Eerily, the movie title almost came true last month when a terrified Cheech Marin, 32, came home to Trancas Beach after a Soul Train taping to discover his house was caught between the raging L.A. brushfires and the deep blue Pacific. His front gate, eucalyptus grove, barn, boathouse and garage were already engulfed in flames, as were two neighbors' homes. A car had just exploded. "Balls of fire were hurtling across the highway," he recalls, adding a grim joke: "It was like the Rolling Thunder Revue." With his wife mercifully out of town, Cheech "ran back and forth like a crazy man," trying to save his three horses and hose down the house. "I was cryin' and prayin'," he remembers. Just then the wind shifted, leaving Cheech relatively unscathed (although several died in the conflagration).
To some minds, of course, any misfortunes befalling Cheech and his partner, Tommy Chong, 40, could only be divine retribution for eight years of comedy that's cheerfully tasteless, scatological and offensive. Yet the unlikely pairing—Cheech is Mexican-American and Chong is Chinese-Canadian—has turned out five gold albums and sold 10 million LPs. Despite its R rating and indexing by the U.S. Catholic Conference, Up in Smoke is attracting more than the rolling-paper crowd. "They like to see people up there who don't give a shit," figures Chong. Adds his partner somewhat immodestly, "The first Cheech & Chong movie would've been a hit run backward with Japanese subtitles."
If he's suggesting that some of their following is more strung out than they are, that's possible. For all their outrageously countercultural stance, both Chong and Marin are physical fitness enthusiasts who would rather work out than turn on. "We're not heavy drug users," says Cheech, who's practiced tai-chi and meditation for 13 years. "I smoke grass, but not as much as I used to. It dissipates my energy." Chong agrees. "You have to be real straight to do drug humor. We might toke up on a closing night, but neither of us is a devotee of drugs. We've done it all, and acid was very pleasant. But I'm done on cocaine," he continues. "I did it for a year and never knew why I kept getting sick and was broke, miserable and fighting with everyone. With cocaine you can't shut up, and with grass you can't talk—so either one is deadly."
Their rapport is no accident, notes Cheech. "We've been on the road every day for eight years." Chong, the old man of the act, is the son of a truck driver from Calgary. He himself started trucking at 14, then became a musician. In 1970 he, his father and brother bought a Vancouver nightclub and began combining topless burlesque with improvisational comedy. "When I got my first laugh as an actor, I was hooked," he recalls.
Not long after that he hired Cheech, who was born Richard Marin in Watts, the son of a policeman. Dubbed Cheech from his childhood, he remembers, "I was always funny, or at least a smartass—a guy who got straight A's but stayed after school every day." On his own at 18, he picked up an English degree at Cal State-Northridge and worked variously as a riveter and dishwasher before going to Canada to become a potter and escape the draft. "I was not going to prison for nothing."
When their troupe broke up in Vancouver, Cheech and Chong headed for L.A. Then super producer Lou Adler spotted their spaced-out act at the Troubadour Club and has managed their careers ever since. Not too handily, say Cheech and Chong, who in September asked to be released from their contracts. (In their comedy LPs, Adler's the record producer they spoof as being unable to find the control board.) The real breaking point came when Adler directed Up in Smoke. "He was inept, to try to be kind," Marin comments. "He could only work from a printed script and we are improvisational comedians."
If nothing else, Adler must have been useful as a lightning rod, for the two have gotten along amazingly well for comics. Chong's explanation is that "we lead separate social lives"—which are of surprising propriety. Chong, still a Canadian citizen, lives in a Bel Air mansion clear of the fire zone with his 28-year-old common-law wife of 11 years, Shelby, and their daughter, Precious, 10, and son Paris, 4. (He has two older daughters, Rae Dawn, 18, and Robbie, 15, who live in L.A. with his Canadian ex-wife.) "We're not churched," Chong says of his current marital situation, "but she said she'd marry me when she turns 40 or I become a millionaire, whichever comes first." Cheech and his actress wife, Rikki, were married on a Big Sur beach three years ago. Neither couple participates in what Cheech calls "the Hollywood party bull. Tommy and I always say that the people at On the Rox [Adler's private club above the Roxy Theatre] came out from under the rocks."
When their legal hassle with Lou is settled, they will release an Up in Smoke sound track LP as well as produce a sequel. The duo rejects any worried notions that their art is spreading reefer madness. "We're not advocating drugs or booze, or condemning them either," says Cheech. "That would be hypocritical. We're just trying to get people to laugh from the gut." "I don't know why we're funny," Chong adds, "but it works. Most comics do what they do out of some inner drive. Cheech and I are the opposite—we drive each other. If we don't have each other, we don't have anything."
When the zonked-out comedy team of Cheech & Chong titled their first movie Up in Smoke, the reference wasn't just to their incandescent wit. That funky smell in the theaters isn't buttered popcorn. Still, by pulling every possible stoned-gone gag out of their club routines, Cheech and Chong have reaped an unanticipated stash of $20 million in grosses in the first month alone. That's a tribute to freak power which could make what the pair call "your average Chinese-Mexican comedy team" the Martin and Lewis of potheads.