August 1971: Cheech and Chong's First Puff

Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong
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Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Years before they took a few hits on the big screen, Cheech & Chong honed their comedic talents as a duo on record, starting with a self-titled debut that sprouted into record stores at the end of the summer of 1971.

The duo had already known each other for a few years: L.A.-born Richard "Cheech" Marin encountered Tommy Chong in his native Canada while avoiding the draft. The duo bonded over a love of music (Chong had played guitar in The Vancouvers, who were briefly signed to Motown), comedy and cannabis. The pair quickly developed malleable stage routines that were largely riffs on that latter interest: the pair bumbled through situations, heavy on grass and light on short-term memory. One classic example was the saga of "Dave," Cheech's urgent dealer character knocking on the door of Chong's pad to be let in before the cops catch him with his wares. "Dave's not here!" was Chong's laconic reply, eternally unaware of who he was speaking to.

Two years removed from Woodstock, the first Cheech & Chong album underlined that recreational drug use was increasingly just another facet of life - incorporated into the album's riffs and vignettes on Vietnam, traffic stops and radio advertisements. (You might not have always needed to be under the influence to have a good time with their material...but it certainly didn't hurt.) Moreover, Cheech & Chong stood out as a pair of non-white comedians. Far from Bob Newhart's buttoned-down mind or Bill Cosby's patriarchal musings, and before Black voices like Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx started permeating the culture of stand-up, Marin's Chicano stylings and the laconic drawl of the Chinese/Scotch-Irish Chong represented a diversifying of the comedy scene, giving non-white audiences someone to root for.

Cheech & Chong proved to be a striking success for a comedy album, certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America and cracking the Top 40 of the Billboard 200. But in retrospect, its success was quaint: their next three albums reached the Top 5 of the chart, earning a Grammy Award (for 1973's Los Cochinos) and spinning off a Top 10 hit in "Earache My Eye." And of course, by the end of the '70s, they were taking their talents to the silver screen, earning a different type of green and finessing the stoner comedy concept.

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