Older siblings are often a guiding light for our personal tastes. My older brother corrupted me with introductions to prog rock, National Lampoon and Heavy Metal magazines and comedy albums. We listened to and watched Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, (again) National Lampoon, George Carlin, Monty Python and Steve Martin but most of all, we loved Cheech and Chong. Ironic that we found so many laughs in their unique brand of toilet stoner humour, considering both of us nice suburban Jewish boys were too young to consider smoking pot. For me, I just didn’t know where to get any. But we loved their albums like The Wedding Album, Greatest Hit, and Big Bambu. As well as their weird, ridiculous and subversive films like Next Movie, Up In Smoke and Nice Dreams. I grew up, Richard ‘Cheech’ Marin became a ‘real’ actor and Tommy Chong started selling bongs. I didn’t give them much thought, nor did I listen to or watch their old output, until I saw that they were performing shows across Canada for their O Cannabis tour. I was eager to see what they were up to and to hear their old skits.
The show at Roy Thomson Hall opened and was MC’d by Tommy Chong’s wife, Shelby. She performed a short routine talking about pot, sex and meeting both Cheech and Chong for the first time. Her set felt needlessly offensive (joking that she passed herself off as a ‘retard’ to avoid a hassle and being suspicious of an African American man while on acid in a supermarket) and mostly lame, though she did get laughs from the audience. She also did a bit leading the men in the audience to yell ‘Bitch’ to paraphrase, because at home they’re ‘pussy whipped’. Even for me, a fan of dark and blue comedy, her set didn’t make me laugh and it felt like it punched down regressively. She finally introduced the duo, who came onstage to roars and applause. Shelby did a bit of a Q and A and offered up some unnecessary banter before leaving it to the pros. In my opinion, the show would’ve been more enjoyable without her participation.
Cheech and Chong opened the show with their classic Dave’s Not Here. Next was an updated Cruisin’ with Pedro De Pacas. In this version, Pedro is an Über (no surprise, called Doober) driver, but the content mostly stuck to the original. Within the set were musical performances of Blind Melon Chitlin and Basketball Jones, the first instances of why the two always were considered controversial.
As a Chinese-Canadian and an American-Mexican, they both grew up as targets of racism and frequently used humour to drag it into the light. However, while Cheech often played up and magnified stereotypes of Chicanos, the two often did the same to homosexuals, African Americans, Asians, and women. While not delivered with malice and arguably within ‘acceptable’ limits of the era, to me, homophobic and misogynistic jokes aren’t laugh-worthy. While the audience laughed, there were many members who didn’t. Even under the lens of satire, I had to ask myself if their 35-year-old jokes still have a place in comedy or if they’ve crossed a line to being unwelcomed products of gratefully dying attitudes that can no longer fall under the column of art.
Tommy Chong took a couple of solo moments to talk about his life that were introspective and touching. Having grown up in Calgary in the 1950s and 60s, Chong discussed the overt and tolerated racism he witnessed, not just as the son of a Chinese immigrant, but also as a member of the African-American R&B group, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. He dropped an uncomfortable number of instances of the N-word to demonstrate the times, saying that he learned comedy from his bandmates who used humour to deal with constant racism. Chong co-wrote (and the two performed) the band’s groundbreaking song Does Your Mama Know About Me, a tune about a mixed-race romance. The song was popularized by Diana Ross and the Supremes. He joked he wrote it ‘back when I was a black man, just like Justin Trudeau”. He spoke of how his grandfather paid a head tax to come to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. He summed his piece on racism by concluding that it’s just fear and ignorance and that this is the reason, stupidity, is why Trump hates everyone. Chong also discussed his nine-month stint in prison for selling bongs and his ongoing battle with cancer with both humour and emotion.
Earache My Eye was performed as a costumed lip-sync by Cheech and he did a bit as his ‘cousin’ from Next Movie, Red Nicky. Unfortunately, I remember it mostly as an unfunny vehicle for gay jokes. As this tour is dubbed the O Cannabis Tour, of course, there was lots of pot humour. About growing marijuana, smoking marijuana, getting stoned, being stoned and doing dumb stuff while stoned. While their ridiculous appetites for and pursuits of drugs were hilarious in the 70s and 80s, the same can’t be said when Cheech and Chong are 73 and 81 respectively. However, they have added an activist tilt, in particular to praising Canada’s legalization of cannabis, adding that as governments always do, they even fucked up drug dealing. Chong, expressly, praised his cannabis usage for his cancer recovery.
The show fizzled out at the end without fanfare, revealing the ramshackle quality of the entire show. For a fan like myself, having grown not just in years but also in what now qualifies to me as funny, as a whole, the show rated a bit above a failing grade. Their old content hasn’t aged well, despite the fact that the majority of the audience would disagree. That they can still sell a thousand tickets (and offer meet and greets for $250 a pop) isn’t surprising given the history they lean upon. Despite my overall dislike of the show, to Cheech and Chong’s credit, they are still impressively fast and funny on their feet as improvisers and continue to be skilled in physical comedy.
Cheech and Chong’s O Cannabis Tour continues with the following dates:
Sept. 28 – London, Ont. – Start.ca Performance Stage at Budweiser Gardens
Sept. 29 – Thunder Bay, Ont. – Thunder Bay Community Auditorium
Oct. 1 – Winnipeg, Man. – Burton Cummings Theatre
Oct. 2 – Regina, Sask. – Conexus Arts Centre
Oct. 4 – Calgary, Alta. – Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Oct. 6 – Victoria, B.C. – Royal Theatre
Oct. 9 – Penticton, B.C. – South Okanagan Events Centre
Oct. 10 – Abbotsford, B.C. – Abbotsford Centre