A/k/a Tommy Chong

In a career spanning five decades, Tommy Chong has twice had the dubious honor of serving as a cultural barometer for troubled times. Most famously, he was one half Cheech and Chong, the satirical, pot-smoking Grammy-winning comedy duo whose humor captured the turned on, tuned out and far-too-stoned-to-really-care zeitgeist of the comfortably numb 1970s....read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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In a career spanning five decades, Tommy Chong has twice had the dubious honor of serving as a cultural barometer for troubled times. Most famously, he was one half Cheech and Chong, the satirical, pot-smoking Grammy-winning comedy duo whose humor captured the turned on, tuned out and far-too-stoned-to-really-care zeitgeist of the comfortably numb 1970s. Then in May 2003, at a time when one would think the justice department would have had it hands full fighting George W. Bush's war on terror, the 65-year-old Chong came to symbolize a national nightmare: the law-abiding businessman victimized by a paranoid government on a misguided moral crusade against its own citizens. In the early morning hours of February 24, a 10-man SWAT team, helicopters and all, descended on Chong's Pacific Palisades home as part of "Operation Pipe Dreams," a massive search-and-seizure offensive aimed at taking down purveyors of drug paraphernalia. In addition to Chong's home, the feds also raided the headquarters of Chong Glass, seizing the entire stock of pipes, bongs and related paraphernalia Chong had been selling over the Internet. Chong and his staff, which included his son, Paris Chong, had been very careful not to ship any of their products to states where selling such smoking paraphernalia was prohibited by law, but that didn't stop Mary Beth Buchanan — an ambitious U.S. attorney from Pennsylvania whose career got a boost when United flight 93 crashed in her district — from trying to further her career by busting a celebrity. Through methods that could only be called entrapment, Buchanan's team spent eight months badgering Chong Glass into shipping a huge order of pipes to Beaver Falls, Penn. Chong Glass finally relented, and the upshot of this ridiculous tale is that Tommy Chong wound up spending nine months in a minimum security prison outside of Bakersfield, Calif. Filmmaker Josh Gilbert followed Chong and his wife, Shelby, through the weeks leading up to Chong's incarceration and tells this story with as much sobriety as once can muster in the face of such Kafka-esque absurdity. Gilbert also reconstructs Chong's childhood as an Asian-American teenager in the Pacific Northwest, his early career as a Motown recording artist — Tommy and the Vancouvers, anyone? — and the early days of performing with Cheech Marin in a Vancouver strip club, where together they created a kind of underground comedy/burlesque out of sheer necessity. Throughout his ordeal, Chong maintains an almost Zen-like calm, and the irony of the whole situation is that in trying to make an example out of Tommy Chong, the U.S. Justice Department might have only succeeded in turning him into a folk hero. Moreover, they've helped make pot smoking once again seem a perfectly valid response to such troubling times.

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