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Inductee: Tommy Chong

A hand gesture says a thousand words: Tommy Chong during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Photo Kevin Winter.  Courtesy Getty Images.
A gesture says a thousand words: Tommy Chong during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Photo Kevin Winter. Courtesy Getty Images.

Reason for Induction:
For promoting racial harmony and teaching multiple generations of counterculturalists that laughter makes the best medicine.

Citation:
Hey man. It’s hard to know if the sun beamed on Edmonton on May 24, 1938, but it’s nice to think that the whole world brightened with the arrival of Thomas B. Kin Chong.

From his early years forward, Tommy Chong has walked his own path. He dropped out of his Calgary high school in his sophomore year, playing guitar to support himself. (The Chongs had moved from Edmonton to Dog Patch, a town on the outskirts of Calgary, when Tommy was a boy.) Money, it seems, was a minor motivation. “I was about 16 when I discovered music could get you laid, so I got into music,” Chong told fellow Alt-Walk inductee Nardwuar in 1993. His first band, formed in 1955, was a rarity for the time: “There was a Canadian Indian, a black... and myself who’s half-Chinese. We called ourselves the Shades cause we’re all different colours.” Chong’s proto-rockers gigged in Edmonton and Calgary until, he has said, Calgary’s mayor asked them to leave the city. The Shades decamped to Vancouver and became Little Daddie and the Bachelors, then Four Ns and a C — crass shorthand for “four coloured fellas and a Chinese lad.”

In the mid-’60s, Chong met Motown recording artist Bobby Taylor on a San Francisco street corner (Taylor was walking the city with Wilt Chamberlain and Sly Stone at the time); Chong and Taylor partnered to form Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Jimi Hendrix joined the band for close to a year, before he was famous, though they fired him for his overlong solos. Chong co-wrote the Vancouvers’ biggest hit, 1968’s Does Your Mama Know About Me?, a song about interracial dating. He was later turfed for skipping a band commitment to attend a hearing for his U.S. green card.

Making music and hanging out in nightclubs introduced Chong to the world of improv comedy. Also in ’68, he formed a comedy troupe, City Works, then honed his chops at a Vancouver gentlemen’s club managed by his brother. That was where Chong met Richard “Cheech” Marin, a Los Angelino who’d come to Canada to dodge the U.S.’s Vietnam draft. Marin joined City Works; he and Chong became fast friends. When the troupe disbanded two years later, Cheech and Chong turned their focus to a two-man act in which they played affable, dim-witted stoners who wanted nothing more than high times with “good grass.” The duo began releasing comedy albums in 1971; George Harrison contributed guitar licks to 1973’s Grammy-winning Los Cochinos.

Cheech and Chong’s creative and (counter)cultural peak came in 1978, with the release of their first film, Up in Smoke. Most critics belittled the effort, a ridiculous road movie about two idiots, Pedro (Cheech) and Man (Chong), smuggling a van made of marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border, but audiences came in droves: Up in Smoke grossed close to $42 million US at the box office. Cheech and Chong made many more movies in the following years, all of a similar kind — Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, Nice Dreams, Still Smokin’, etc. — but never equalled the comedic success of their debut. They folded the act in 1985, though, to the public, it seems Chong has mostly stayed in character since.

High-jinks: A production still from the movie Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams.  Photo Columbia TriStar. Courtesy Getty Images.
High-jinks: A production still from Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams. Photo Columbia TriStar. Courtesy Getty Images.

That last bit is worth dwelling on: Tommy Chong is an actor. From Up in Smoke through That ’70s Show, where he had a recurring guest role as an aging burnout, Chong the character has always been further removed from reality than Chong the man. The latter is intelligent and articulate — if not immune to the former’s bad habits. In 2003, U.S. authorities raided Chong’s L.A. home and discovered a pound of marijuana on the premises. They’d come looking for pot pipes and accessories, part of a federal case against Chong for selling drug paraphernalia on the Internet. Chong was made to forfeit $120,000 US in sales proceeds and sentenced to nine months behind bars. He served his time with typical aplomb. “Mail call here is like two sacks, one for me and one for the rest of the people,” he told L.A.’s City Beat in a jailhouse interview.

Now a free man again, Chong, 67, claims to have quit smoking dope. He continues to perform stand-up comedy with his wife of three decades, Shelby. In February, he joined Marin onstage in Aspen, Colorado for the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival; they performed their Cheech and Chong routine for the first time in 20 years. There has been loose talk of an Up in Smoke sequel, although thus far the rumour has amounted to more vapour than substance. So don’t hold your breath.

Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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