BY BRAD GOINS
I was surprised to learn from Tommy Chong that the Oct. 8 Cheech and Chong show at Golden Nugget would include not just comedy and music, but also drama.
Why is that? Well, it turns out Cheech and Chong have taken many of their on-stage cues from vaudeville.
“It’s an old-fashioned vaudevillian stoner show,” says Chong. “It’s all about weed.
“Absolutely [we’re influenced by vaudeville]. We’ve been doing that all our careers. It’s just accidental. It’s a system that works.”
Of course, Cheech and Chong are also oriented to more recent forms of comedy and music. For example, Chong has a strong background in improvisational comedy.
He became fascinated with such early improvisational troupes as Second City and San Francisco’s The Committee. In that golden age of improv, Chong was working as a blues guitarist for Motown. But while the other musicians were taking in concerts, he was going to stand-up comedy acts.
The Shanghai Junk
The world of improv came together for Cheech and Chong in the 1960s in Vancouver, Canada. It was there that Chong met Cheech Marin, who was in Canada “dodging the draft. He was delivering carpets; trying to stay alive.”
Chong sounds perfectly serious when he says he opened a “family strip joint” in Vancouver in 1965. He uses the word “family” because in the Chinese tradition in which he grew up “where the father works is where everybody works.” For instance, his mother was the coat checker in the club, which was called The Shanghai Junk.
Chong may be a little proud when he points out that The Shanghai Junk was the first Canadian topless joint outside of Montreal. But he’s definitely proud when he recalls that the club “had a beautiful stage.”
It was on this stage that Cheech and Chong honed their improv licks and eventually formed the improv troupe The City Works.
Chong says improvisation still plays a big part in the duo’s performances. “That’s what keeps our show alive. We have the framework. But the conversation between the characters will change according to what’s going on in the world.”
When he said the two drew from current events, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask whether Cheech and Chong will tell any Donald Trump jokes in Lake Charles.
Chong was emphatic that they would. He said that in the show, he’s a Trump supporter; he’s “a little deaf,” so he thinks Trump has said he’s going to build a “mall” across the border. “So I want to build the mall.” In contrast, Cheech, who wants to make America entirely Mexican, opposes Trump.
Keeping in the Chinese tradition, his wife Shelby will play a prominent part in the show. His son Paris will manage the stage and play bass during musical numbers.
‘We Still Lean On Music’
Although Chong was quick to assimilate the ways of both vaudeville and improv, he admits, “I was never comfortable being a comedian. A comedian got such a hard rap.
“We still lean on music. We rose to fame because we could play before rowdy crowds with no problem. If [they got too noisy], we could turn up the volume.”
He says that another factor that contributed to the duo’s fame was the fact that the humor was easy to understand. “You didn’t have to do a lot of thinking to get a Cheech and Chong joke.”
‘Looking For A Place To Sit’
When I asked Chong whether he ever got nervous about improvising on stage, he pointed out that Cheech and Chong were “one of the first acts to use marijuana as both a subject of comedy and a substance” to be ingested before performances. Chong was rarely nervous because he was usually in a state of profound relaxation.
These days, the two comedians have greatly scaled back their degree of self-medication. Chong had a bout with cancer some time back. He now seems to be devoted to the casual pace that’s befitting one of the long-established legends of comedy and performance.
Of course, the two are still working. Chong says they’ve almost finished work on a documentary that will constitute a biopic of the act.
But for the most part, he says, “We’re just being icons, going around collecting money. We’re just enjoying our lives.
“It’s not a rush to the top [anymore]. We’re just trying to keep our balance at the top. Instead of looking for a place to run, we’re looking for a place to sit.”
Chong has a simple piece of advice for the people of Southwest Louisiana: “Don’t miss the show because we may not be around much longer. So grab us while you can.”