Stoner-comedy hero Tommy Chong plays a version of himself on stage, whether it’s in sketches with his longtime buddy Cheech Marin as part of the Grammy-winning duo Cheech and Chong, or as a stand-up comedian with his wife and touring opener/partner Shelby.
But as Chong tells it, the version we get in his stand-up is a lot closer to his real self — if still calibrated to give the audience what they want.
We caught up with Chong via phone last week in advance of his headlining sets with Shelby at Comedy Works downtown today (Friday, May 18) through Saturday, May 19.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. What are you up to at the moment?
I just finished playing some golf, man.
This veteran’s hospital (in Southern California) has a little nine-hole course that no one knows about. It’s actually built for the veterans, and I’m kind of a vet so it worked out.
So you’ll be here in Denver with your wife Shelby, who I know has opened a lot of the Cheech and Chong reunion shows. Do you ever appear on stage together?
We got a whole act that we do where she joins me. We do some skits and will doing probably a couple. We’re using Denver as our little workshop so we can experiment with some newer material.
Because it’s a smaller market?
Because I love that club! Comedy Works is the best club ever in the world of comedy. I just love the way it’s built. It seems like it was designed by a comic. Everything is just where it should be. The dressing room is in proximity to the stage and the audience, and it’s like a little amphitheater — the stage is low instead of high. When you’re doing comedy, that club inspires so much creativity. You do things and say things that you would never never do in another club. It forces the good stuff out of you. If I could own that club I would.
So I’ve got some standard “Why So Serious?” questions for you, if you’re game.
What’s a joke you used to love to tell but now can’t stand?
I don’t really have one. I never really had the chance to go off on tangents, because with most of my stand-up in the past, I’ve only got five minutes so I’ve really gotta squeeze a few things in there. And with me, it wasn’t so much jokes as it was a topical kind of hippie humor. I do know that one time I felt kind of brave or ad-libby, and this heavy woman comes in and I mention something about her weight. And that’s a no-no in comedy. There are some things that are just sacred. You don’t kill kitty cats on stage and you don’t talk about someone being fat in the audience. And these other comics that were watching my show, they literally fell out of their chairs. It’s like telling a fat chick, “When is the baby due?”
Forgive the stoner-pandering question, but, you know, you’re Tommy Chong. So: what’s the best food for when you have the munchies?
The best is carrots and celery, raw! They’re crunchy, they taste so good and they’re so good for you. They won’t hurt you. In fact they’ll help you, and there’s no end to how many you can eat. If you want to eat a bushel, you can eat a bushel. The worst is anything sweet or salty because you cannot stop. I don’t care what it is — you put can put salt on dog shit, and if you’re stoned you go “MMMMMM… I’ll have some more of that, please.”
Surely you must use peanut butter or some kind of dipping sauce for your carrots and celery.
Nope. There again, that’s scary. Because sugar’s the worst thing in the world for you. Pot’s illegal but Coca-Cola has killed more people than all the drugs combined. Go figure.
What’s your favorite thing to do outside of comedy?
Golf is my religion now.
How long have you been playing?
About a year. I was invited to celebrity golf thing and I hadn’t played for 40 years and I went out and hit balls and had fun and then I got hooked on it. I go out by myself, and I don’t keep score. In fact, I have a new way of scoring: I count how many balls I lose. People will be like, “How’d you do?” “Oh, I shot a 3 or a 4.” What I love about it too is that it keeps you honest. You can be tiger woods and winning and everything, and then if your mind gets divergent a little bit, you’re just like every other hacker. It’s a very sprititual game. You can’t do it mentally. You have to have your house in order. If you don’t, you better stay off that course, at least for money. Because the difference between the 91st player and No. 1, well, you can’t even see the difference.
When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried?
I did laugh at this new show on HBO called “Girls.” It was… well, there again, we’re back to fat people. It was a fat people joke. Let me see… maybe the doggone YouTube? I don’t know. I can’t think right now.
You’ve been doing music and sketch comedy throughout your career, but what was your first time on stage doing stand-up like, and what made you want to come back?
My first time on stage doing stand-up, it was kind of historical because it was the night after Rodney King got beat (March 4, 1991) and so I did some Rodney-King-getting-beat material, and I was about five minutes into my act and someone yells out, “Hey, where’s Cheech?” It brought me back to reality. One time I was getting ready to do my seven minutes, I had worked it up to that, and Sam Kinison heard that I was going on and he came running over to the Laugh Factory (in L.A.). He usually worked at the Comedy Store, and he comes over, and I had just gotten off and he comes bursting in the door and he grabs my hand and kneels down and kisses my hand and was like, “You’re a comedy god! You’re a comedy genius!” And I had just done 7 minutes of kind of like kind of like Beginning Comedy 101, so it was weird.
It’s interesting to me that after all your success in the ’70s and ’80s it took you until the ’90s to start doing straight stand-up.
What Cheech and I do is skit humor and we had each other. Stand-up was… different. I would address the audience once in awhile in between skits with Cheech, but he never did, so doing stand-up was a brand new field for me. It was very exiting, but I had leg up, you know? And one time I was riding in a plane, I had worked in Pittsburgh and was in the plane with a writer for “The Tonight Show.” He had seen my show and started giving me good advice. “Hey, don’t forget who you are. Do the Cheech and Chong material! That’s what everybody comes to see.” And he said, “Dress like Chong. Get rid of the sports jacket, the Vegas look.” So I listened to him.
And you were OK with that?
Sometimes you get misled. You think you’re going to do stand-up and all of sudden you’re Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Richard Pryor. But I started doing what I have done ever since, and it makes life much easier, I’ll tell you that. But being told by one of the head writers of “The Tonight Show,” he was a little more blunt about it.
Who are some of your favorite comedians at the moment?
Oh, Louis C.K. When he was married and talking about his kids, he made me laugh harder than anybody. His attitude, his personality, it’s great. I met him. I go to very few comedy shows, but I went to see Louis C.K. He’s got his own TV show and everything else, but his sense of humor, his whole take on life, I mean, he evolved. And he’s nicer than anybody I’ve met. He’s from Boston and Boston’s got a history of really, really good comedians, and there’s so many of them. A club will hire 12 in one night so you got no room for a messin’ around. You have to come with your good stuff and then you have to be funnier than the next guy and so on and so on. Another guy I love and everybody hates is Carrot Top in Vegas.
Oh yeah. I loved his show. It’s silly, it’s ridiculous, it’s all about Vegas and it’s clean. And it’s just… he’s just a marvel. I love him. I love Carrot Top, man. And all the other comics, they can’t wait to put him down. He’s got a theater in the Luxor. He really is like a clown. Like the funny guy in the circus. Over the years, of course, I’ve liked George Carlin, but to me he got so morbid and unfunny and sort of preachy. Steve Martin — I adored him. Thought he was a fuckin’ genius. For some reason he was embarrassed (to be doing stand-up) and he’s good at everything he does. Then he started making those Inspector Clouseau (“Pink Panther”) movies, all that crap. And Eddie Murphy’s another one. He used to be a really, really incredible stand-up. And Dave Chappelle, I gotta say I love him. He’s rich and he’s got money, so he doesn’t need to do stand-up, but I love him.
What’s your favorite joke of the moment?
Well, it’s kind of dumb, but I was in restaurant and these two Canadians were there and they found out who I was and they asked if I wanted to hear a joke. I said sure, so one of them said, “Two condoms are walking down the street and they pass a gay bar. One looks at the other one and says, ‘Hey, you wanna go in and get shit-faced?'” And then I heard another one that made me laugh hard.
Two cops go to this guy’s house and they said, “Mr. Charles?” And the guy goes, “Yeah?” And they said, “Do you have a picture of your wife?” And he said, “Sure,” and gets his wedding picture and shows it to them. And the one cop says, “I’m sorry to say, but it looks like your wife has been hit by a truck.” And he says, “Well, I know, but she’s really a good cook and has a hell of a personality.” Bill Connelly, that fucking racist right winger, sent me that one. But I don’t delete his emails, just to keep up with the jokes, I put up with his racism. I told Cheech that one and he uses it in the show!