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Tommy Chong is more of a rite of passage than a comedian. As half of the stoner-focused comedy duo Cheech & Chong—not to mention his role as burnout Leo Chingkwake in That '70s Show—he's given generations of high-school kids something to giggle at while experimenting with pot. But the Bush administration wasn't laughing four years ago, when former Attorney General John Ashcroft launched Operation Pipe Dream—which targeted, among companies, Chong's son's Nice Dreams Enterprises, which sold bongs across state lines. Although Chong wasn't an active owner of the company, he was sentenced to nine months in federal prison, as documented in Josh Gilbert's new documentary A/K/A Tommy Chong. While serving his time, he wrote his first book, The I Chong: Meditations From The Joint, a memoir and account of the bust. Now 69 years old and still smokin', Chong recently spoke with The A.V. Club about prison, the demonic nature of the War On Drugs, and performing stand-up with his wife Shelby.
The A.V. Club: It's hard to believe you served nine months in federal prison for selling bongs.
Tommy Chong: It was one of those defining moments in someone's career. You have to be careful what you ask for. I remember just before I got busted, I was saying to the guy that did the documentary, "You know, we need some kind of publicity gimmick." And then the next week, I got busted. [Laughs.] It was weird.
AVC: In The I Chong, you present yourself in a light that's very different from your stoner persona. If the Bush administration knew you were a family man who has a personal relationship with God, do you think they would have gone after you?
TC: Oh, yeah. These guys are really demons. You look at Cheney, Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, and Bush—if you saw them on Halloween, they wouldn't need a costume. You'd give them a treat and compliment them on what great-looking demons they were. They are demons. There's no doubt about it.
AVC: Why were you such a high priority for them?
TC: Because they're trivial. These guys were doing wrong, and they knew they were doing wrong. They knew they had no business going into Iraq. And for all we know, they have something to do with 9/11—maybe not physically doing it, but they knew it was coming. It was the only way they could grab the power they grabbed. Had it not been for 9/11, they would've never been elected the second time, for sure. As trivial as they are, they don't look at the big picture, ever. So when they saw the chance to take a stoner like me down—I'm like a right-wing wet dream. While I'm walking around touting the joys of pot-smoking, these guys are looking to put black and brown people in jail for life for just having possession of a joint. And I played right into their hands.
AVC: Do you think the raid deterred people from buying bongs and smoking pot?
TC: [Laughs.] No, not at all. That's never been their intent. They want to control the population. It's all about control with these guys: mind control, thought control. They're thought police. There's no end to it. They're exactly what the founders of the Constitution were talking about when they wrote the Constitution. They were saying, "We don't want these idiots to be able to do this." That's why Bush and the boys are doing their best to tear [the Constitution] up. You can't become a dictator through checks and balances.
AVC: Did your sentence inspire your political activism?
TC: Totally. Before that, I used to pride myself on being just a pot-smoker, a musician more than anything. Cheech and I used to call ourselves musicians; we never called ourselves comedians. We were musicians that were funny. I never gave a thought about the activism part of it. Marijuana and marching don't go good together. Marijuana and munching, maybe. But I've really evolved into quite a spokesman.
AVC: When you make appearances on talk shows, they don't seem to be expecting your vehement criticisms of the government. Is it frustrating when they imply you must be high to say things like that?
TC: [Laughs.] I love it when they say that. "Are you high right now, Tommy Chong? What are you thinking?" I am high, as a matter of fact. I stay as high as I can now. But I do have a plan for the country. It needs education. And there should be drug education—only they should teach people how to smoke pot, because even potheads don't know how to smoke pot. I intend to make that part of my lifestyle from now on. I've evolved into not only an activist, but an educator. I want to show people how, when, and why they should smoke pot.
AVC: How should they smoke pot?
TC: First of all, you have to be involved in the arts. If you're not a writer, actor, musician, poet, astronomer, athlete—people should only smoke pot who absolutely need to smoke pot. If you're a right-wing Republican, pot would hold you back. But if you feel you need to smoke pot, then you should smoke it.
AVC: How have the events of the last few years shaped your stand-up act? Are you more political?
TC: More spiritual. I think there's something very comedic about a pothead getting spiritual. [Laughs.] But awakening your spiritual side is really what artists do. When you hit a groove, it's not you; it's the spirit world. The spirits whisper the ideas in your brain and prod you along. They're the ones that are really happy.
AVC: And you claim the demons in power are keeping people from experiencing their personal spirituality.
TC: That's the difference between religion and spirituality. Religion is run by thought police. "Obey. Listen. This is what you do. Don't ask questions. Go die for your country." The spirituality says, "Okay, you can die for your country, but know what you're doing while you're doing it."
AVC: Based on the reactions from talk-show hosts, mainstream America doesn't appear to be ready to embrace your message.
TC: Mainstream America will never be ready. Mainstream anybody. I look at the world like musicians do. Jazz, for instance, will never be mainstream, no matter how much a jazz person would like it to be. It's just like good literature—the average person will never read the great literature that's available. Only a handful of people will understand even a fraction of what I know now. But I don't care about mainstream people. I never have. There's no reason to.
AVC: How did you end up performing with your wife, Shelby?
TC: My wife started out introducing me onstage, and now she does 20-30 minutes on her own. She's really come into her own. Women come out to see her; they don't give a shit about me. That's the biggest compliment ever, though, because I help her write her stuff. When I had my wife onstage with me, I was told by a few comics, "What are you doing? What are you getting your wife out here for?" It makes them look like assholes. Their wives are going, "Tommy Chong's wife's working, why can't I?" That's really my biggest thrill—to see her evolve.
AVC: Are you two the new Cheech & Chong?
TC: We're coming into our own, Shelby and I, to the point where I don't get questioned about Cheech anymore. It was a sad but beautiful transition that's almost completed. Eventually, I'll do a show where I won't have to sign a Cheech & Chong album. I sign quite a few still. But Shelby and I are coming into our own, and that's the exciting part about comedy. If you catch an act just before they go mainstream, that's the best. After they hit the mainstream, everything gets watered down a little bit.