Paramount

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

“You wanna get high, man?”

“Does Howdy Doody got wooden balls, man?”

With marijuana currently nearing legalization on a federal level, it’s been a while since the drug was scandalous enough to make the comedic stylings of Tommy Chong and Richard “Cheech” Marin seem subversive. But back when their stand-up tours were the scourge of moral watchdog groups and local police departments, the common knock against the pair was that they were only funny if you were stoned too. The squares that the duo goofed on across their eight films—institution figures ranging from cops to narcos to nuns to bosses—looked down on Cheech and Chong as hippie jesters for idiots, palatable solely to those wastrels who had sufficiently lowered their consciousness enough to chuckle at the doofus wordplay and poop jokes. Weed was the essential primer that transformed the performers into comic geniuses by first transforming its audience into giggling morons.

In our more cannabis-friendly present, that puritanical thinking has been exposed as off-base. We know now that that isn’t how weed works, that it doesn’t immediately sap the user of all their intelligence. Being lit up like a menorah is not an absolute prerequisite for enjoying the hapless stoners’ sprawling saga to get high and laid—but not because their writing can stand on its own merit. It turns out that not even sucking down the billy-club-sized joint that Cheech whips out in Up In Smoke’s most widely known scene can mellow out their potent hybrid of horn-dog perversion, undercooked stage schtick, and blithely offensive racial caricature.

Like so many of the creators behind the franchises appearing in this august column, Cheech and Chong built a cottage industry by establishing a devoted niche of fans and repeatedly giving them want they wanted until the margin between the budget and box-office got too skinny. The chronic comics struck (Acapulco) gold when they translated their stand-up act to the silver screen, discovering that they could piece together their most popular bits with a shaggy-dog plot for a few million dollars and their fans would keep coming back. Of the countless stoner stereotypes that they’d coin and reinforce over their eight star vehicles, “regular smokers as lazy” was the only one to extend from their onscreen roles to their ethic as filmmakers.

At first encounter, Cheech and Chong’s various scripted personae—fictionalized versions of themselves at times, fictionalized versions of themselves but with different names at others—seem to be eminently likable dudes across the board. They’re low-lifes, but always of a charming sort. When they’re formulating one of their many harebrained get-rich-quick schemes, it’s only ever in service of simpler and more universal pleasures down the road. The guys enjoy the finer things in life: sticky grass, good-to-go gals, rock ’n’ roll, and vegging out. Circumstances conspire against our bleary-eyed heroes, however, and they hoist themselves by their tie-dye petards as often as not. Just as the scare-quoted “Larry David” of Curb Your Enthusiasm vicariously delighted his audience by indulging his every whim for social impropriety, Cheech and Chong unquestioningly follow each half-formed thought that saunters into their gourds, usually leading to calamity.

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Cheech and Chong’s auspicious cinematic introduction in their debut film, Up In Smoke, plays like a sad time capsule of a dying counterculture. The Cheech & Chong act was born onstage at the most with-it comedy clubs of Southern California during the late ’60s, where flower children roared for the humorous songs (both “humorous” and “songs” being charitable language) and characters like hot-tempered schoolmarm Sister Mary Elephant. The duo steadily cranked out stand-up records through the ’70s, finally building the showbiz traction necessary to land a movie deal for release in 1978. What they couldn’t have realized is that their big break had arrived at the tail end of their era—that they were doubling down on the burnout hippie material just as it had started to grow stale.

The film cycle takes on a tragic dimension when viewed as a single work elapsing over time, and not just because you can actually watch Cheech’s hair vanish and lines start to crag across Chong’s face. These quixotic wasteoids must muddle through a world that no longer wants anything to do with them, hassled pretty much everywhere they try to lay their heads. (Though, of course, every film ends with a hasty resolution that ensures our boys come out on top, whether that means a happily-ever-after of a stripping career in one film, or porn stardom in another.) That it all begins with Chong getting kicked out of the house by his long-suffering parents, only to be picked up as a hitchhiker by Cheech in his chintzy hot rod, makes perfect sense: two men, placeless in the world, bombing down the highway in search of somewhere to go.

That first scene of the two men shooting the bull in Cheech’s pimped-out ride illustrates the basis of their comic appeal. They’re never better than when bouncing off one another, mishearing and free-associating in conversations that spiral in on themselves like samaras falling to the ground. They thrive on the chemistry that they had cultivated over the previous decade, with Cheech usually the more wound-up and paranoid of the two and Chong taking a sedated tone for contrast. Through a discursive back-and-forth that involves Chong revealing that they are in fact smoking a joint laced with dog feces, even a clearer-minded viewer can get a glimpse of the easy charm that endeared the pair to their faithful fan base.

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Up In Smoke sends “Man” (Chong) and Pedro De Pacas (Cheech) on a wayward L.A. odyssey that barely adheres to the dictates of basic logic and reason. The chiefest filmic success of the franchise at large—and this film in particular—is its adherence to a sort of stoned narrative style; the action ambles from one fiasco to another with little connective tissue, mimicking the creeping feeling of “wait, how’d I get here” that viewers in the know would recognize immediately. (Paul Thomas Anderson executed this perfectly with the barely lucid Inherent Vice, citing Up In Smoke as an influence.) Cheech and Chong are going to jail, until their case is thrown out because the judge was slugging vodka, then they’re at some tweaky dealer’s house, then they’re in the deserts outside Tijuana, and so on. The film really takes shape south of the border, when Cheech and Chong agree to unwittingly pilot a car made of a hardened THC resin similar to fiberglass back to the States, with police Sergeant Stedenko (Stacy Keach, veiny with rage) hot on their trail. Convoluted wrinkles of plot beget even more convoluted wrinkles of plot, all of which culminate in a battle of the bands that our cotton-mouthed heroes win after thick clouds of marijuana are piped into the venue. I can only presume that audiences at the time were willing to gloss over the glaring lapses in plot because they were preoccupied with how weird it feels to have hands.

Cheech And Chong’s Next Movie was Cheech and Chong’s next movie, their dogged lack of imagination seldom as amusing as in the self-reflexive title. Already they had begun to lose steam, recycling a joke in which one character tricks another into railing a line of powdered laundry soap. The main distinguishing feature of their sophomore effort was its decision to temporarily sideline the Cheech character and replace him with Dwayne ‘Red’ Mendoza, played by Marin in a crimped towhead wig. Aside from his billowing tresses, Red is fundamentally identical to his “kinda cousin” Cheech, a lateral move for the series; he likes to rock out and chase skirt, and of course he shares the family affinity for the herbal stuff. When Chong asks Red if he gets high, he responds by casually mentioning the 20-pound duffel bag of weed he has upstairs in his hotel room.

That’s where the bong water gets bubbling—the ill-tempered clerk (Paul Reubens, in an early onscreen appearance) has taken Red’s luggage hostage, and the following effort to frame him and retrieve the stash sets off another rambling journey for the partners-in-crime. This time, the locales have gotten seedier and the humor scuzzier, but only slightly; the two roll through a brothel, a record store patronized by nubile hotties, and a comedy club where they re-encounter the clerk, this time in character as Pee-Wee Herman. (Pee-Wee superfans will also be interested to know that Suzanne Kent, a.k.a. Mrs. Rene from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, makes a cameo appearance in the third film as a record executive who mistakes Chong for Jerry Garcia at a restaurant. Jambi The Genie, John Paragon himself, shows up all over the seventh film, too.) Next Movie doesn’t so much “conclude” as “collapse,” as aliens come to Earth to abduct Chong and gift him with mind-blowingly powerful “space coke” that turns him and Cheech into human spaceships, which then blast off into the cosmos. The Aristocrats!

The noxious fumes of hideously offensive stereotyping emanate most strongly from Nice Dreams and Things Are Tough All Over, twinned in their resolute lack of chuckles, or even basic human decency. Both films return to the tried-and-true template of “random series of events revolving around attempted hightailing to Easy Street”; Nice Dreams sees the guys chasing down a million-dollar windfall accidentally handed off to a coke-inhaling mental patient (once again, blessedly, Paul Reubens) and Things Are Tough All Over sends them on a cross-country errand in a limousine packed with cash. And while Nice Dreams can at least claim the distinction of ranking among the most mesmerizingly strange of the franchise—to wit, Stacy Keach’s police sergeant returns as a stoner gradually turning into an iguana, the middle third of the film is a sloppy sex farce, and Timothy Leary cameos as a doctor who doses our heroes with acid—these two films ultimately harsh any smoother vibes with unsavory lecherousness and old-school racism.

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Some of it is relatively harmless, such as Nice Dreams’ extended gag in which police choppers tailing Cheech and Chong get distracted by a few boob-baring sunbathers, and perhaps as a Mexican-American, Cheech has some kind of pass for the many Latino-directed cracks. But many of the queasier jokes blow right past the realm of “politically incorrect, albeit understandable as a product of the time” and into the register of “chilling.” Cheech and Chong pull double duty in Things Are Tough All Over as a pair of A-rab oil barons named Mr. Slyman and Prince Habib, complete with the expected, dreaded face-darkening makeup. In the nadir of Nice Dreams and the series as a whole, Cheech drags his longtime girlfriend Donna into her truck so that he can have a secluded spot to take advantage of her in her drunken state. When she passes out, a frustrated Cheech breaks the fourth wall and directly straw-polls the audience on whether he should rape an unconscious woman. He asks for a show of hands and apparently presumes the best, responding, “You honestly wouldn’t do it? For real? Ah, whatever, man.” He then leans out of frame, presumably to sexually assault her anyway. Nothing spoils a good high quite like an abrupt, weirdly conspiratorial, bloodcurdlingly premeditated rape scene.

Though they saved the blackface routine for Still Smokin, their fifth effort remains an improvement on the previous films under just about every vector of criticism. This film finds director Chong tentatively experimenting with form and structure, devoting the first half of the film to a comic mishap that sends the pair to Amsterdam for a Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds film festival, and then shooting the second half as a stand-up concert documentary. If stoner comedy has a Stop Making Sense, this would have to be it; there’s a winning sense of spontaneity to the grainy footage of Cheech and Chong’s onstage set, bouncing around the theater and employing the occasional distorted exposure to nod to their countercultural roots.

More exciting still, Still Smokin represents the series’ first effort to actually tussle with legitimate thematic concerns, forming cogent thoughts beyond a desire for the nearest bag of Lay’s. Most of the first half plays out as a Q&A between the esteemed European press and our dudes, affecting a Godardian aloofness as if they had just been kicked out of Cannes for taking bong rips in the bathroom of the Grand Palais. They deliver some strong one-liners (“A lot of people say we’re just in it for the drugs, but that’s true,” Cheech deadpans) and more than that, they confront their own growing public profile with more self-awareness than in the literally self-aware flourishes. They lampoon their own cult of celebrity, but there’s a genuine unease beneath the jokes as they reconcile the stardom they stumbled into with the enduring desire to remain a toasty slacker forever. Chong mutters that “responsibility’s a great responsibility, man” in Next Movie, and those words ring loud and clear over his semi-reluctant fame.

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Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers would be their last starring vehicle to see a theatrical release, and while they may not have realized it at the time, they went out in a blaze of glory. Looking to mix things up from the standard stoner schematic, they decided to offer their own take on Alexandre Dumas’ canonized French novel about a pair of conjoined twins who still feel one another’s pain and pleasure after they’re separated. Notable within the Cheech and Chong corpus as the only film not to revolve around the sale, acquisition, consumption, and celebration of marijuana, this shambolic period piece offers a glimpse into a dimension where the comedians never took up their signature gimmick. Without the thick cloud of smoke to obscure them, Cheech and Chong dare their audience to take them seriously as comic talents capable of mounting a vanity project on their own merits. The stately title card announcing “Directed by Thomas Chong” in handsome 19th-century script faintly resembles something like a challenge.

It’s a shame, then, that they lack the skill to hang this sharp left turn without skidding out of control. Like many of their weed jokes, their non-weed jokes are not especially funny, drawing on the bone-dry wells of adult-baby humor and scatology for laughs. As the two of them cut a swath of catastrophe though the most guillotine-happy days of the French Revolution, they return to the same dim-bulb punnery of their earlier films. When a stand-in for the Marquis De Sade drops by for some good-natured erotic torture, Cheech describes him as a “trisexual,” as in “he’ll try anything—blood, chickens, whatever.” The Corsican Brothers is an A-for-effort incarnate, a welcome departure from the series’ well-trod path that ultimately exposed the flimsiness of Cheech and Chong’s writing (though they shared screenwriting credit on that film with Cheech’s wife Darlene Morley, credited then as Rikki Marin).

Cheech premiered his first directorial effort, the 53-minute behind-the-scenes mockumentary Get Out Of My Room, as a supplement to the stand-up album of the same name. It is both Cheech and Chong’s This Is Spinal Tap and their Lemonade, in the same respect that actual lemonade and flat banana-flavored soda are both technically beverages. Four music videos accompany such indelible tunes as “Born In The U.S.A.” parody “Born In East L.A.” and the title track, a snarling anthem from Cheech’s Brit punk character Ian Rotten. Between them, Cheech and Chong get metatextual as they auto-chronicle their disastrous process of making the film, casting themselves as idealistic but ill-prepared artistes hobbled by the limits of their budget. Surreal marvels are scattered across the film like broken-down attractions in a derelict theme park: Elvira pops up for a brief cameo, John Paragon scrambles all over the backlot conducting manic interviews in a proto-Billy On The Street, and the whole shebang ends with a hallucinatory freakout involving gigantic eyeballs with legs.

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“Good rock ’n’ roll needs someone to say ‘That song sucks.’ And then it needs someone to say ‘I know it sucks, but I’m gonna keep playing it because the people who are buying it don’t know it sucks. And it’s gonna sell millions. If the song sucks, it’ll sell millions, that’s rock ’n’ roll.” That’s Chong during a candid moment in Get Out Of My Room, articulating precisely the sort of gutless and exacting thinking that begat the putrid 2013 cash-in Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie. The less said about this crude little thing, the better. Cheech and Chong formally split following the wrap on Get Out Of My Room so Cheech could devote his full energies to acting. He spun a feature out of “Born In East L.A.,” and while neither man was ever short on work, they gradually came to realize they were better off with one another. Apart from the old standby of “needing the money,” what other reason could have motivated them to reunite after nearly three decades just for a dashed-off cartoon about the travails of a genital crab? Maybe the option to literally phone in a performance?

The film’s lowlights reel reads like the brainstorming board for Movie 43; we’re treated to a protracted shot of a corn-studded turd slowly exiting a cartoon pooch’s anus, a farcical hostage situation that culminates in Cheech urinating on two innocent prisoners, and a digressive anecdote so gleefully anti-Semitic it could have been used as Nazi propaganda. (By the way, are we still referring to Nazis in the past tense?) The once-beloved entertainers clearly figured that there could be no better use for their big comeback than permanently eradicating whatever vestiges of goodwill still remained.

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In Nice Dreams, Chong fantasizes about opening an old-folks home for hippie stoners called Laidback Manor, asking, “What do you do when you get old? You get stoned, and you nod off.” Though their powerful strain of chilled-out bigotry doesn’t exactly court sympathy, a little melancholy creeps in when a viewer harboring strong self-destructive impulses decides to binge all eight over the course of a week and a half. Watching the years take their toll on the two men, seeing them grow obsolete before returning as desiccated cartoon imitations of their former selves—it’s all pretty heavy. Beyond the fact that these seminal stoner movies would make for killer anti-drug PSAs, that is the grandest irony of all: that watching the Cheech & Chong movies is an anxiety-producing and altogether draining experience, the sort that makes those inclined for all-natural relaxation reach for the nearest blunt, and the sweet release of a Planet Earth chaser.

Final ranking:
1. Up In Smoke (1978)
2. Still Smokin (1983)
3. Get Out Of My Room (1985)
4. Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (1984)
5. Cheech And Chong’s Next Movie (1980)
6. Things Are Tough All Over (1982)
7. Nice Dreams (1981)
8. Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie (2013)