You may know his name, but many people don’t know about the life of comedian and cannabis activist Tommy Chong.
When it comes to stoner icons, there is perhaps no one greater than comedian, musician, activist, and cannabis entrepreneur Tommy Chong (except maybe his partner in tokery, Cheech Marin).
He wasn’t always known as a stoner comedian. In fact, he was first known as a musician. Born in Canada to Lorna Jean (a waitress) and Stanley Chong (a Chinese truck driver), Chong got his start as a guitarist in a soul group that was first called the Shades before it changed its name to Little Daddy & The Bachelors. He had a moderate success with the band, even opening a nightclub in Vancouver.
Things started to derail after Chong, never afraid to stir up controversy, suggested the band change its name to “Four Niggers and a Chink.” Audiences were not amused, so the band abbreviated the name to “Four N’s and a C” before switching it to the much tamer Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. The group did relatively well, even scoring a hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Does Your Mama Know About Me.”
Cheech, Meet Chong
Music wasn’t what gained Chong a status as a cult icon in the weed world, though. That was set into motion a few years later, when he was running a comedy improv group in a topless bar. Cheech Marin had left his home in California to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. Chong met Cheech, hired him as a writer, and the rest – as they say – is history.
The duo decided to go to Los Angeles together to do comedy (Chong would become an American citizen in the late 80s). Their hippie/stoner act became hugely popular, spawning hit sketches like “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” as well as their most famous saying: “Dave’s not here.”
Cheech and Chong recorded several comedy albums together, starting with their self-titled debut. Next came Big Bambu (named, appropriately, after a rolling paper), Los Cochinos, Cheech & Chong’s Wedding Album, and Sleeping Beauty.
Then the pair had an idea: why not make a film version of their greatest sketch comedy hits? This was how the classic film Up in Smoke came to be.
When the pair presented their idea to big Hollywood studios, executives just scratched their heads. “They didn’t understand what we were doing; they just had no idea,” Cheech said in an Academy Originals interview on YouTube.
They finally got the film made – a low-budget production that only cost $800,000…and it was a runaway hit that grossed over $44 million and became a timeless cult classic. People loved Anthony and Pedro both because they could relate to them and because they wanted to hang out with them.
“What was most significant is these two minority characters, this chicano lowrider and his half-Chinese Canadian friend were the emblems of hippiedom,” Cheech said.
Up in Smoke cemented their status as marijuana legends. “It wasn’t until years later that we started getting feedback,” Chong said. “‘I’ve got Cheech and Chong tattooed on my chest, man! Wanna see?’ I think that’s the ultimate compliment is when someone tattoos your face on their body.”
The two continued touring and releasing records until they split up in the 80s. Over the years, they’ve reunited for various projects, including doing voices for animated characters in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Southpark, as well as reuniting for a tour in 2008.
Free Tommy Chong!
Chong’s personal life outside of his comedy career has had its ups and downs. His son Paris, following his father’s footsteps into a cannabis career, started a company called Chong Glass Works/Nice Dreams that sold (of course) pipes and bongs. In 2003, Chong was arrested in a government investigation known as Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter.
He was charged with financing and promoting the company, and agreed to a guilty plea of one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia under one condition: the feds had to agree to drop charges against his wife and son. He was sentenced to 9 months in federal prison, where he befriended cellmate Jordan Belfort (of The Wolf of Wall Street fame) and encouraged him to write the memoir that turned into the award-winning movie.
Fallout from Chong’s arrest would continue to plague him. In late 2004, he planned to appear in a Vagina Monologues spoof called The Marijuana-Logues. However, the tour was cancelled after audience members lit up during the performances, which would have violated his parole.
In the years after, Chong had a few back-and-forth encounters with Mary Beth Buchanan, the prosecutor in the Nice Dreams case. In 2008, Buchanan led a raid on Spectrum Labs during an investigation detox products meant to help people pass drug tests. During the raid, Chong said that 8,000 to 10,000 DVD copies of his documentary, a/k/a Tommy Chong, went missing. In a press release, he said that the DVD seizure was “a way to punish the distributor financially. There’s no way to get the DVDs back until the investigation is over.”
The animus between Chong and Buchanan didn’t end there. He went on to campaign against her 2010 bid for US Congress. When the Republican primary rolled around, she was defeated.
Unsurprisingly, the guy who is best known for playing a lovable, slow-speaking stoner is an outspoken activist for marijuana reform. Over the years, he’s been the guest speaker at the annual “Hash Bash” in Ann Arbor, Michigan and a contributor to a popular cannabis-themed magazine. Chong also sits on the advisory board for NORML – the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Chong’s reason for supporting cannabis goes beyond tokes and giggles, though. In June of 2012, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In an interview with CNN, he said it was “a slow stage one [that I’ve] had for a long time.” To shut down detractors who blamed his cancer on years of cannabis use, he pointed out that he had been drug free for three years before his diagnosis. “So I know it had nothing to do with cannabis,” he said in the interview. “Cannabis is a cure.”
He immediately started using hemp oil to treat his cancer and in July of that year, tweeted that he was “99% cancer free.” It wasn’t the only battle he’d have with the disease, though. In June of 2015, Chong gave an interview to US magazine in which he announced that he had colorectal cancer and was “using cannabis like crazy” to deal with the side effects of the treatment. In April 2016, he announced that he had one month of treatment left and would soon be totally cancer free.
Chong has made a lifelong impression – not just on the comedy world, but on the world of marijuana culture and activism. Let’s all fire up and raise our bongs in honor of the one and only Tommy Chong!