Tommy Chong's act needs no straight man
This time, Tommy Chong comes to Pittsburgh of his own free will.
In 2003, the actor and comedian appeared in Federal Court in Pittsburgh. He was sentenced to nine months in prison as part of the $12 million Operation Pipe Dreams, a federal crackdown on drug paraphernalia. On Sept. 11 of that year, Chong pleaded guilty to distributing 7,500 bongs and pot pipes through his Internet company, Nice Dreams.
Chong, who plays the Pittsburgh Improv this weekend with wife Shelby, calls the bust a perverse sort of lifetime achievement award for the movies and albums he made as part of the '70s comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Films like "Up in Smoke" and "Big Bambu" celebrated drug culture and portrayed narcotics detectives as uptight bumblers.
"I looked at it like a Nelson Mandela thing," he says. "I was totally innocent in every which way. The only thing I did was exercise my right as a free American to do the movies. ... They had actually in the indictment where they put me in jail because I made fun of law-enforcement agencies."
Chong, 69, was born in Canada to an Irish father and Scots-Irish mother. He had aspirations to be a rock musician. Instead, he struck comedy Acapulco gold with Hispanic Cheech Marin. As Cheech and Chong, they were counterculture clowns who charted several hit albums in the '70s. Such sketches as "Earache My Eye" could be heard on rock radio between songs by Alice Cooper and Grand Funk. Usually, Chong played the laid-back, stoner hippie to Marin's excitable, screechy-voice barrio bum.
The two split in 1985, after seven films and a Grammy-winning album, "Los Cochinos." Marin was keen to enter mainstream show business, while Chong stuck doggedly to his counterculture roots.
Marin went on to act in the television series "Nash Bridges" and "Judging Amy," as well as movies such as "Spy Kids" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."
"He just went too straight," Chong says. "He went too over to the other side. I'm not one for jumping on and off a popularity boat. You've gotta stay with the girl you brought to the dance. I brought the pot, and I'm staying with the pot.
"Cheech chose to sort of disown it. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too. You can't go to the Geraldo Rivera parties and expect old stoners to stay in your corner. Especially when you go on TV and disown them."
Chong's career brought him into contact with rock's elite. He recalls playing basketball with Bob Dylan. Paul McCartney is the only Beatle he hasn't met, he says. He says he's writing "The Unauthorized Biography of Cheech and Chong," which presumably will drop other famous names.
Chong's wife opens the show at the Improv. He says he only began to appreciate her as a comedy partner after he and Marin split. He compares the two of them to Mike Nichols and Elaine May or George Burns and Gracie Allen.
"She does 20 minutes on her own," he says. "Then I come out and do a half-hour, and then we hook up together." Additional Information:
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday; 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pittsburgh Improv, the Waterfront, Homestead