"Misunderstanding" is a word that crops up a lot when discussing legendary comedy duo Cheech and Chong, whether it’s the reason behind their original breakup, what their comedy is really about or the U.S. government’s 2003 decision to send a SWAT team to arrest a then-65-year-old Tommy Chong for selling bongs over the Internet.
After a decade of talks, C&C have finally embarked on their “Light Up America” tour, returning to their old live performance template of music and individual comedy sketches, the kind featured on their albums and (occasionally) in their movies.
“It’s a nature thing, it’s all ordained,” Tommy Chong says by telephone. “Cheech came to my house on my 60th birthday to talk about doing a music tour and now, 10 years later, we’re doing it, with lots of old material, new material and in-between material. We were able to put aside our differences.”
And the nature of those much-speculated-upon differences, rumored to be everything from standard-issue ego battles to the long, theoretical strong-arm of Nancy Reagan?
“It was just a misunderstanding,” Chong says. “Cheech wanted his own voice and to do other things. Whenever we tried to deviate from the ‘Pedro and Man’ thing, it was never as successful. The nice thing about being away for so long is that we’re not defined by anything anymore. We have a huge catalogue to pick and choose from and we can reinvent ourselves however we like.”
Cheech and Chong’s comedy was indeed more diverse than most gave them credit for. Arguably their least-known films were the latter-day Things Are Tough All Over (1982) and The Corsican Brothers (1984), films that had virtually nothing to do with dope humor and showcased their versatility as comic actors.
“Only a percentage of our bits had to do with smoking,” says Cheech, who renounced marijuana some time ago. “Some of the most famous skits, ‘Earache My Eye’ and ‘Basketball Jones,’ had nothing to do with smoke. So for my part, the show isn’t really different. We’ve always done all kinds of bits.”
Chong sees their act as encompassing an entire culture, exploring everything from sexuality to conformity in the classroom. For those, like Chong, who marveled at the “promise of Woodstock,” the subsequent regimes of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton’s Republican Congress and George W. Bush have been something of a letdown. For Chong, it culminated in his time as a “guest” of the federal government, an incident Chong sees in direct proportion to President George W. Bush’s then approval rating of around 80 percent.
“Every time I felt sorry for myself, I thought about Nelson Mandela,” Chong says. “He did 29 years. I did nine months.”
In exchange for his guilty plea, the U.S. government agreed to not prosecute Chong’s wife or son, who was the actual CEO of the company. Chong was the only one of the 55 defendants charged without a previous conviction to serve time, leading to accusations that Chong was prosecuted selectively.
An assistant U.S. attorney argued that Chong made his fortune “glamorizing drug use and trivializing law enforcement in his films.”
“(My experience) was profound,” Chong says. “Going to jail to protect my family and my past work, I actually never felt more American. Since then, I’ve slowly put my life back in order, and now Bush is departing with a shame that will not go away in his lifetime.
“We represent a lot of Americans (i.e. people Republicans want to get rid of). The response at our shows has been phenomenal. The pendulum has finally swung the other way, and we feel that America needs a hug.”
CHEECH AND CHONG perform 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Taft Theater. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.