Welcome back to “The World According To,” series in which InsideHook solicits advice from people who are in a position to give it. Our latest subject is Tommy Chong, the entrepreneur, author, cannabis activist and one half of legendary weed-loving duo Cheech & Chong.
Chong and Cheech Marin left an indelible mark on comedy with a slew of hit albums and movies from the early 1970s into the 1980s. They’re up to their old tricks in their first-ever video game, Bud Farm (free to download), and — if this blasted pandemic lifts in time — they’ll be on the road this summer.
Chong, 81, is down for whatever happens. He talked to InsideHook about why he loves the present, the healing power of the “most positive word in the English language” and what comedy has given him.
InsideHook: How are you holding up during the quarantine?
Tommy Chong: It’s hell. It’s pretty rough. I have to eat this gourmet meal every night that my wife cooks. I don’t know, it’s pretty rough. I’m going crazy here in my big L.A. mansion in the Palisades. Just wandering from room to room, just trying to think of something to occupy myself with. I may have to go back to work. I’m managing.
I’m glad to hear you’re hanging tough. It’s truly an inspiration.
Thank you, thank you. Sacrifices. You got to make sacrifices.
The video game [Bud Farm, a free game recently launched online] looks like a lot of fun. What’s the most unusual product that Cheech and Chong have had their name associated with?
Well, this is probably the hippest product that we’ve been associated with. Actually, when Cheech and I broke up, we kind of stopped the Cheech and Chong bandwagon. Other than T-shirts and a few things like that, this is the first one. This is the first get-together, because there was always a disagreement. One of us wouldn’t go along with the other one, and so this is the first time that we’ve been able to put everything aside and come up with a product that’s very current, and the timing couldn’t be better.
What allowed you guys to kind of break bread over this?
Well, we’re both getting kind of senile, so you know how the fight’s so old, you forget what the fight was about? You know that kind of thing? That’s about it. Time went by. Time heals everything, and we’re no longer those young, impulsive guys. Now we’re old. We’ll accept any attention to get us out of the house.
With everything that going on right now, are you smoking more weed or less?
With me, it’s about not being able to accept, not being able to say, “Okay, I really made it. I’m at the finish line, I’ve done it. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do.” I can’t say that because I’m still learning things that I have to learn. I’ve danced tango, and if you’ve ever tried to dance tango, it’s the hardest dance on the planet because you got to make up shit as you go. In order to make it up, you got to learn what it is. You can’t fake anything. You can’t fake tango, so I’ve chosen tangos, jazz, religion, spiritual quest. I’ve chosen these things that have no beginning and no end. They just don’t ever stop. You never learn. You never conquer anything, but you don’t have time to worry because worrying is when you’re living in the past, or you’re afraid about the future. With pot, it keeps you right in the present all the time. You’re always trying to figure out what did I go into this room for? Why am I standing here holding my tea? Am I going somewhere? So you’re always in the present, and I love that. I love the present.
Does smoking pot help with that?
Oh, yeah. Oh, big time. Big time. Puts me right in the mood. That really goes back to the beginning of organized religion, or at least the awareness of it. Marijuana’s always been used in that manner. It’s always been a religious sacrament, and I’ve always used it in that manner. That’s what got me where I am now. Before I started smoking pot, I was struggling to get through high school and I had no plan. I was just doing what everybody else was doing and just trying to graduate, trying to get through grade 12. I smoked a joint, and that changed my life. Made me realize I don’t need school to become a blues musician. In fact, the opposite. So I quit school, and I became a blues musician, and it paid off for me because that’s where the big bucks were.
What do you fear about the future?
Nothing. Not a thing. I’m 81. My future is in front of me. You can almost figure it out. Maybe 10 years, maybe more, but 10 sober, coherent years. No, I don’t fear the future at all, for anybody. It’s all good. It’s really good. I’m at that stage now, that iconic stoner, movie producer, director. That kind of thing where I can go to a restaurant, get recognized and get treated nice. I was even treated like a big celebrity in prison, too. Pot’s been so good to me because what it did, it put me in the right mindset. It’s all about how you think. All about what you’re concentrating on. Like the Bible says, it’ll be according to thy faith, and so it’s whatever you concentrate on. It just works that way.
What do you think is the key to sustained motivation in a long career?
The key to a sustained and long career, I don’t know. I really don’t know. Just be ready for the new things. Embrace new. I’ve been around so many people, and they just cuss out everything. It takes me back to when Woody Allen used to write his scripts on a typewriter, and he refused to use a computer or electric typewriter. It was an old-fashioned Remington typewriter. I don’t think he’s doing that anymore. People resist new, I embrace it. I want to learn.
I’m not really that good at a whole lot of things, but if I am, it’s because of my kids. The one thing I learned is that when you’re a teenager or young man, you know everything there is to know. I lean on my kids now, my son, to help me because as you get older, the older you get the less you know that you know. There’s so much to do, but if old guys like me listen to your kids like I do, they help me dress, how I look, they help me with a lot of appearance stuff. In return, they rely on me to give them encouragement and compliments. They can always get that. They don’t get any criticism from me. Very little criticism. They get questions, like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” That sort of thing, but that’s what I learned. That’s what I learned as you get older: Lose the critics.
And I’m studying, too. I’ll give you a little taste of where I’m at. I was at a screening of Up in Smoke at USC film school, and they wanted to talk to me about motivation and how I did the movie. It was low budget, it became a big hit. Everybody wants to know the secret sauce, and I told them. It shocked the shit out of everybody. What I told them was very simple. I said, “You can’t have two thoughts in your head at the same time.” You can think about a lot of things, it’s impossible to keep two thoughts in your head at the same time. You can short circuit all that by changing the thoughts in your mind from a negative to a positive. And I asked them all, I said, “What’s the most positive word in the English language?”
In fact, I’ll ask you that. To you, what’s the most positive word in the English language?
Yes. The word “yes.”
Okay. Yeah, that’s very close. The most positive word, actually in any language, is the word “God.” That’s the most positive word. Think about it. That’s the most positive word on the planet. We got millions of people worshiping that word. All you have to do is change your thought to whatever you’re thinking to that word “God.” And when you do that, because we all have a god in us, because we are created by God. We are God’s creation.
Therefore, what you do when you just think of the word “God,” you change the dynamic. All of a sudden, you become aware of your surroundings, everything is good because like the Bible said, “Everything that was made, was made by God.” Everything good that was made, was made by God, and everything that was not made by God was not made. Evil is an illusion. There’s no such thing as evil in God’s world. That’s why God doesn’t withhold or give. In order to withhold and in order to give, he would have to withhold. And with God, it’s impossible, because God is a creator. It’s like telling the sun, “Stop.” We’re creative beings in that God, and so all you have to do is think of the word “God” like that. You don’t have to do anything else.
I’m working on this as well, because I think of these great things and then I won’t do it myself. It’ll come through, then I’ll go about my business. I have to do that, especially with this lockdown. It’s like my wife and I, we’re together and if I even mention or say the wrong thing, I could create a firestorm. So what I do instead, I keep reminding myself. I don’t say anything, I just think of the word “God,” then I watch miracles. It’s crazy how it works because she’ll be in her pissed-off mood and I don’t say anything, I just think of the word, and seconds later she says, “Oh hi, honey. I’m doing this, I’m making this.” It changes everything. If it’s just you, I don’t care, I know that it’s tough to write about stuff like this, but for your own good, just try it. Just try it and see what happens.
I will. I am married, and we are in quarantine together, so I need all the help I can get.
That’s it. And that’s what you do. Don’t try to make it any more than what it is, just the word. Just think of the word “God,” and what that means. Everybody has a different version anyway. Muslims have theirs, the Jews have theirs, Christians have theirs, but they’re all worshiping the same word.
Well, I have to ask, what’s your God?
No, it’s just a word.
I know, but how do you view God? What comes to your mind?
I know what you’re saying, and I’ll try to explain it to you because I’ve studied them all. The only thing they all have in common is that word. That’s the only thing they have in common. You’ve got other rituals depending on the country you’re at, blah, blah, blah, and they go on and on.
The human experience is so diverse and so crazy for a reason, because we’re on the physical universe, and we’re all learning. We’re here to learn. And the other thing that I learned too is that we are immortal beings. Like in the Bible, it says there was no beginning, there was no end.
I find that has serious, serious meaning, especially during times like this here. In other words, everybody that’s dying from this pandemic, they’re just transitioning into the spiritual world, and they will be back. They really will. They will be back. Their life spirit’s ended, but it’s like school. They just got out early, or late, depending how old they were. And they will be back because in the physical world, there’s a law of for every action, there’s a reaction. That works on the biggest scale ever, so for every world universe that is physical. The universe we live in, this physical universe we live in, is so violent. If you look up at the stars, that’s violence that you’re seeing. You’re seeing stars of our sun. This incredible, chemical reaction going on, causing all these explosions and fire, and melting. All that stuff. Water’s turning into steam, and then back into water.
It’s a physical universe, and we’re here to learn. We’re part of that explosion and that violence. That’s why we have violence on Earth. It’s a learning process, because you can’t learn anything in the spiritual world because there’s no more need or desire. So in the spiritual world, there’s only God. There’s only that love. That’s the only thing that’s in the spiritual world, and that’s where we go. Then when we go, because we’re eternal beings, we’ve always been here and we’ve always been able to learn when we come back. We don’t always come back as human. We come back as everything alive that’s made by God. Everything good. We can come back as a tree, we can come back as a blade of grass, we can come back as a gopher. And that’s why pets are so human-like, because they are. They are. I can envision people losing a loved one, and then all of a sudden getting a puppy and that puppy happens to be their mother coming back.
That’s why I don’t worry about anything. Jesus didn’t die for our sins, he showed us that if you die, you don’t disappear. You go to heaven, you meet God, you meet the father, and then you come back to the Earth again. Like Jesus, Catholics or Christians believe that the Messiah’s going to come back. We’re all Messiahs. We’re all Jesus. He taught that, too. He said the mind that’s in me is in you. It’s the same mind, and that’s what it is. What life’s given to you is our consciousness. That’s what life is, but we have to go through these periods like we’re going through. You have to do what you have to do in order to fulfill the path that you’re on, and we’re all like that. But that’s why you don’t want to be mean or look down on anybody else, because in the next life, that’ll be you.
The other thing that this pandemic is showing me is that we’re individuals. We’re individuals. You know, the Bible says call no man your god but the father? It’s so true. It’s so true now. We can’t hug each other because of the disease, and so we’re separated. Everyone is separated from everyone else, and what it shows me, we’re all individuals. We’re all on a separate trip. We’re all special, we’re all here, and we’ll always be here in one form or another.
What do you think is the purpose of your trip?
To do exactly what I’m doing, to teach. To teach. To teach. It started off, it was weird. I started hanging with a bad crowd. I quit school a couple times. One of my friends stole a car. Then it stalled on him, and he called me up so I went over to help him start the car again. The cops pulled up and we ran, and the cops followed us by footprints in the snow — followed us home — and I went to jail for the night. It wasn’t a horrible experience, it was actually a pretty exciting experience for me. Not for my mom or my dad. They were all mortified because I was a Bible student, I wasn’t a car thief. But anyway, I saw people in prison and I saw this sort of inequality being laid on Indians at the time. It was the Natives up in Calgary, where I was with that. So I developed a social consciousness. I was about 15 years old. Then I started guitar, and that’s when I started my first band. I was a part of a band. I was never a leader of a band, I was always part of a group. Just like with Cheech and I. I was never a leader, I was always part, I was always working with somebody. That was another thing, too. Except when I got into movies, then I had to become the director, which broke Cheech and me up. Which I enjoyed, by the way. I loved being the megalomaniac. Cheech calls me the most humble megalomaniac he’s ever known.
When was the first sign that you realized you guys were going to be as big as you got?
When we discovered the Cheech character. Then, we were performing at a strip club. In fact, we used to read Playboy to get the bits because we had to use strippers turned actresses, and they were kind of the stars and Cheech and I, and I had another partner named Dave. Dave and I were the hippie guys, and then Cheech come along as a writer, actually. We didn’t know he was Mexican, so when we hit L.A. just Cheech and I, we played a club and we hadn’t gone over. We had two shows to do one night, and the first show we didn’t go over so well because it was a dance club and people had to stop dancing in order to watch our comedy, and so they were very critical.
You and Cheech have both said that the key to acting in movies and doing the records and everything was that you couldn’t be stoned. What’s the key to those performances?
Well, like I say, you’ve got to be in the moment. When we’re writing the bit, we’re in the moment and that probably helps you do that. And I’ll tell you, we can do the bits, then we get stoned because then we’re the audience. And so once we become the audience, oh yeah, then we pass that joint around. Then we get high.