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Lake Effect At 10: Tommy Chong on Life in Prison and 'The Man'

Morten Skogly

Lake Effect is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and to celebrate we're bringing back some of our favorite interviews from that first year on air.

On the first day of Lake Effect 10 years ago, producer Bonnie North chatted with comedian Tommy Chong. Chong was in town to perform in a limited run of the Marijuanalogues, and had recently published his book, The I Chong, in which he reflects on his time in prison. 

"Jail was the defining moment in my life. It was a very special time; it was a very special event that I thoroughly enjoyed. I had one bad half hour the whole time, one bad half hour. In fact, my lawyer couldn't believe how upbeat I was after I got sentenced... To me it was like I was destined to do this; this was destiny," says Chong.

Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in a federal prison in 2003, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia. Chong was part of the financing and promotion of his son's business, Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, which sold bongs and water pipes. 

"What happens when you go to jail is you connect with your inner self. I mean, that's the whole process, is to correct your attitude because that's what got you in there," says Chong. "And even though my bust was political in every sense of the word, it was still my attitude that needed correcting." 

"We call him 'Man' cause Cheech and I used to go, 'Hey man,' 'What's up, man?' or, 'You know, man.' Sometimes we'd have to do 'manectomies' in the records, we got too many mans in there."

Chong says that while his attitude might not be exactly what caused him to go to prison (he maintains that his arrest was politically motivated), he feels his time in prison made him a better person. "I learned humble in jail, and I didn't learn it because I went to jail. I learned it because while I was in jail, I had a smart mouth; you know, I'm a comedian and I'm a celebrity, so I used to kind of take advantage of it," he says. 

The comedian's most memorable character is undoubtedly the hippie-stoner known simply as, 'Man.'

"We call him 'Man' cause Cheech and I used to go, 'Hey man,' 'What's up, man?' or, 'You know, man.' Sometimes we'd have to do 'manectomies' in the records, we got too many mans in there," says Chong. 'Man' is actually based on a person Chong met while he was living and working in Canada. 

Credit William Morris Agency / Wikimedia
Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong in 1972.

"I met this kid on the street in Vancouver, he was beautiful. Long, red hair; you know, that thick red hair and a long coat. And he was sitting on a bag of garbage, like a big gold bag. He was under a street lamp and it was at night in Vancouver and the snow was coming down really gentle, and it looked like he had a halo around him," says Chong. "He's sitting there and he's stoned on acid. And he goes, 'Hey maaan, can you help me out?' I say, 'What's up?' 'I got nowhere to stay tonight, man.' And he's smiling."

"He says, 'I need some money. I need something, just give me anything, maaan.' And so I say, 'What's your name?' 'Strawberry,'" says Chong. He invited Strawberry to live in his club in Vancouver. Strawberry moved in and started working there as the lighting man, and the 'Man' was born. 

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.