Q & A: Tommy Chong

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Actor, comedian, and author Tommy Chong

It's been a good summer for Tommy Chong. The hippie icon celebrated his 70th birthday, published his 2nd book, Cheech and Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography, and recently announced the end of his 26-year feud with Cheech Marin — they're reuniting next month for a national comedy tour, "Light Up America," Chong sat down with TIME to discuss stoner comedy, the politics of pot and the legacy of the counterculture.

TIME: Tell me about your book. Why did you decide to write it?
CHONG: Everything that happens to me is very cosmic. And this book became very cosmic for a lot of reasons, you know. Because Cheech and Chong, we were way more than just a comedy team. We really were the Mum & Dad of the counterculture. Cheech and Chong, we were the ones who took it into your homes, into your head through the albums. And now that Mum and Dad are back together again, everybody's happy. Cheech really feels strongly that we could go down in history as the best comedy team ever. And I can't argue with that.

But in the book, you said you don't expect Cheech will ever perform with you again, and that he'll never be the same.
That's the way I felt at the time, you know? And the publisher asked me if I wanted to change the ending in light of what was going on. It was kind of too late, for one thing. And the other thing, I kind of like that. It's like a movie ending. It contradicts itself. Plus, now there's another book about the reunion!

What does Cheech think about your book? You say some things in there about him "going straight"and wearing his Nash Bridges suits.
Yeah, well he hasn't read it yet. [Laughs]

What do you think he's going to say?
He won't like it, for sure. But Cheech has a habit of not dealing with unpleasantness. He probably won't read it.

Are you nervous about the comedy tour? Reuniting after 26 years?
Well, I wasn't really sold until we went onstage together in La Jolla, California two weekends ago. We absolutely destroyed the audience. They were so happy. We were so happy. It was as if we'd been off for two weeks. And the bits just fell together.

What do you think the fans are expecting?
They probably won't expect what we look like. We look like the runner-up in a Cheech and Chong look-a-like contest. [Laughs] But they hear Cheech's voice and they hear my voice, everybody's going to go, "Ah, okay." We're all about being funny and making people laugh at stupid things.

What do you think about the latest batch of stoner films — Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar?
I read some reviews about Pineapple Express and one was very interesting. They said these movies, including ours, are an experience. It's like a contact high. If you look at all the Cheech and Chong movies, no one ever got hurt, no one ever got killed — the most you ever got was high.

Something else you wrote is that you think it's harder now to produce these kind of movies. Why do you think that is?
Nowadays, with Seth [Rogen] and those guys, they have directors, you know, and writers, a lot of people writing, and they've got money and a lot of intelligence and energy. Cheech and I, we lucked into this. The only thing I would do that these guys do, and I would definitely do next time we do a movie is rehearse. Cheech and I never used to rehearse, especially movies, you know. And you can see it. In Still Smoking, you can see first takes. Everything was first takes. [Laughs] We never got really comfortable and, all of a sudden, we're onto the next because I wanted to capture that rawness, that newness. But since I've been on That 70s Show, I learned the joy of rehearsing; If it's funny the first take, you can make it hilarious the 7th, 8th, 10th take.

Are you surprised that Up in Smoke is still the highest-grossing stoner comedy?
Not so much surprised as proud. I'm a proud daddy. [Laughs] I'm very happy because Cheech and I are going back on the road. So we're going to be able to capitalize. We're like fine wine, you know. That wine has been put in the cellar for 30 years and all of a sudden you're bringing it out, and you're going to open it up and it's going to be a party for everybody.

Do you feel like Seth Rogen and other actors like him are following in your footsteps?
Somewhat, somewhat. I mean, they're doing it their way. Definitely. You know, they're not stealing anything, by no means. What they're doing is just, they're just traveling down the same road that we did.

That reminds me about something you said in the book, about a good joke being like a good joint.
A good joint, a good joke, they can just make you happy.

And that they should be passed around and shared.
Oh that's right. I did say that. [Laughs] People try to put ownership on things: "That's mine, that's my joke." No such thing. Like if you tripped or stumbled and people go, "Oh, that's Charlie Chaplin." You know what I mean? You can't own a joke. You can be the guy that tells it the best, but you can't own a joke. Nowhere can you own a laugh.

You spent 9 months in prison on marijuana-related charges. But you once said that you never considered yourself a pot activist, just an actor who showed the audience what it looks like to be stoned. Do you still believe that?
Activism, to me, I don't know if it really works. It may work for somebody else, but it does not work for me. The government did not like the fact that I was advertising bongs or that my son's company was advertising bongs in High Times. So they started a thing called "Operation Pipe Dreams." And in my case, they wanted me. They felt I was the leader so they wanted to put me in jail to make a statement. There's a biblical saying that I kind of go by, I think Jesus may have said it, it goes: "Resist not evil." In other words, don't give it any energy. And that's what I did when I went to jail. My going to jail was the biggest statement I could have made for the legalization of pot. Way more than any kind of speeches or protesting or anything like that. But the fact that I went to jail for a bong — for a glass bong — to me that was a bigger statement.

What do you think your role is?
My job is to show the world how much good pot does. They always drug-test people when they get in an accident or when they get hurt, you know, or in sports. I want them to start drug-testing people that invent great things. Like a computer program, for instance. Drug-test those people! Find out if they're on pot, you know. Drug-test those scientists who figured out a way to go to outerspace. The people that really smoke pot — all these great authors — Norman Mailer. They're potheads. Pot has done more for this world than any other substance I can think of.

How do you think the perception of marijuana has changed since you guys first started out in the 1970s?
It's become mainstream. I think Cheech said that. He said, "It's mainstream. It's no longer the counterculture. It's the culture." It's an excellent thing.

Do you think the rest of the country is headed towards medical marijuana laws like California's?
Yes. Absolutely. It's happening now. As soon as we get the thieves out of office, you know. As soon as we get the Bush crime syndicate out of office, then we can start moving ahead with some of these changes. As long as these guys are in there now, they'll be busting guys for bongs. That's their answer. Take away the bongs, we won't be able to smoke our pot, you know? It's a good plan ...

That brings up my next question: what do you think of the presidential campaign?
Barack Obama to me, he thrilled me. The first time I heard him speak at the convention [in 2004], I felt it right down to my heart, right down to my toes. And I said, "That's our next president." I said it right then. "That is our next president." Bush and Cheney — they've got more evidence to impeach these guys than they had with Nixon. Don't worry, the wheels of justice grind slow, but exceedingly fine.

Given your Scottish and Chinese heritage, does Obama's mixed background speak to you?
Oh, totally. We're hybrids. Hybrids are in. I'm a hybrid. He's a hybrid. I own a hybrid — a Prius, best car in the world. Hybrids are in this year.

How do you think race factored into your career?
For some reason, Cheech and Chong, we obliterated the race line, just obliterated it. Because no one knows who we are. Everybody thinks we're them. That really is our magic.

When was the last time you and Cheech smoked together?
Couple of years ago. Oh no, what am I saying? The other day. We had an autograph session. We smoked up. See how pot does? It's either a couple of years, or yesterday.