On the Vaudeville of Cheech and Chong


This may surprise you (or maybe it won’t) but when I was a kid I had the 1974 single (a single!) of Cheech and Chong’s routine “Earache My Eye” backed with “Turn That Thing Down”. I must have played it a hundred times, sang and talked along with it, memorized it, internalized it, then imitated it. Did all that without understanding a word of it! I had the single and loved it not because I sought it out, but because it happened my way. I was exposed to a lot of music and comedy that way. I bought records at neighborhood yard sales without knowing what was on them and then went home and played them. It was simply an earlier, cruder process of what kids do today, which is stumble over new things when surfing the Internet.

At any rate, Cheech and Chong are not the most intellectual things in the world, but they were very savvy in filling a gap. I have written elsewhere about the “last comedy teams”…Rowan and Martin, Allen and Rossi, and the Smothers Brothers. Then, Nichols and May, Stiller and Meara, and Burns and Shreiber represented a new wave of teams of sketch comedy actors. Cheech and Chong were yet a third wave, a sort of post-modern mix of both ideas. With Cheech Marin playing a stereotypical Mexican, and Chong as his hippie stoner partner, the team put a modern, updated twist on the old vaudeville two man formula. A friend recently attended an event in LA where Chong apparently spoke and talked about his enthusiasm for the Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello and other old time comedy franchises. And the comedy album, the medium that Cheech and Chong mastered, seems in every way the obvious successor to the radio comedy that had gotten shunted aside when sit-coms and variety shows moved to television, and radio switched to an all music format.

Then, when the team started making films in 1978, you could see obvious parallels with Hope and Crosby, and Abbott and Costello, etc. With the obvious difference that…Cheech and Chong’s movies aren’t very good. The team wrote them themselves, and Chong directed four of them, and, well, the guys could have used a little schoolin’. And when they tried to expand their range with The Corsican Brothers (1985), the result was even worse. But I think Cheech drew the wrong conclusion by going solo after that. Martin Scorsese used the team brilliantly in his 1985 film After Hours by weaving them in and out of the story in smaller roles as a pair of burglars. Abbott and Costello had been best used the same way in their first movie One Night in the Tropics and were similarly better served with that approach than trying to make their characters carry a feature length story. You can stick such comedy teams in anything — the funny characters in Shakespeare’s sub-plots are my favorite example — and they will work brilliantly. Trying to get them to carry a feature seems to me a silly mistake, at least from the critical point of view. But, hey, it if it sells tickets, it sells tickets.

And now, here it is! I haven’t listened to it in…a long time. God, the glam parody is hilarious:

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleincluding new vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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