“Up in Smoke’ remains, to this day, a comedy classic. I can tell because I have received a big check every year for 30 years.”
-- Cheech Marin, “Cheech is Not My Real Name…But Don’t Call Me Chong!”
The highly unlikely comedy pairing of Los Angeles Chicano Richard “Cheech” Marin and Scotch Irish Chinese Canadian Tommy Chong began on stage. Their first comedy album, stuffed with anti-authority counter-culture comedy and wacky characters, debuted in 1971.
The act was a hit, but the release of 1978’s “Up in Smoke” launched them into the big time.
Directed by Lou Adler, producer of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Cheech & Chong’s manager, it was a low-key production with little expectations from the distributor, Paramount Pictures. Marin admitted they “put up their own money” and funded “our $800,000.00 doper movie.”
The plot: Marin’s Pedro picks up Chong’s Anthony while hitchhiking. The two bond while driving around and smoking more dope than you’d find in Willie Nelson’s tour bus. Eventually, they get involved in a plot to smuggle marijuana across the border (the way they do this is too funny to spoil). Along the way, they pick up even more hitchhikers and are pursued by Sgt. Stedenko (a very-game Stacey Keach) and his moronic colleagues.
Despite its deserved reputation as a cinematic groundbreaker, “Up in Smoke” is never consistently funny, with a momentum that frequently sputters out and constantly recharges. This is likely why the far more durable “National Lampoon’s Animal House” gets all the comedy love for 1978.
Still, as carefree and flimsy as this is (which is also the point of the entire endeavor), the biggest laughs are massive. In its own way, “Up in Smoke” was every bit as influential as the antics of Delta House.
There’s too much plot, which is a strange problem for a movie that seems to have little at stake. The first half, where our heroes meet, go on the road and establish a rhythm (for their chemistry and the film itself) is so hilarious, it carries the rest of the film on goodwill alone. It’s worth noting that the film’s most oft-quoted moments and classic bits arrive well before the sixty-minute mark.
Here’s another strange thing about “Up in Smoke.” While the movie mocks pot dealer busts, drug sniffing police dogs and the pre-Just Say No era, it inadvertently works as a drug PSA. Every time a character takes a hit of marijuana in this movie, the reaction is always so extreme, this plays like an unintentional “Reefer Madness” remake.
Despite its status as a stoner comedy classic, it conceivably could be viewed as a cautionary tale against casual drug use. Of course, that means taking “Up in Smoke” seriously.
That’s nearly impossible.
FAST FACT: Cheech Marin got his nickname from his uncle, who noted the infant Marin resembled a chicharron — a deep-fried pigskin.
Marin and Chong’s give and take is so strong, you’d think this was their fourth film working together, not the first cinematic extension of their stage act. It’s been too long since I’ve seen “Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie” or their subsequent vehicles, so I can’t compare this with the others. Yet, in preparation for this article, I’ve encountered dozens of people (including one of my best friends who I’ve known since I was 13-years old) who now freely admit this is either an annual watch or “my favorite movie of all time.”
Keach appears to be having a blast as the wicked heavy Stedenko (something he would do in other youth-appeal movies as “Moving Violations” and “Class of 1999”). It’s a shock to see Tom Skerritt, one year before his “Alien” breakthrough, playing a crazed Vietnam veteran for laughs.
Like any comedy with classic status made during this era, “Up in Smoke” is PC-free and has something to offend absolutely everyone.
Near the wrap-up, there’s an extended chase leading to a battle of the bands performance. A few good laughs can’t diminish how desperate the final stretch feels. I’m not a fan of the anything-goes third half or the climactic “Alice Bowie” stage performance. Yet, the fate of Stedenko’s drug sniffing dog (“he’s the best officer on the force!”) is a sight that puts me in a thick haze of laughter.
Adler and his dream team appear to have realized how busy the concluding bits are and course correct this vehicle in the final minutes; the epilogue has our heroes driving around once again, all alone. It sums up what’s best about the movie: Cheech & Chong, by themselves, creating clouds of chemistry (and some very potent pot smoke) without the burden of plot.
The film’s trailer boldly (but not inaccurately) compared Cheech & Chong to the comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and Martin & Lewis. A better comparison is George Hanson and Billy, the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider.”
Truly, the Flower Power vibe of Cheech & Chong (as well as their confrontations with law officers) have far more in common with the bikers who “went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere” than Laurel and Hardy.
“Up in Smoke” is PC-free and has something to offend absolutely everyone.
Yet, the heart of Cheech & Chong is that of two lovable fools who, against all odds, stumble through life together with their friendship intact. This is true for Marin and Chong as well, who broke as a team and then, after 25 years apart, regrouped, toured, spoke publicly in favor of legalizing pot and even made the wonderful “Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie” in 2013.
Far more than the ’70s equivalent of Abbott and Costello, Cheech & Chong exist in the same what-happens-next state of mind as Rosencratz and Guildenstern, the two fools who creep around in the background of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The comic pair of buffoons relying on one another and anticipate fate to intervene was also the core of Vladimer and Estrogon, the fictional duo of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Every potent comedy team has had the same key factors at their essence: a desperation to succeed, a brotherly camaraderie and an uncertainty of how to survive. Whether we’re talking about Hope & Crosby, Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, the leads in “Dude, Where’s My Car” or anyone starring in a Seth Rogen farce, the key ingredients haven’t changed. Classic and modern comedy models remain embedded in a pair of nitwits clinging together for survival.
The new Paramount Pictures edition of “Up in Smoke [Blu-ray]” is as loaded with extra features and vignettes as, well…a joint the size of a giant burrito. Against all odds, “Up in Smoke” was one of the top grossing films of 1978 (a $44 million gross in the 1970s was no laughing matter) and continues to tickle the funny bone of the hip, the square and everyone in between.
Like any truly great pot head comedy, you don’t have to be loaded to find it funny.
Cheech and Chong’s classic has been duplicated dozens of times but never truly equaled. As the stars of eight films together, their film pairing is best known in cult movie circles but was an undeniable pop culture touchstone from the very beginning.
The durability of their relationship, on and off screen, has resulted in a counter-cultural mainstay that has certainly dated but never gone up in smoke.