An Oral History of ‘Up In Smoke’ on Its 40th Anniversary
Producer-director Lou Adler’s original title for Up In Smoke, the 1978 Paramount counterculture romp about two guys looking to score pot so they can get high and play music, was Cheech & Chong’s Greatest Hit.
'These guys were in tune not only with the pot world, but what was happening in the culture of the early seventies.'
It was a punny, derivative title, to be sure, as Adler—the Grammy-winning impresario who’d worked with Carole King and the Mamas and the Papas and promoted the Monterey International Pop Festival—had produced Cheech and Chong’s best-selling comedy records over the previous six years.
“Then I wrote a song called ‘Up In Smoke,’” recalled Tommy Chong, the Chinese-Canadian half of the improv duo that’s celebrating the movie’s 40th anniversary this year with a deluxe collector’s edition box set, a Blu-ray Combo Pack, and a re-booted rendition of the title song.
As Chong recalled in a recent interview, thus was Up In Smoke, cinema’s seminal stoner comedy, christened:
“Cheech heard the song and said, ‘That’s the title of the movie.’”
For the 40th anniversary re-issue, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong and Lou Adler reminisced about “Up In Smoke” with Leafly. While their recollections about creative and financial matters differ—hey, man, Cheech is 71, Chong’s 79 and Adler’s 84—they agree that Up In Smoke broke social and culture barriers, and that the movie remains relevant and funny.
Cheech and Chong will appear at the Grammy Theater in Los Angeles on April 17 to discuss Up In Smoke before a sold-out audience.
Here’s an oral history of Up In Smoke, edited from three separate telephone interviews with Cheech, Chong and Adler.
Lou Adler: Up In Smoke has been called the first of the stoner movies. It took marijuana culture to a broader audience. The grosses show that. From the time that we started with the comedy albums, we weren’t marching with banners that said, “Smoke Marijuana.” We were just showing that it was a part of the society and a very visual and melodic part of the society. These guys were in costume. They were very musically connected. They were very in tune not only with the pot world but what was happening in culture in the early seventies.
'We showed that marijuana was harmless. It wasn't about making money. It was about getting high and making music.'
Tommy Chong: Up In Smoke is more like an educational film than anything else. It gave knowledge to the world. It showed marijuana was harmless. It showed it wasn’t about making money. It was about getting high so we could play music. That’s what marijuana is really all about. Making it illegal was racist from the beginning. It was a racist law that replaced another racist law—Prohibition—which was a war against people who drank wine in their cultures: Italians, Germans, French. When the public had enough of Prohibition, William Randolph Hearst made marijuana the poster child for racism.
Cheech Marin: We weren’t ahead of our time; we were right of our time. Those determining the position of the culture didn’t recognize us. They thought, “These guys are an aberration. They’ll make a movie and maybe they’ll go away.” We didn’t go with their plan. We were funny. We were social. We were highly political depending on your inclination and your takeaway from our comedy.
Chong: Up In Smoke was a milestone for the American culture. Until Up In Smoke, Mexicans and hippies were considered caricatures. We were fair game for all the normal people. There were no Latino comedians until Cheech and Chong. The only Spanish guy was a Jewish guy—Bill Dana’s character, Jose Jimenez.
Adler: Cheech and Chong broke down so many barriers. I think back on Abbott and Costello taking comedy into horror films. Cheech and Tommy broke down an amazing barrier: You could do a pot film if you were funny. What it brought to the Hispanic community to have somebody like Cheech to laugh at and look up to, that meant a lot to me because of my upbringing.
Cheech: My character, Pedro De Pacas, was a conglomeration of a lot of people in my life when I was young and I would hitchhike. I was picked up by a Pedro De Pacas. I just shut up and listened to him talk about his car and how much he had to work for his car. That was a significant identification and that was all I needed to work that character.
Sinsemilla and Sensibility
Chong: Cheech and Chong were like the prophets of sensibility. We showed the world we’re human. I purposely wrote my character, Anthony Stoner, like being from a rich family wearing a headband because I wanted that contrast. I wanted my character from a rich family playing drums with a lowrider from the barrio. We made people love lowriders and see that the guys from rich families wearing headbands are harmless.
Adler: It’s sometimes overlooked, and it shouldn’t be, but Tommy and Cheech were really good comedians. Forget about what the subject matter was. They were just funny, really good comedy like Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy.
Cheech: We were part of the wave that was overtaking the movie industry. There was a big disconnect between the studios’ vision and what the public wanted. They were making Heaven’s Gate at the same time we made Up In Smoke. Saviors are always born in mangers.
Adler: The first time I saw Cheech and Chong was at the Troubadour in 1972. It was hootenanny night. Tommy and Cheech were on stage going around in circles, smelling each other’s butts, doing their Dog Act. I said, “I’ve got to record these guys.” I produced all of Cheech and Chong’s comedy albums for my label. We always thought about what we were doing as Ear Movies. They weren’t straight stand-up comedy. We added sound effects. When it came time to actually think about a film, it was a natural thing for me to become a producer and director of the film.
Cheech: We were perfect for the headphones-listening generation that was taking over the record industry. Up In Smoke was a natural evolution of what we were doing. We started off on the stage in a strip bar in Vancouver and we worked our way to L.A., kept developing that stage act and we signed a record contract with Adler. Then we were touring. The next logical step was the movies. Every great comedy team that we knew about made movies. Laurel and Hardy. Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. If we were going to keep progressing in what we were doing, movies was the logical next step.
Chong: We didn’t invent stoner movies. I Love You, Alice B. Toklas had Peter Sellers smoking pot in it. That movie inspired me to move to L.A. from Detroit. I was at Motown at the time and I got fired. I went to see I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. I picked up my girlfriend and we just drove all the way to L.A. to be with all the hippies in Venice.
Chong: Adler, he was the only one in L.A. who saw our worth because he knew the culture.
Cheech: Adler recognized what we were doing because he grew up in East L.A. That to me was one of the signs.
Adler: I grew up in an area of Los Angeles that had a lot of Pedros.
Smoking What Now?
Adler: The question that I’m most asked is, “Were they smoking marijuana?” They weren’t. They were smoking lettuce.
Lettuce. Literally. They were smoking lettuce on film.
Cheech: We used to refer to it as stunt dope—some kind of varietal. It was like the merlot of weed. But it wasn’t weed. It was vegetable. Tasted like the worst weed you ever had.
Chong: It was a combination of Indian herbs. All that movie dope tasted really bad. I mean, we smoked real joints but we never smoked them on camera, at least in “Up In Smoke” anyway. After “Up In Smoke,” it came in our contract that we could smoke real weed.
On the Set
Adler: Comedy on film is not easy. It was a difficult shoot. It was a lot of work. Most of the photos I’ve been through lately that show Tommy and Cheech between takes, they’re sleeping. These are two guys that were used to performing in clubs starting at 10 o’clock at night and they getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning. Getting Cheech and Chong on film was work
Cheech: We were into physical fitness. We always worked out at the YMCA because they had a YMCA wherever we worked. It was the only way to maintain that touring schedule and stay physically healthy at the same time.
Chong: We did our share. We did whatever was handed to us by a naked lady.
Adler: You can imagine anywhere that I went to try to make a film about marijuana starring a Chinaman and a Mexican — they didn’t really jump at the chance. You have to give Paramount credit for going ahead with it. Up In Smoke proved that marijuana wasn’t Reefer Madness and that there was an audience and subculture that was ready for it. For the time, big-budget movies might have been $25 million. We were under a million. It grossed $44 million. Certainly for the time, it was up there, and certainly for a comedy. It was a grab figure.
Cheech: We did this as a negative pick-up. Adler handled the money. We made the movie. And then we sold it to Paramount at the end. We took off a year from touring and recording in order to write the movie.
Chong: We never made any serious money from the movie. I think we split a million. Then Cheech and I went on the road promoting the movie and we couldn’t work live and we’re promoting a hit movie that we really didn’t have a piece of. So Lou and I had an argument about it and we came to the conclusion that if we weren’t going to get cut in, Cheech and Chong and Lou Adler were splitting up. And we did. We split up. We tried to make a sequel but Lou and Paramount had bound the Up In Smoke title so we couldn’t do it. In fact, when we did the movie called Still Smokin’ we had to pay Lou something like $75,000 to use the words “still smokin.”
Chong: I get conflicted messages now from Cheech and Lou, but here’s my recollection: When they screened the movie for Paramount execs, Lou had not shown anything. He just screened it with the ending that he wanted in there. And the movie literally bombed. It did not work. It was horrible. I said we have to reshoot the ending. and there was no money for reshooting the ending. There was a little conflict there, you know. But I was insistent. So I wrote a new ending and I directed it. It gave the editors time to make the other jokes work. Now, Cheech, he doesn’t have the same memories as I do and I’m sure Lou doesn’t either, although Lou would tell you that I definitely directed the ending of the movie. The original ending goes back to us being parked on the side of the road where I met Cheech. Stacy Keach is dressed as a real cop and he’s looking in the back window and it was all a dream. It was fucking horrible. Then we fixed the ending: We had a band, we had success, we’re driving down the road.
Adler: Before the film was final, we took the film to Texas, where we could go to three different cities and get a feel for three different audiences. In Houston it was more of an art and marijuana audience. Dallas was a little more sophisticated. And San Antonio was the Hispanic audience. It went over great in all three cities. It allowed us to actually cut to the audience. We did some editing after all three cities.
Cheech: We disgruntled everybody critically. And then Pauline Kael of The New Yorker gave us this glowing review. It stunned everybody. From that point we started to gain critical attention and the critics started to see how it was relevant to the culture and how it was essentially funny.
Adler: I don’t think Up In Smoke could have been anything else based on where the three of us were coming from. The conservative powers were always depicting marijuana as it was depicted in Reefer Madness.” In order to show the comedy in a real way, we had to do real situations.
Cheech: One thing we encountered from Up In Smoke and all throughout our career was that we had defined and portrayed those characters in that culture so definitively. Other comedians told us, “You guys stole home plate.” We were just these two low-level entertainers who lucked into something. They said the same thing about our comedy career. I told some of them, “If we’re so lucky how come you guys aren’t lucky?”
Chong: Those Cheech and Chong characters still exist. Whether you like them or not, that’s up to you. And they will always exist. Whether you like us or you hate us doesn’t matter. We didn’t do it for anybody but ourselves. We wanted to show who we were. Some people say, “I can’t stand that stuff.” Then don’t smoke it. I don’t mind the negative. I don’t even see it. When I act, I do a version of me. Can you imagine how much fun I’ve had being typecast as a stoner?