Cheech and Chong "Up in Smoke" Exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum

“Still Rollin' - Celebrating 40 Years of Up in Smoke” opened on 4/20

Grammy Museum Cheech & Chong
Cheech & Chong | Photo: GRAMMY Museum

“If you live long enough, anything is going to happen,” Cheech tells me. Including a majority of Americans agreeing with the legalization of marijuana.

Richard “Cheech” Marin is, of course, the L.A.-born half of comedy duo Cheech & Chong. He is also a very wise man of impeccable taste (his collection of Chicano art is world-class), who has found fame and fortune in multiple areas of the entertainment industry (comedy, live performances, recordings, books, films, TV, voiceovers, etc.). Anyone reducing the man to the slacker stoner characters that turned him and Tommy Chong into superstars and multigenerational mascots for weed culture—well, they don’t know Cheech.

Cheech & Chong "Still Rollin" at the GRAMMY Museum
Cheech & Chong "Still Rollin" | Photo: GRAMMY Museum

The GRAMMY Museum at L.A. LIVE presents Still Rollin' - Celebrating 40 Years of Up in Smoke, an exhibition commemorating the 1978 film that continues to be a rite of passage, and joint-passing, well into the 21st century. The exhibit opened on 4/20, natch.

This extravagant, museum-grade display of Cheech & Chong memorabilia—largely from the archives of Lou Adler, the Los Angeles showbiz legend who discovered and managed the duo and also directed Up in Smoke—coincides with the 40th anniversary re-release of the ultimate L.A. stoner comedy in various formats. Rhino Records is even giving it the spiffiest limited-edition treatment with Blu-ray, CD, vinyl, extra material, and “oversized, usable rolling papers.”

Cheech & Chong in "Up in Smoke" Car Scene
Cheech & Chong in "Up in Smoke" (1978) | Photo: Cheech & Chong, Facebook

“We kept saying we’re ‘middle of the road’ dopers,” Cheech laughs, driving from his Malibu home to a taping of the Steve Harvey show, where a diverse and not particularly hip audience will readily cheer his and Chong’s amusing pot anecdotes. “And we’ve always said that was the norm, even if just everybody didn’t realize it yet! Now, we’re dead center. A lot of people wanted to refer to us as radicals, or dangerous. We always thought we were middle of the road.”

Since they broke into the mainstream with their self-titled 1971 album (produced by “third Cheech & Chong” Lou Adler, who found them as a cult act at West Hollywood’s Troubadour), Cheech and Chong both celebrated and lampooned stoner culture, but, unlike many at the time, never demonized it.

“We always said ‘this is the new intoxicant for our generation’,” says Cheech. “And now 29 states have some form of legalization and there’s no stratum of society it doesn’t cut through—I don’t care if it’s racial or economic or religious or whatever it is. Everybody, from the head of the Philosophy Department of some prestigious university to a guy in the Ku Klux Klan smokes dope. I always thought this time was going to come, because from where we stood, performing around the country, you saw it spreading, and it got bigger in any generation you spoke to. It was inevitable.”

The GRAMMY Museum exhibit includes items like the rare Up in Smoke poster with original tagline (“Don't Go Straight To See This Movie”), the annotated original script (working title: The Adventures of Pedro & Man), the master tape for the soundtrack album, comedy sketches, limited-edition 40th anniversary “smoking devices,” and part of Cheech’s collection of “Blazing Chicano Guitars.”

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Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin at the opening of "Still Rollin" at the GRAMMY Museum | Instagram by @cheechmarinofficial

There are many reasons to celebrate such a decidedly popular phenomenon in a museum setting. “Cheech & Chong are arguably the quintessential comedy duo of the hippie generation,” said Scott Goldman, GRAMMY Museum Executive Director. “Individually, they’ve achieved great success, with Cheech becoming one of the most well-known and respected Chicano entertainers, and Tommy making his mark as an actor, writer, musician, and cannabis rights activist. Together, they became a voice for the counterculture.”

The premier Los Angeles venue for music memorabilia shows, the GRAMMY Museum has over the years self-consciously broadened its scope to include acts beyond the strictly musical.

“There are 83 different categories that are celebrated [by the GRAMMYs] and comedy is one of them.” said former GRAMMY Museum Curator Nwaka Onwusa. “Not many people know that comedians and spoken word have a category over at the Academy. In fact, this is the fourth show we’ve done to celebrate comedians.” The Museum previously honored the careers of Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, and George Carlin.

“This time, we wanted to celebrate someone like Cheech, who’s a local, an Angeleno; and Lou Adler who’s an Angeleno; and Tommy, who’s lived here,” adds Onwusa. “We wanted to celebrate their creative craft. They are GRAMMY winners too. And Cheech is a philanthropist as well as an entertainer, and a well-known art collector.”

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Cheech & Chong perform at Help Haiti in 2010 | Photo courtesy of Cheech & Chong, Facebook

With Cheech & Chong, the musical component is also prominent. Lou Adler coined the term “hard rock comedy” to refer to their act, and their worldwide fame as the archetypal stoner comedy duo overshadows their incredibly hip music background and achievements.

An early press release shown at the exhibit illustrates why Los Angeles music industry legend Adler (among many other achievements, he's the man behind the success of the Mamas & the Papas, the Monterey Pop Festival and the The Rocky Horror Picture Show) took an interest in and championed Cheech & Chong.

Adler’s Ode Records (located then at 1416 N. La Brea, around the corner from Hollywood High) described their act as “something completely different … within the world of high comedy … For old-time vaudeville comics like Jack Carter, Shecky Greene, Jackie Gleason, the common denominator is booze. For today’s audience, young people, it’s weed, reds, ripple and rock & roll.” The release describes Cheech as “skinny” and “the Hispano-American member” and Chong as “brawny” and “the Chinese member,” and mentions the latter as having performed in Canada as part of the soul act Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers.

Photos exhibited at the GRAMMY Museum show Cheech & Chong performing at Soledad Prison, on a bill with the Pointer Sisters and Waylon Jennings.

Cheech’s musical background is fascinating, especially for people who only think of him as a stoner comedian or later a successful actor in shows like “Nash Bridges” and “Jane the Virgin.”

Dig into Cheech’s life work and pretty soon it becomes clear he’s a kind of Zelig figure of Los Angeles counterculture. His recent autobiography has a typically self-effacing, light title (2017’s Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...But Don't Call Me Chong), but it’s s a must-read for anyone interested in the secret history of LA culture, way beyond the Hollywood where he’s made his fortune. Behind his amiable, genial façade (he responds to “How are you?” with “I’m just lucky”), Cheech pops up in all kinds of cool scenarios and cult projects.

How cool and culty, you may ask? Back in 2011, Cheech appeared in a web interview for Amoeba Records’ “What’s In My Bag” series, where musicians and actors are given a free shopping trip to the music and movies megastore in exchange for talking about artists they like. To the surprise of many viewers, Cheech selected an album by the ultimate 1960s folk music cult heroine, Karen Dalton. And then he revealed he had been her roommate in Los Angeles.

“Karen Dalton? Wow!” Cheech laughs when I bring up that aside. “I was living in Canada in Vancouver [in 1969] and I was writing reviews and stories for a Canadian rock magazine.” (Yes, he did that too). “During the course of that process I got sent an album by Karen Dalton and I started playing it and her voice just captivated me, it was one of the most unusual voices I had heard in a long time. So when I got back to L.A. I was writing for all sort of different magazines, the guy who was doing the publicity for the label asked me who did I want to meet or interview and I said ‘Karen Dalton,’ and he looked at me like ‘Are you sure?’ So he sent me to a house in Hollywood, which was across the Whisky-A-Go-Go.”

“When I got there, I had at that time been looking for a place, because I couldn’t stay in the place I was at, and during the course of the conversation, I saw people wandering around all the time and I said ‘How many people live here?’ and Karen said ‘Oh, 4 or 5, but we have an open room. So then she asked me the difficult question ‘Do you have 50 bucks cash?’ (laughs) and I had it so she said ‘Ok, you can be our roommate’. I really loved her voice and it was amazing that I got to hear her play and sing in the house.”

“But you know, she’s a favorite of a lot of weird people," Cheech reminisces. "She’s really an inside deal. I have a daughter who’s 25. When she was in high school she went to Idyllwild she was an art student there, and I told her one day ‘I don’t really know what’s going on in music today, so can you send me a disc with things I should listen to?’ So we were driving down the street on Malibu one day, when she was home on a vacation and I see her slip this disc in, and I’m listening to this voice, and she’s looking at me like ‘I bet you don’t know who this is,’ and I go ‘Is that Karen Dalton?’ and she’s like “Whaaat? How do you know Karen Dalton?” and I said [coolly] ‘I used to live with her’.” (laughs)

“The folk era was my era,” Cheech explains. “I was a huge Fred Neil fan too. He was the guy who discovered Karen in Florida, Tim Hardin was part of that group. All kinds of people came through.”

How much is Cheech Marin a legit old folkie? Unable to contain his excitement, Cheech tells me that this upcoming July 28, Cheech & Chong are finally playing the Newport Folk Festival on the East Coast. “I’m busting out of the pants to do that one!” he says. I asked him if he’s gonna “go electric,” and he smiles mischievously. “As a matter of fact—one of my characters Red Hickey is gonna play “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on the same stage where Dylan went electric [famously, in 1966].”

Speaking of which, Cheech shows up in Dylan’s enigmatic 2003 film masterpiece Masked & Anonymous. And he’s also in Echo Park, the little 1986 romantic drama that has developed a cult following among Los Angeles cinephiles. “Isn’t that so strange?” he laughs. “It was directed by a really, really good friend of mine, Robert Dornhelm an Austrian director and he asked ‘do you wanna be in that movie.’ That’s why we’re so dangerous! We are everywhere! It came to a point where it was, it’s not really a movie unless we’re in it.”

Rewatching Up in Smoke through the “Cheech is the Zelig of Los Angeles cult counterculture” lens, 40 years down the line, the film becomes a different, deeper experience. Cheech, in his wisdom, is aware of this, though he wouldn’t brag about it. “You see, you got to see a side of Los Angeles that you never saw in movies before, as you went around with us and visited our neighborhoods. ‘Oh, that’s how people live in the parts of L.A. we don’t go to’. It was very important in that regard that we were representing the unrepresented.”

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Cheech Marin at the Riverside Art Museum | Photo courtesy of The Cheech, Facebook

Yup, Cheech Marin can pivot from the stoner joke to some deep, university-level cultural analysis without dropping the genial persona. After all, this is the man behind The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture & Industry (“The Cheech,” for short—just like “The Broad”), which is projected to open at the Riverside Art Museum in 2020. 

“As the first strictly counterculture comics,” the GRAMMY Museum correctly notes, “Cheech & Chong helped change the dialogue, and ultimately attitudes, about marijuana use.”

“We always get the same reaction to the movie, though,” says Cheech. “The legacy keeps going. Lately, I was out on the road, and people come to do a meet a greet and an older guy, in our generation comes up and the kids say they got turned on to Cheech and Chong by their parents. It’s always been the same story since 1978.”

From our vantage point, the Los Angeles of 1978 seems like a different metaverse timeline from our currently dystopian one. Californians were celebrating the defeat of The Big Bad of the counterculture (Nixon) and Reagan was just another local actor-politician that might have taken a temporary detour into government like Schwarzenegger or Eastwood ended up doing. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” some time in the nearest future might have been unthinkable for the original Up in Smoke audiences, as much a cheesy joke as a “President Trump” in the bad Back to the Future 2 timeline.

Still, in our 2019 Cheech & Chong have a show a) in an institution b) about weed and c) it’s a family show.

“How about that!” Cheech aw-shucks. “Those things intersect!”

If you live long enough…

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