Cheech Marin On How His Famed Comic Collaboration Was Like Chicano Art

Mar 13, 2017
Originally published on March 13, 2017 9:49 am

Cheech Marin lives up a winding hill in Los Angeles, high above where the ocean meets the mountains. He greets NPR in a Cheech and Chong T-shirt and makes sure to get everyone's names before inviting us in.

Marin, of course, was half of Cheech and Chong, one of comedy's most famous duos. The group became popular in the 1970s, and continued making movies into the '80s.

He lives in a gorgeous house, which he says he bought for its walls — they were perfect for his art collection. "I didn't even walk out to see the view," he says. "The view is spectacular." Throughout the house, Marin has hung canvases and placed sculptures with the eye of a curator. He's been supporting Chicano art for years, and his collection has toured museums all over the country.

He's reluctant to pick a favorite artwork, but if you press him hard enough he'll point to Wayne Alaniz Healy's Una Tarde en Meoqui, or "An Afternoon in Meoqui." "It's like a backyard barbecue," Marin says, "but it is Norman Rockwell with jalapeños."

Also on display are copies of Marin's new book; they're piled up on the coffee table, waiting for autographs. The cover shows 70-year-old Marin smashing a piñata of his younger self. The book is called Cheech Is Not My Real Name ... But Don't Call Me Chong!

"Cheech is my nickname," Marin explains. (His real name is Richard.) "It always has been, in my family — short for chicharrón. ... You know, pork rinds. ... When I came home from the hospital, I was like a couple days old or something, my uncle came over and he looked in the crib and he said [in Spanish], 'Ay, parece un chicharrón.' Looks like a little chicharrón, you know?"

One of the funniest stories in his new book is about when he and his comedy partner, Tommy Chong, figured out what to call themselves. They were driving from a gig at a topless bar in Vancouver, Canada, and crossing a bridge that was technically closed for construction. It was raining like crazy, and the windshield wipers were broken. But Chong and his dad, who owned the car, had devised a temporary fix with a wire coat hanger.

"They bent it around out of the window and you operated it by hand as you were driving," Marin says. " ... And so [Chong is] working this, and he goes, 'Yeah, Cheech and Chong, that's it. We're gonna be big! We're gonna be giant, yeah!' as we're driving across a condemned bridge."

He says it was the perfect metaphor for Cheech and Chong. "[These] Chicano, Chinese-Canadian improvisational strip bar guys are gonna conquer the world? Good luck with that one!"

They went on to become, among other things, Hollywood's most famous stoners — and to think Marin grew up the son of an LAPD cop. His childhood home was in South Central LA, only 20 miles away from where he lives now — but it feels a lot farther.

"It is a world away..." Marin says. "When you get out [in] the world, you find out that everybody — especially if they come from Los Angeles — they all want to establish their street cred in some kind of conversation with you. And they go, 'Oh yeah, where you from?' I say, 'South Central.' 'Oh yeah, where?' I go, '36th and San Pedro.' They go, 'Oh yeah, that's South Central.' ... There's no argument. Drop an arrow into the middle and it's going to land on that corner."

Marin had a brief career as a singer (you can hear him crooning in the audio link above) before finding his way to comedy. As part of Cheech and Chong, he became known for over-the-top, absurd humor, notably in their 1978 movie Up in Smoke. But in his book Marin writes that it wasn't just about getting laughs.

"It is very much like Chicano art," he says. "It is sophisticated and primitive simultaneously. The scenes would play out and ... the comedy would be absorbed rather than having it jammed down [your throat]."

The idea, he says, is you laugh when you want to.

Digital producer Nicole Cohen, producer Danny Hajek and editor Shannon Rhoades contributed to this piece.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it's David here with an invite. Come with me up a winding hill in LA to a house high above where the ocean meets the mountains. A woman is standing outside the gate. It's publicist Yvette Shearer. And she's with the man we are here to see.

Thank you.

YVETTE SHEARER: Cheech Marin.

GREENE: Cheech Marin. I'm David Greene.

CHEECH MARIN: David.

GREENE: Nice to meet you. Thanks for having us.

DANNY: Danny.

MARIN: Danny.

JUSTIN: Justin.

MARIN: David, Danny, Justin. OK. Come on in.

GREENE: Yup, Cheech Marin. Solid guy, I mean, he's getting all our names right. He is also part of one of comedy's most famous duos.

You've got a Cheech and Chong T-shirt on. I love it. Do you wear that all the time?

MARIN: I'm a big fan.

GREENE: (Laughter).

So he bought this gorgeous house for the walls. Yeah, the walls.

MARIN: I didn't even walk out to see the view. The view is spectacular.

GREENE: But you knew you loved it for this - for the walls.

MARIN: For that reason alone.

GREENE: It's for his art collection. He has hung canvases with the eye of a curator. He's been supporting Chicano art for years. And he has a collection that's toured museums all over the place. He was hard pressed to pick a favorite piece but we made him.

MARIN: This may be my favorite painting.

GREENE: OK. Now you're admitting it.

MARIN: This is a painting called "Un Tarde Mayoke" (ph), a afternoon in Mayoke (ph) in Mexico. And it's like a backyard barbecue. But it is Norman Rockwell with jalapenos, you know.

GREENE: (Laughter). So also on display were copies of his new book on the coffee table. There's a photo of the 70-year-old on the cover smashing a pinata of himself. It's a younger version with the 1970s mustache, a beanie, suspenders. His new memoir is called "Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...But Don't Call Me Chong."

MARIN: Cheech is my nickname and always has been in my family, short for chicharron or deep fried pigskin. You know, pork rinds, you see them in the store. You can buy them in a bag. And when I came home from the hospital, I was like a couple days old or something, my uncle came over. And he looked in the crib. And he said in Spanish, (speaking Spanish) looks like a little chicharron, you know.

GREENE: And one of the funniest stories in the book is actually when he and his partner Tommy Chong get the epiphany about what to call themselves. They were in Vancouver, Canada, leaving a gig at a topless bar in Tommy Chong's dad's car. And they were crossing a bridge that was technically closed for construction. It was raining. And the windshield wipers didn't work.

MARIN: And so they had hooked up a wire coat hanger. And they bent it around out of the window. And you operated it by hand.

GREENE: You're moving the windshield wipers by hand...

MARIN: By hand, yeah.

GREENE: ...As you're talking about the name of your group?

MARIN: Yeah, Cheech and Chong. That's it. We're going to be big. We're going to be giant, yeah (laughter) as we're - as we're driving across a condemned bridge. But that was a perfect metaphor for Cheech and Chong.

GREENE: Why do you say that?

MARIN: Well, it's because it's these Chicano Chinese-Canadian improvisational strip bar guys are going to conquer the world, you know. (Laughter) Good luck with that one.

GREENE: Well, they went on to become, among other things, movies' most famous stoners. And to think Cheech grew up the son of an LAPD cop. It was only about 20 miles from the beautiful home we were visiting, but it feels like a lot farther.

MARIN: Oh, yeah. It is a world away, you know. It was tough. You know, 'cause like when you get out of the world, you find out that, you know, everybody - especially if they come from Los Angeles. And they always want to establish their street cred in some kind of conversation with you. You know, and they go, oh, yeah, where are you from? I said South Central. South - oh, yeah, where? I go, 36 and San Pedro. They go, oh, yeah, that's South Central.

GREENE: That's real South Central.

MARIN: (Laughter) Yeah, I - there's no argument.

GREENE: I love your biography in the book because it talks about all the various things you are. Singer is not the first thing people would say.

MARIN: That was the first career I had. I was a singer. I was this little 5-year-old kid that could sing in tune. And it's something that came most naturally to me of anything I've ever done.

GREENE: Is there a song you could sing for - I don't know if it's a favorite that you'd...

MARIN: OK. I'll sing you the first song I ever recorded. Imagine I'm 5 years old.

GREENE: OK.

MARIN: And it was (singing in Spanish).

GREENE: It's beautiful.

MARIN: I was a young Frank Sinatra, Chicano Frank Sinatra, singing standards on the street (laughter).

GREENE: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UP IN SMOKE")

MARIN: (As Pedro De Pacas, singing) And I said guacamole in my shoes. Guacamole in my shoe. (Speaking Spanish). [Expletive] is that a joint, man?

GREENE: I was watching "Up In Smoke," you know, the first movie you guys did. And it's so over-the-top absurd. You wouldn't immediately think this is really smart comedy.

MARIN: Oh, yeah.

GREENE: But you convinced me in the book that there's so much more behind absurd comedy like that.

MARIN: I thought it was the most intelligent comedy that was being purveyed at the time because it is very much like Chicano art - sophisticated and primitive simultaneously. The scenes would play out and so that the comedy would be absorbed, rather than having it jammed down you. And this is where the laugh goes. Now laugh. You know, you laugh where you want to when you realize the absurdity of the scene.

GREENE: You've described your relationship with Tommy Chong as like brothers.

MARIN: Yeah.

GREENE: And you describe really openly how that relationship deteriorated.

MARIN: Yeah.

GREENE: How tough was that?

MARIN: It was very tough for me. You know, I - we weren't best friends. You know, we didn't grow up together, like, he's my best friend. I love him. I loved him a lot. But I was perturbed by him a lot, you know. We were brothers. And sometimes you can hate your brother and get in a fight with him and like, you know, but you always got his back 'cause he's your brother. No matter what we were going through personally, when we got on stage, all that disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM, "CHEECH AND CHONG")

MARIN: Hey, come on, man.

TOMMY CHONG: Who is it?

MARIN: Dave, man, open up.

CHONG: Dave?

MARIN: Yeah, Dave.

CHONG: Dave's not here.

MARIN: What the - no, man, I am Dave, man, will you - come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

GREENE: I just think back over your career. You voiced a hyena in "Lion King." You were in "Nash Bridges" with Don Johnson. You were with Kevin Costner and Rune Russo in "Tin Cup." Is there one thing you're most proud of?

MARIN: You know, maybe "Born In East L.A."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Yeah, Cheech's video from the '80s about an immigration officer who's trying to kick a U.S. citizen out of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BORN IN EAST L.A.")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where were you born?

MARIN: (As Rudy, singing) I was born in east LA, man. I was born in east LA.

GREENE: So political commentary, you're proud of that, I mean...

MARIN: Yeah. Without coming out and banging out - my philosophy has always been to slip it in their coffee. You know, you get the effect. It's like edibles (laughter). You know, you don't have to smoke it. You know, you could just eat like a little macaroon. So that was my goal, to slip it in their coffee.

GREENE: This has been a real pleasure. Thank you.

MARIN: No, thank you very much. My pleasure.

GREENE: That was the incomparable Cheech Marin. His memoir is "Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...But Don't Call Me Chong." And, you know, we didn't even get to the chapter on the time he smoked Anderson Cooper on "Jeopardy!" I'm just saying. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.