It all started in the front seat of a rusted-out 1964 Chevrolet Impala.
“If there were only one image people will always have of Cheech & Chong, it’s of two guys smoking a big joint,” Cheech Marin, 62, told me during an interview to promote the reunion stand-up tour, Cheech & Chong: Light Up America, which strolls into San Antonio March 13-14. “That’s what really defined us.”
After they released a number of comedy albums in the ’70s, including Los Cochinos and Big Bambu, the Cheech & Chong brand went household when studios started financing their counterculture humor in films such as Nice Dreams, Still Smokin’, and The Corsican Brothers.
Their run together would last until the mid-’80s, when Cheech sat down to write the screenplay for what would become 1987’s Born in East L.A., and didn’t include a part for his longtime partner.
“We had been together for so long,” Cheech said. “Not only together, but together-gether. We were with each other 24/7 for 17 years. We had done a bunch of album and movies and tours. It felt like we had reached the end, really.”
“Truth is, Cheech shut me out of his life,” Tommy, 70, said. “He shut me out of the act, and I was understandably bitter.”
With Tommy credited as the director of five of their seven blockbuster movies, Cheech wanted something to call his own. He didn’t see any other way to do it but to break ties with Tommy and move on.
“I think Tommy got his feelings hurt when Cheech went on to do that movie Born in East L.A. without him,” said Shelby Chong, Tommy’s wife, who is the opening act for Light Up America. “He had made a Cheech movie instead of a Cheech & Chong movie.”
While Cheech was eager to shed the token Mexican persona he had built his career on, Tommy didn’t want to rid himself of his pot-smoking, hippie reputation. This might explain why, during the past 24 years, Cheech has branched out and starred in several movies, including Tin Cup and The Lion King and a six-season-long role on the TV show Nash Bridges, while Tommy’s most memorable character has been a pot-smoking hippie on That ’70s Show.
Along with small parts in a few movies and TV shows, Tommy started his solo stand-up career by recruiting his wife as his new partner.
“The split turned into a plus,” said Tommy, who admitted on a video blog that he experienced “Mexican withdrawals” after Cheech left. “I got to teach my wife how to do stand-up and it also gave Cheech what he wanted, which was to get out from under my shadow and show his talents.”
During their time apart, they would communicate with each other a few times a year but weren’t quite sure if there was anything left to save of their friendship. And while talks of another Cheech & Chong movie would occasionally pop up, nothing ever came to fruition, partly due to artistic differences, and partly due to Tommy’s nine-month stint in federal prison in 2003 for selling drug paraphernalia over the internet.
“There was always love there but there was always that resentment, too,” Cheech said. “We had to find a way to work through that resentment. We got to that age where we were like, ‘Hey man, if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it now!’”
Although they had begun corresponding through email over the last few years, Chong’s messages to his former partner weren’t as gently worded as they needed to be if a reunion was ever going to happen. One day, Tommy and Shelby’s son Paris intercepted an email and, with his mother’s permission, decided to make a few changes to the note.
“Cheech is pretty sensitive, and I knew if he read them he would get his feelings hurt again and there would never be a reunion. All that time Cheech thought Tommy was writing to him. Everything just fell into place like a puzzle.”
Chong admits the duo probably wouldn’t have reunited if his emails hadn’t been edited for insensitivity.
“We needed all the help we could get,” Tommy said. “We both had the same goals, we just had different ego issues. But they’re all resolved now.”