The world was a more innocent place when Tommy Chong and his partner, Cheech Marin, reigned as the comedic icons of the hippie movement. Cheech and Chong taught a generation of baby-boomers how to laugh at themselves. Though that “marriage” split in 1985, Tommy Chong continues to tour, reminding people that humor helps keep our troubles in perspective.
“Dave’s not here.”
For the past 12 years, Chong’s partner has been his wife, Shelby, a comedienne in her own right. Tommy Chong and Shelby, frequently an SRO show, features classic Cheech and Chong humor but has been updated. For one thing, Cheech and Chong never danced salsa, merenge and tango.
“I used to use humor when I wasn’t getting laid (by my wife),” Chong says. “Then I found out if I was funny at the right time, I would get laid. Now it doesn’t matter how funny I am; I have to pay to get laid…pay the wife of course.”
Cheech and Chong recorded seven gold comedy albums, including the 1974 Grammy winner Los Cochinos. They also starred in seven films, most of which Chong co-wrote and directed. Their film debut, Up In Smoke, was the top-grossing movie of 1978 and has grossed more than $100 million to date. After the duo split up, Chong directed and appeared in Far Out Man (1990) and Best Buds (2003). Chong has continued to be active in the film and TV industry, not only as an actor but frequently as writer, director and producer (see filmography). Younger fans will recognize him as Leo from That 70s Show, a role he played from 2001 to 2006.
Shelby studied acting at the JoAnne Barton Acting School in Santa Monica. She first hooked up with Chong on the big screen in Nice Dreams, in which she played a blonde body builder. She was also the sexy Fifi in Things Are Tough All Over and the princess in The Corsican Brothers. She went on to appear in several other feature films, as well as television and theater. She has appeared on HBO, Comedy Central, E!, the Howard Stern Show and Oprah! She was recently chosen by More magazine as one of America’s most age-defying women over 40.
Chong was forced to take a hiatus from That 70s Show in 2003 when he was arrested on drug paraphernalia charges as the result of two federal sting operations. While most of the 55 people charged faced fines and home detentions, Chong was sentenced on Sept. 11, 2003, to nine months in federal prison and about $120,000 in fines. He pleaded guilty in exchange for non-prosecution of his wife and son. His detention caused an uproar among his fans and sparked a Free Tommy Chong! movement.
“Free Tommy Chong? It was a nice thought and a few people tried, but like most pot-fueled events it was a great party and a so-so fundraiser,” Chong quips. “In fact, if they raised enough money to pay for the party it was considered a success.”
AKA Tommy Chong — a documentary written and directed by filmmaker Josh Gilbert about the legal battle and jail time — premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also won Jury prize and Audience Favorite at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. He published a book about the ordeal as well. The I-Chong: Meditations from the Joint made the New York Times extended Best Sellers List and the Los Angeles Times Best Sellers List (#10).
Tommy Chong was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on May 24, 1938, to Stan Chong (Chinese) and Jean (Scots-Irish). When he was a child, his family moved to Calgary, to a neighborhood Chong refers to as the Dog Patch. Stan Chong bought a $500 house in Dog Patch and raised his family on $50 a week.
“Dogpatch was where Lil Abner was from. I called the place where I lived Dogpatch because it was just outside the building inspectors’ route. Anyone could build anything they wanted and live in it. Pretty rural outhouses and tarpaper shacks.”
Chong started playing guitar at age 11, and when he was 18 formed Canada’s first R&B band called The Shades. The Shades was a popular act in Canada for seven years. Chong went on to form Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, which became Motown’s first racially mixed band. Chong wrote the band’s only hit, “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” which climbed to #29 on the US pop chart and #5 on the US R&B chart in 1967.
Shortly after Chong left the Vancouvers, he met Cheech Marin in 1969. They formed a comic duo, moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is counterculture history. Chong became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in the late 1980s.
Chong has five children: actress Rae Dawn and actress/producer Robbi Keene from his first marriage; actress/comedienne Precious Burger and sons Paris and Gilbran, both musicians, from his marriage to Shelby.