By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette — There have been some great duos in the history of comedy including Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, Lewis and Martin and The Smothers Brothers. At the top of many lists is the legendary comedy duo that is coming to North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre this Friday, Cheech and Chong. Chong’s wife, Shelby Chong, opens the show.
After years working the stand-up comedy circuit , Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong released their first comedy album in 1971 and quickly built a huge following for their unique brand of counter-culture humor with heavy doses of marijuana use. Their comedy albums led to a series of successful movies, including the cult classic “Up in Smoke” in 1978.
After a successful run through the 1970s and early '80s, the duo went their separate ways with Marin pursuing an acting career and Chong mainly focusing his stand-up career. In 2008 the duo reunited for a comedy tour and have been back together ever since.
“I never really left, Cheech left for his acting career. I hung around and did stand-up so when the time was right we got back together and it worked out fine,” Chong said during a recent phone interview.
“We actually divided and conquered America, because if we had stayed together we would have been old news. The fact we broke up when we did left people wanting more Cheech and Chong. “
In their years apart, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong each remained successful in their own right. Nonetheless, longtime fans and a generation of people too young to catch them the first time around met the pair’s reunion enthusiastically.
Chong views his pairing with Cheech Marin as more than just good chemistry, he sees it as destiny.
“I’d always had partners before in bands, we’d put a band together and it would fall apart. Even before I had a band I had a funny guy I would hang around with and I would be the instigator. When Cheech and I met each other it was very cosmic. He moved to the area where I lived and even before we met he knew who I was. There was a special connection. I believe the forces of the universe wanted us to introduce hemp to the world in a non-violent manner, which we did. I think that was our mission.”
As crazy as that may sound to some people, there has been a wealth of scientific research touting the many benefits of hemp. Of late, hemp has seen increased use in nutrition and for medicinal purposes. Chong took hemp oil when he was battling prostate cancer, and while he would not go as far as to give the hemp oil full credit for being cancer free, he said, “it certainly didn’t hurt.”
“Hemp is more than just a couple of guys getting high and giggling at each other, it has some serious applications,” Chong noted.
Chong’s career has not been without its controversies. He spent nine months in jail for distributing bongs over the internet when he was caught up in a multi-million dollar sting operation called Operation Pipe Dreams Most observers felt Chong was targeted because of his celebrity status, and law enforcement officials used questionable tactics to secure an arrest.
Tommy’s wife, Shelby Chong uses the arrest as fodder for some of her opening set. I asked Tommy how long it took him to be able to make jokes about his arrest and imprisonment.
“I had a big going into jail party in Grand Rapids Mich., where they presented me a cake with a file in it, that was pretty funny.”
Chong didn’t take his sentence lightly. For three years he was drug tested and never tested positive.
In recent years, Chong continues to hone his live act with Cheech Marin, who he affectionately calls his “brother.”
“It’s been a challenge because we have had to update some of the material but Cheech and I are really on the same wavelength. It’s also exciting because we have incorporated a lot more music into the show.”