When one thinks of The 1970’s, minds usually gravitate to images of Richard Nixon, Leisure Suits, Star Wars and Pet Rocks. The end of the Vietnam War and Watergate spurred increasing cynicism regarding authority and the government and this was reflected in pop culture – particularly in the cinema of the time. There are many types of film but the movies of The 1970’s itself could be a genre all its own. The films were bold, gritty, and daring, as was the humor. Out of era came a pair of comedians, who would not only make us laugh at the counterculture of the time, but push the boundaries of what we could laugh at. That duo was Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong.
In 1971, Cheech and Chong released their first comedy album and it was an instant hit. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Comedic Recording. The album gave birth to the characters of Pedro De Pacas and The Man – a pair of pot-smoking best friends who find themselves stumbling into many wild situations without realizing it. The success of this album, and the ones that followed, paved the way for a movie based on their humor. Taking up the roles of Pedro de Pacas and The Man once more, the two comedians fleshed out a script for what became of the biggest hits of 1978: Up In Smoke.
The film’s plot is a loose one, mainly acting as an excuse to shuffle Pedro and The Man from one wacky situation to the next, just like their routines on the albums. In the film, The Man (who we discover is actually named Anthony Stoner and from an affluent family) runs away from home due to his nagging parents. Along the way he meets up with Pedro de Pacas, who picks up The Man while he is hitchhiking, after mistaking him for a big-breasted woman. The two instantly hit it off due to their shared love of pot-smoking, but it also gets them arrested. However, their court case is thrown out due to The Man discovering the judge was drinking vodka while on the bench. What follows is a series of misadventures as they try to score more pot while avoiding the inept Officer Stadanko and trying to reach a Battle of the Bands concert to score a recording contract.
As I noted before, The 1970’s was a bold time for cinema. Humor was not as tolerant or PC as it is today, and it went in directions that might inspire awkward silence today rather than riotous laughter. Films like Blazing Saddles, Animal House and The Jerk are prime examples of comedies of the era that would not be made today because of modern attitudes and Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke is another one of these movies. From throwaway jokes like an Asian reporter being named Toyota Kawasaki to jokes about Vietnam Veterans with PTSD, some of the humor in this film has not aged well. Despite this, I still found myself laughing a fair bit.
This was largely due to the chemistry between Cheech and Chong. There is a reason these two were as huge as they were in The 1970’s and The early 1980’s. Their comedy was bold and unapologetic, making us question what could be seen as funny. They were not afraid to make fun of the stereotypes of their own races (Hispanic and Asian) or the stoners who were their biggest fans. Their comedy is so well-timed that you question whether or not they are working off of a script or just letting it flow freely.
Stacy Keach and Zane Buzby also help deliver the laughs in their roles. Keach plays Officer Stadanko (another character from the albums) and is hilarious in his portrayal of an inept cop who has taken up the war on drugs as his personal mission from God. Buzby plays the role of Jade East – a girl the pair pick up after seeing her and her friend hitchhiking. East is the ultimate hippie chick – a human incarnation of Janice from The Muppets only even more stoned out of her gourd. Buzby manages the impossible opposite Cheech and Chong, stealing every scene she is in.
As I mentioned before, there are some situations in this movie that are uncomfortable to watch today. From nuns enjoying being felt up by the police officers who mistake them for drug smugglers to a guy purposely calling immigration on himself to be deported so as to attend a family wedding in Mexico, some may find it hard to laugh at these situations. The film is a product of its’ time but also a reminder of how ridiculous life can be, especially in regards to The United States’ “War On Drugs.”
For this reason, I can’t give Up In Smoke a full “five Os”, despite enjoying it. The plain truth is this film has not aged as well as Cheech and Chong‘s next movie – the appropriately named Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. A rare sequel better than the original, it is still as hilarious as it was when released in 1980.
With that said, Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke deserves to be celebrated for its’ 40th anniversary. Without Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong leading the way, we would not have later-day stoner comedy classics like Half Baked or Pineapple Express. One of the main purposes of comedy is to make us think while we laugh and – for better or worse -this film still does that when it comes to showing us how ridiculous the idea of treating marijuana smokers as dangerous criminals can be.