when he and Cheech Marin come on the line to talk about the special 40th anniversary editions of “Up In Smoke,” the idea was much more in character with the laid-back personas he and Marin had established on stage and off. They simply wanted to spend a summer in an appropriately warm hemisphere.
“I gotta thank Australia,” Chong says of the land down under where summer is the colder season of the year. “Because we were getting ready to do, what, our fourth or fifth tour of Australia. I just thought, I don’t wanna go back to Australia! Because every time we’d go we’d miss summer. We’d miss summer here, we’d miss summer there, and for three years in a row we never had any summer.
“So I told Cheech, I said, ‘Listen, we gotta do a movie,’” says Chong, 79. “So we started working on a movie, and Lou Adler got on board (as director), and next thing you know we’re shooting ‘Up In Smoke.’”
The transition from comedy clubs and recording studios to film sets wasn’t difficult. They employed the same let’s-try-it-and-see-what-happens approach that they’d adopted for their recording career, which by then had earned them one Grammy and a host of best-selling albums.
“The acting was easy – we knew no technique,” says Marin, 71, with a laugh.
“We approached it like we did our albums,” Chong says. “Cheech and I, neither one of us had ever thought about recording anything until we met Lou. And because he had a recording company we thought, ‘Well, we’ll do a recording.’ And so we went back to rehearse and record and it became one of our biggest hits, ‘Dave’s Not Here.’
“So we took that same philosophy into the movie-making business,” he says. “It’s very simple. You just want to make something that people can laugh at. So what we did, we just had to figure out how can we make this movie funny, and that’s what we did. We just did one bit at a time and next thing you know we had a movie.”
In linking together the different comedy bits the pair found funny they looked for simplicity again.
“You want to do the simplest story line,” Marin says. “The story line is: ‘Two guys meet, want to form a band, but first they need to get high, so they have to find a joint.’ Therein lies your plot.”
And he’s not kidding either, though that simple plot is fleshed out by a trip to Tijuana, where Cheech and Chong in their roles of Pedro and Man end up accidentally smuggling a delivery man made entirely out of weed back into the United States, a team of bumbling narcotics officers on their tail, with everyone ending up at a battle of the bands at the Roxy, the famed nightclub on the Sunset Strip conveniently owned by Adler.
They drew upon their world, whether comedy or the society in which they worked, to add other small details, Chong says.
“That smuggling of marijuana, how do we smuggle pot across the border,” he says. “I remember this old joke about a guy taking a wheelbarrow across the border every day, and Customs would search the wheelbarrow and they couldn’t figure out what he was smuggling. When he retired he told them – he was smuggling wheelbarrows. So we used that for the pot made out of car, car made out of pot.
“And you know the Vietnam War was going on and we wanted to pay homage to that,” Chong says. “That’s where Strawberry (the PTSD vet character) came in. We just of married bits to the times of the day. We would tackle problems of the day with humor, with crazy humor.”
As for as the business side of Hollywood, and any nervousness the studio suits might have had about greenlighting a movie in which copious amounts of still-very-illegal pot gets smoked for most of the 85-minute run time?
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“As long as they didn’t know what we were doing everything was fine,” Marin says, laughing.
“The secret sauce there was Lou Adler,” Chong says. “When Cheech and I came to L.A. we had been romanced and bromanced by a few record companies and people, but no one really knew what do to with us except Lou. And so when we told Lou we wanted to do a movie he went his Lou Adler way and got the deal with Paramount.”
Reviews were mixed – Pauline Kael at the New Yorker and David Ansen at Newsweek were among the most favorable big-name critics – but audiences loved it, buying more than $41 million of tickets at the box office in 1978 which placed it just outside the Top 10 for that year.
“I was with an audience in Texas, and I was like, ‘OK, they get it,’” Marin says of the moment he realized the movie was going to be a hit. “It was loud and explosive. It was the most explosive I’ve heard an audience in a theater, man. It was like a rock concert, it had that energy.”
Chong says it quickly turned into one of those timeless cult movies. A theater in Paris played it for 12 years as a midnight movie, he says, and over the years owners of independent theaters and especially drive-ins, many of which made it a regular weekend feature, came up to him to thank him for the evergreen nature of “Up In Smoke.”
It’s an understatement as big as one of the joints Cheech and Chong lit up in “Up In Smoke” to say that the duo’s comedy, records and movies played a part in bringing marijuana use and humor to the mainstream, and today, California and eight other states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, though it still reminds illegal under federal law.
Cheech and Chong say that’s how it should be.
“It’s nice to see what we’ve been talking about all these years coming true,” Marin says.
“And not to be too modest, but we’re totally responsible for the legalization of pot in the world,” Chong adds.
“All royalties should be addressed to Cheech and Chong, and then we’ll spread them for the greater good of all humanity,” Cheech says.
“We will take all the credit for that,” Chong says.
‘Up In Smoke’ 40th Anniversary editions
Blu-ray and DVD releases which include the new short documentary, “How Pedro Met the Man: Up in Smoke at 40,” as well as other previously released commentaries and bonus features will be released on Tuesday, April 10. A deluxe edition which includes special packing and more bonuses included a vinyl reissue of the soundtrack album will be released on the thematically appropriate date of Friday, April 20.
Cheech & Chong live
The comedy duo have two upcoming live dates in Southern California. They’ll play their old stomping grounds of the Roxy on Saturday, April 28. Tickets are $52.50.
And they’ll back in the area for a show at the Pala Casino Spa & Resort’s Starlight Theater on Saturday, July 14. Tickets are $30-$50 and go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday, April 6.
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