Comedy icon revisits his intoxicating journey from South Central to superstardom
By Joe Piasecki
On the cover of his just-published memoir “Cheech Is Not My Real Name … But Don’t Call Me Chong,” comedy and pot culture icon Robert Anthony Marin is smashing a piñata caricature of his old stoner stage persona — the hapless Mexican hippy with an oversized mustache exploding in a shower of lollipops, Chiclets and big fat doobies.
The live-action Cheech, now 70, has a lot less hair but a lot more joy on his face. Dave’s not here, man.
“It’s just to break out of that stereotypical image or thought of what I can or can’t do in a graphic way,” he explains. “And also I had a deal with the piñata industry that they paid for it. You gotta work it from all angles, you know.”
Marin, whose father worked as an LAPD patrolman, begins his tale in the Canadian Rockies. It’s 1968, and he’s a 22-year-old Vietnam War resister dodging the draft — a native of South Central L.A. straight out of San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge), hunting and fishing and chopping wood to survive. Later, Marin meets a guy trying to start an improvisational theater company in a Vancouver topless bar. That was Tommy Chong and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cheech and Chong recorded chart-topping comedy albums, broke cultural barriers and invented the stoner comedy movie before the partnership went up in smoke. Marin contends that Chong’s impulse to control the duo’s creative direction as a writer/director was in large part to blame: “I didn’t necessarily want to be in control. I just didn’t want to be controlled,” he writes.
Marin saw the rising cache of MTV and went solo in 1984 with the parody song “Born in East L.A.” (Chong passed on the project). Three years later he turned the concept into a feature film, and parlayed that into decades of film and television roles. Marin has also emerged as one of the world’s leading advocates for and collectors of Chicano art, his palatial Pacific Palisades home resembling a private art museum.
On Thursday, he discusses his memoir with L.A. Times culture writer Carolina A. Miranda at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
How many kids from your original neighborhood made it out?
I don’t know how many, but some. I run into people every once in a while who say, “I’m from South Central too.” It’s a funny thing, because when you’re talking to people who come from that area they go [deepens his voice], ‘Oh yeah, where?’ I go, ‘36th and San Pedro.’ They go, ‘Oh, OK.’ That’s in the middle of it all. There’s nothing said after that.
You write that moving to the Valley got you away from violence and poverty, Catholic school gave you sanctuary from racial discrimination, and college exposed you to the ideas that made you a star. What do you think was the turning point in your life?
Probably the biggest turning point at that time of my life was going to Catholic school and learning the love of learning. That’s essential. It predicated everything — set everything else in motion. My cousins Louie and Lollie and Ritchie and I, we were anomalies: Chicano working-class kids who became, in some ways, academics. Being bright and getting good grades became the priority.
How did the people around you inspire this love of learning?
They had an agenda, and that was a liberal arts education — from the time I was in the fourth grade. There were no excuses. You had to learn all these subjects. And because my cousins were involved, it became a family thing. We had a very smart family. Very funny, too. Everybody was quick-witted, and if you wanted to get any time at the dinner table, boy, you had to have your stuff together. Also, the prevailing attitude was you were going to go to college. It was not a matter of, “Gee, I hope.” It was “You are going to college.” There wasn’t any argument. So we all did.
So Catholic school discipline leads eventually to “Up in Smoke”?
Really. [Laughs.] Absolutely, you know. The frame of my Catholic education — and they kept reiterating this throughout my education — is that Catholic education teaches you how to think. Only don’t think that. [Laughs.]
Your journey may seem like a series of lucky coincidences, but it reads to me like you were creating opportunity along the way by following your instincts.
That is absolutely the central guiding principle of my life. You get hit by dumb luck by standing in the middle of a crossroads in a fluorescent suit, waving your arms. There is no dumb luck. You prepare yourself for any opportunity that might come your way. You don’t kind of luck into something and then learn on the job.
I’m a Chicano. I have to have three jobs at all times. [Laughs.] That was always instilled in me. It was always a great way to learn, and most of all it was opportunity. Every kind of go-getter I ever met in my life always had that same aspect of his personality: Need a carpenter? I can do that. Need a bricklayer? I can do that. Need a genius? I can do that.
What do you think of YouTube and other new media that let artists and entertainers create without having to be discovered, but can also make it harder for them to earn a living?
It’s always been hard for artists to make a living, regardless of how they come up. But now there’s more opportunity to use your particular knowledge of a field to create a space for yourself. We’re in a situation now where we have 1,000 platforms and each platform gets, you know, 10 eyeballs. Before, there were three platforms and each platform got a million eyeballs.
We’re speaking a different language. Just the whole creation of this technological society; how we live in this information age. You’re not a tenant farmer or a sharecropper or a laborer, you deal in information. That seems to be the most valuable thing right now. It’s interesting, all these theories about the Russians interfering in the election. That’s the new warfare: We don’t need an atomic bomb; we can destabilize your government.
Somebody’s going to have to drive the buses, till the crops and cook the meals, but increasingly manual labor is a thing of the past. Trump can promise everybody ’til the cows come home that we’re going to bring the coalminers back, but he’s not bringing them back because there are no jobs to go back to.
You write that trying marijuana opened your mind to ask “What else have they been lying about?”
It was the start of the Baby Boomer rebellion. We were coming out of the era of the man in the gray flannel suit. World War II veterans, all they wanted was stability. They had seen the worst things that can happen — mayhem that was a shock to their soul — and all they wanted to do was have a family. They insisted that their kids have those same values, but their kids just didn’t, because they were listening to a new language, too, and they were talking back to the government.
What do you think of today’s generation and the current resistance to Trump?
Because of the internet and being able to talk to people all over the world simultaneously, they serve as a blocking mechanism for any horrible stuff that comes up. You see people in the streets all the time. Since Trump got elected — I’m not a big fan, but some are — the only defense is to oppose him at every inch. Keep him up to ass in alligators at all times. Which is what’s happening.
Did you ever imagine marijuana would be legal?
I thought it would be legal. Lenny Bruce, when he was active in standup, said something like “pot will be legal because all the lawyers I know smoke it.” [Laughs.] And that’s right. It’s inevitable. It’s like a lava flow. You can stand in front of it, I just wouldn’t recommend it. And the new administration backed off of [plans to crack down on marijuana use] right away. They’re not going to go up against 32 states receiving income from it — taxes that go to education — while at the same time proclaiming they’re states’ rights advocates. The ability to use their contradictions against them is there — just go online and find out everything they’ve said since the fourth grade.
Do you think pot culture and the comedy that surrounds it is as powerful now that marijuana has gone mainstream?
It’s not illegal, so it doesn’t have that aura around it … powering the underground. You don’t have to sneak around. But it does affect individual rights, and it signals a change of socially accepted intoxicants for our generation and probably generations to come. And it has also medicinal qualities. I haven’t heard any arguments for medical beer lately.
When you were a kid, your LAPD officer dad threatened to “break your neck” if you ever smoked pot. How did he feel about Cheech and Chong?
By that time he was just glad I had a job, you know. … But cops loved us. We cracked them up. So this concept that it was The Man against us — if they wanted to they could arrest you, but we never got any bad vibes from cops. They were our biggest fans. They had a sense of humor.
Even the “lardass” bit from “Up in Smoke”?
[Laughs.] Lardass. [Laughs.]
With the current focus on immigration, have you thought about relaunching “Born in East L.A.”?
Yeah, it’s coming up on its 30th anniversary, and there’s still the same problem. Any administration we’ve ever had, whether it’s Trump or Obama or anybody who preceded them, has to come to the realization that Mexicans are our allies and not our enemies. You’re never going to unweave these two countries. Mexicans are part of the fabric of the United States. The cooperation and aesthetic of that association will always remain. In the future we’re going to have, I think, the North American continent as one entity. Canada, the United States and Mexico. And maybe even Central America. And we’ll be much stronger for it.
It’s ridiculous, this xenophobia. It’s the last gasp of uneducated white people in the tar pits. [Laughs.]
Well they are in the White House right now, or at least people exploiting that.
They’re in that part of the media, where you have to wonder about the intelligence of the electorate. I mean, there’s plenty of people who voted for Trump because they just wanted a job, and he promises them he’s going to get them a job. But they didn’t sign up for all the other shit, which is now coming out. People are trying to make policy on that and … there’s a basis of it that’s racist, and there’s a basis of it that has a certain economic philosophy — I get everything, you get nothing. That is not going to be good for the American public. But they watch TV, and Trump was on TV for 12 years with “you’re fired.”
It’s not just all of a sudden you get an anomaly where everybody falls asleep for a second and a guy like Trump gets elected. And it’s not particularly just his policies, which I find abhorrent, it’s his personality. He could be delivering the Sermon on the Mount and people would walk away saying, ‘What an A-hole!” [Laughs.] The people I talk to who voted for him say they wish he’d just shut up, because he has the most obnoxious personality, and he’s our president. It just makes me ashamed and embarrassed.
As a collector of and advocate for Chicano art, how do you define Chicano identity?
The classical interpretation, in its early stage, was a Mexican-American with a defiant political attitude. But originally the term was an insult by Mexicans to other Mexicans who were living in the United States, the concept being that Mexicans in the United States were no longer truly Mexicanos; they were something smaller, they were something less, they were chicos, the were chicas; satellite Mexicans. But my father, who died 1993, always called himself a Chicano because he was “other.” I think the definition has widened as we go forward, and I don’t think you necessarily have to a Mexican to be a Chicano. I think it includes all the Central Americans and the Mexicans and maybe some South Americans, because they are “other” with a common urban experience. There’s a lot of Chicanos who don’t know Honduras is not Mexico.
What do you look for in art?
I collect paintings. Obviously there’s a message or something when you see a painting — a philosophy or an idea — but for me it has to be well-painted. It’s like, I love singers, but if this guy can’t carry a tune he’s not for me. And all these kids coming up, they’re university and/or art school trained. Prestigious art schools.
Like Otis College of Art and Design?
I have a doctorate from Otis — it’s honorary, from doing the commencement exercise one year. I’m trying to turn it where I can write myself prescriptions, but that doesn’t seem to work.
I’m sure if you go down to the Venice Boardwalk they’ll let you write any prescription you want.
There you go. America, f**k yeah!
What do you think about art galleries being at the center of gentrification conflicts in Boyle Heights?
Let the kids make art. Gentrification is going to happen, wherever it is. It happened to the San Fernando Valley. People are expanding and looking for cool places to live. Those people who live in those neighborhoods, they have some kind of identification with the history and the people who [already] live there and the traditions that come up. I think the gallery deal is a tempest in a teapot. You want art to be shown.
I think people are worried about it coming from outside the community.
Then show artists from inside the community. I know some artists who were in those galleries and didn’t know what to think, because they wanted to have their art shown, you know. And they thought they were good because they were doing it in a neighborhood gallery. Now there’s a rule you have to be, I don’t know, 73% Chicano or something. …
You’ve talked about your early comedy as Chicano art.
Cheech and Chong — we were dangerous because of our humbleness, I guess. We were insignificant to some people, so we got away with a lot.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing this book of essays on the Latino experience in the streets. It’s called, ‘We Come in Peace … and We Have You Surrounded.” I’m also writing a novella about a kid named Hector who belongs to the world’s smallest minority: He’s a Mexican vegetarian.
Are you a vegetarian?
No, God, that’s my worst nightmare.
Do you still get star-struck like in the early days?
I liked meeting Snoop Dogg; he was cool. But today, not much. I don’t get like, “Whoa, they’re from another planet.”
A friend wants me to ask you about your work with director Robert Rodriguez.
The scene in front of the bar [in “From Dusk ‘till Dawn”]? … How that came about is Robert asked me to come in because they were going to read the script. Harvey Keitel was there and Quentin [Tarantino] was there, but there weren’t a lot of other people, so they asked me to read a bunch of parts.
With that part, I didn’t even have to look at the paper. I had seen that guy since I was, I don’t know, a little kid. Every bar in Tijuana had [a version of] that guy in front of it saying exactly the same thing. So I winged it, man, and it was exactly that. And Harvey Keitel, Mr. Tough Guy, was laughing his ass off the whole time. [Laughs.] That cracked me up. By the time I got home, there was a message on my machine that they wanted me to do all three parts.
I’m Chicano. Gotta have three jobs.