Lou Adler is a legendary American producer and director who started out in music, producing groups like The Mama’s & The Papas, and winning Grammy’s for his work with Carole King. His next project would be producing a film called The Rocky Horror Picture Show and after that, Shock Treatment.
Finding equal success in both movie and music production, Adler then decided to dip his toes in management, with his first clients being comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Soon after he would make his directorial debut with Cheech and Chong’s first feature, Up In Smoke, which was just the beginning of Adler’s relevance in marijuana culture. Today, he’s considered one of 420’s greatest pioneers. If you don’t know Lou Adler from his merits in the entertainment business, then maybe you’ll recognize him as the guy who sits next to Jack Nicholson at the Laker Games.
Conducting the interview is his son Cisco, who himself has found success in all musical endeavors (Whitestarr, Shwayze and now founder of Bananabeat Records). Read below as the two hash out their memories of growing up on weed, with a witting analysis of the entertainment business through the eyes of a father and son.
What’s up everyone, clappin’ over here with my Dad, Lou Adler. We’re in Malibu, California and it’s not everyday you get to interview your father, and it’s definitely not everyday you get to interview your father about marijuana, so I’m gona take the liberty. How you doin’?
Pretty good, I just wanted to check on immunity before…
Really, we’re not talking about marijuana, we’re talking about marijuana culture. A lot of people may not know you directed Up In Smoke, which I think definitely added to marijuana culture as we know it.
Certainly from a film aspect, because the film did very well and attracted a broader audience than just the cult, so it spread across the board.
Yeah, super interesting, and a lot of people don’t know that you also managed them as comedians previous to that, correct?
Produced them and managed them and they were on my label.
So they also made albums?
Yeah, for about seven years before we made the film.
And what year did you start working for them
Put out the first album maybe midway through ‘72 and then made the film in 1978.
Were they the only comedians of the time dealing with that or was it more prevalent?
I think the only ones sort of dealing with it at that time. There were probably more; George Carlin did some, Richard Pryor did some.
But they were known primarily as a stony duo?
So at the time it was definitely on the forefront of marijuana culture. But how was the initial reaction, maybe not to the cult, but to the people who didn’t smoke at the time? It just spread?
By the time we got to Texas, I had previewed the film in three different cities: Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston—just to get a sort of a cross section on what was going on, not only with the comedians but with the so-called “pot culture.”
Right. And Texas was notoriously strict?
Yeah, San Antonio gave us more of a Hispanic element, Dallas was more upscale, and Houston was sort of right in between and on the edge musically. But it exploded in all three places.
What was Paramount’s take on it when you went to pitch the idea?
A Chinaman and a Mexican doing pop and all—that’s the reaction. Even when we started with the albums, that was the reaction, both from the record company and initially the radio. What we decided from the very beginning was to not carry any flag for marijuana, just put it out as comedy and let people get what they wanted from it. It they wanted to smoke a joint while watching the movie, it was up to them, but you could laugh without doing it.
It’s definitely something that has permeated popular culture and as a kid it’s always interesting when someone finds out your dad directed Up In Smoke. What was your first introduction to marijuana? And what was the culture like at that time?
Well I grew up in East LA, Royal Heights area, which is sort of a melting pot or was at the time. The basketball team I played on, there was a Jew, a Mexican, a Russian, a Japanese, and a Black guy. That was pretty much the area. But when I was 11 or 12 I discovered marijuana because it grew all around our school and it smelled all around our school because guys were taking lunch breaks and smoking grass.
What was it like then—was it completely illegal?
If you wanted to buy a joint, which was 50 cents, you’d have to go to Evergreen Playground late at night, after it was dark, and sneak around ‘til you saw a dealer, and then you made the exchange—50 cents for a joint.
Until recently—with the collectives and how everything’s becoming legalized and medical—everyone’s always had to go on the corner to get their marijuana, it was an illegal criminal activity. I don’t know what your take on the collectives and legalization is, it’s a very different world now, you go to a store and have your choice—it’s like a liquor store. Obviously it should have been legalized a long time ago. All the people they put in jail for one joint or some grass…now that it’s legal and they understand it better, they ought to let ‘em all go. And it’s a class action lawsuit.
Right. I recall there was a stripper by the name of Candy Bar who used to play at the Largo (which was the Roxy before it was the Roxy) and she was always on the marquee. She was a beautiful young girl, maybe 23-years-old—she was busted in Texas and paid 15 years for a joint.
Yeah I mean, what do you do now?
Let ‘em all go!
So that was the ‘50s when you started making music. How early in your career did you meet Cheech and Chong?
I met them in 1971 at the Troubadour, not at a show but at a hootenanny.
What’s a hootenanny?
It’s a folk term, a bunch of folkies getting together and singing. Because it was the Troubadour it was called a hootenanny, but this was comedy acts, rock acts, everything.
So like a mini festival almost?
Yeah, somebody in the bar said, “You better catch this act, they’re really funny, they’re called Cheech and Chong,” and I was with my lawyer at the time, who will remain nameless. When I went in, they were on the stage on their knees going around in circles smelling each others’ butts because they were doing their dog act. And I turned to him and said, “I think I want to record them,” and he looked at me like I was nuts.
That’s amazing. And you still work with them to this day?
Yeah, we just did an animated movie.
And how has the culture affected how the movie is perceived over time?
Well the catalog continues to sell because it’s funny. They’re funny guys. They’re real comedians. And Tommy through the years has fought for legalization; he’s continued that fight and it came to pass which is important.
Do you think it’s affected how people think of them as comedians? ‘Cuz they’re geniuses in their own right, weed aside.
I don’t think they’ve ever thought of it, just in the last three or four years they’re gaining that sort of respect.
And that’s probably because in the last three or four years the marijuana movement has come above ground. Now it’s on prime time sitcoms. I remember when saying “bitch” on TV was a big thing, now they talk about marijuana—there’s Weeds.
Going back to when you put out the first album, it couldn’t really get radio time. You were breaking them like singles, right? Is it the same when you break out comedy?
No, it was as an album. But in order to publicize it, we couldn’t buy radio time, we put it on buses, we put it anywhere that we could get out.
And it came out what year?
And it’s funny because you think of the ‘60s and ‘70s as so pot friendly and everyone smoking weed and being naked and free.
Yeah, but that was a small segment of society.
And obviously California…
Yeah, well California was on the forefront.
It’s so wild they debuted it in Texas.
Well they’re still doing things like that in Texas.
And didn’t you open up for Bob Marley?
One of the first shows that Marley did in the United States he did at the Roxy, and Cheech and Chong was the opening act, and they just kept on saying, “Say something funny, say something funny.” That was basically what they wanted to hear because, you know, they were smoking joints.
You did Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke, and Fabulous Days, which is sort of about punk culture and subculture. You tend to work on projects that, I don’t know if you realize while you’re making them, but in retrospect are very important and about emerging movements.
Yeah, I’m pretty much locked into popular culture, and sometimes it’s popular with me before it’s popular with everyone else. But I sort of fell into directing Up In Smoke because there was another director and Tommy and Cheech hated him, and the guy at Paramount says “You’re the managerial one, why don’t you try directing?”
Did you know when you were making it that it was gonna be such a hit?
I don’t think you can know when you’re making it, especially with cult films.
But you had to know some people were saying you were crazy and whatnot.
I think people got over that after a little while.
I think a lot of people might ask this question: was everyone stoned on set?
There was a lot of smoking going on. Never enough to interfere with making the movie, I mean they’re professionals; we’re there to make a movie. And we made it in a short amount of time—I think we had a 42-day schedule and the film cost $800,000.
At the time, how was that budget in relation to today?
We were low; the average film was probably 20-25 million.
It was a hit right out of the gate?
It made 150 million.