Ever since Cheech & Chong first took to the screen in the late ‘70s, the stoner comedy has been a popular subgenre in American cinema. Cheech & Chong set up the basic format that most stoner movies have followed ever since: two weed-loving slackers set out on a specific goal, often involving them smoking or selling large amounts of pot, as they evade the cops and have outrageous episodic experiences along the way. The two leads in a marijuana movie are usually comically mismatched; it’s the Odd Couple if Felix and Oscar spent the whole movie taking bong rips. Over the years, beloved stoner fare like the Friday series, Harold and Kumar, and Pineapple Express, just to name a few, have found great success in building on what Cheech & Chong created.
The typical stoner film is chock-full of drug use of all kinds (primarily pot), pop culture references, cartoonishly-evil cops, naked women, gross-out humor, and completely-toasted characters with silly names like Smokey, Trip, and Cheech. They’re pure fantasy for potheads, who can lie down and relax while watching the film’s hero do everything they’re too wasted to do: eat amazing food, sleep with beautiful women, all the while having fun with their friends and avoiding the authorities. While some pot films, like Dazed and Confused and Pineapple Express, have emerged as polished and coherent efforts that are pleasing to stoners and non-stoners alike, most other marijuana-heavy comedies are scraggly, unfocused yarns that by the end are just limping toward that 90 minute mark, oftentimes not even having enough story to fill that scant runtime. Many stoner films perform better on home video than in theatrical release, as their target demographic is rather hard to tear away from the couch and would likely spend their time in the theater frantically whispering to a friend, “I swear, everyone keeps looking right at me. They know. They know!”
Although Cheech & Chong pioneered the modern pot comedy, the subgenre has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s. Recreational drug use skyrocketed during the turbulent decade, and as the new generation of American filmmakers and actors began to experiment with marijuana, they incorporated it into their movies as well. The Beatles films were clearly drug-influenced, although they didn’t feature many overt references to the stuff. Easy Rider was the most notable hippie era stoner film, with the plot involving two counterculture bikers traveling cross-country, selling drugs along the way. Although the movie is a drama, Jack Nicholson appeared in a star-making supporting role and provided the film’s comic relief. Other significant late 60s/early 70s drug films include The Trip and Wild in the Streets. These are also dramas, but perhaps the earliest notable use of marijuana in a Hollywood comedy came in 1968 with Peter Sellers’s I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. Most of the film’s characters were hippies and pot brownies played a significant part in the story.
The floodgates opened and drug humor made its way into the mainstream in the 1970s, with films like Car Wash, Groove Tube, and Tunnel Vision (and TV shows like SNL) catering to stoners with pot references abounding. Annie Hall featured some drug use, but it was more of a reflection of the times than an attempt to pander to the drug community. Woody Allen took a markedly different stance on the issue than his peers by making his character Alvy Singer an outspoken critic of drugs. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong had a series of highly popular comedy albums — party records that included many of the duo’s pot-fueled bits, “Dave’s Not Here” and “Sister Mary Elephant” being their most famous routines. The popularity of Cheech & Chong’s albums and live act soared along with the THC levels in their bodies, and Hollywood execs sought the pair out to make a movie. With the release of their first film, the 1978 hit Up in Smoke, the stoner comedy archetype was born.
Cheech & Chong continued to make films into the ‘80s, and drugged-out characters began to pop up in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Where the Buffalo Roam. Many mainstream comedies, including Nine to Five, Risky Business, and The Breakfast Club, included a scene or two of marijuana use. But by the end of the decade, there’d been a huge change in the way drugs were portrayed in films. Cheech & Chong had broken up in 1985 and stoner comedies became less and less prevalent as the effects of the pot-centric 60s and 70s wore off. This reverse in the country’s attitude towards drugs was partly due to the increase in funding and attention the War on Drugs received under Ronald Reagan, including the introduction of the Just Say No campaign and the Drug Czar.
Under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, marijuana use fell and Hollywood reacted accordingly. But traces of the stoner comedy didn’t vanish completely. The late ’80s and early ‘90s saw the rise of a new crop of movies that felt like stoner buddy comedies, they just didn’t have any drugs in them. Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure followed spaced-out, rock-music loving slackers who act like stoners except for the fact that they never mention or use weed. Other examples include Beavis and Butt-head and Encino Man. In fact, Pauly Shore’s brief career as a leading man coincided with this era, and his whole comedic persona was based around emulating stoner behavior and mannerisms, minus the drugs. (His character from Encino Man is even called “Stoney Brown.”) But to be fair, it’s not accurate to refer to pseudo-stoner outings like Wayne’s World or Bill and Ted as marijuana comedies, as they lack the central ingredient but retain everything else.
Stoner comedies experienced a resurgence in the ‘90s. With the Reagan era over and the country’s attitude towards marijuana relaxing, drug use began to trickle back into the theaters. Many factors contributed to this new national outlook, and there seems to be no big single cause, just a bunch of tiny ones that turned the tide on the public perception of the War on Drugs and brought about the return of the stoner comedy. Chalk it up to a wave of 60s/70s nostalgia or the introduction of medical marijuana beginning with its legalization in California (prescription pot even began to be used as a plot point, making its way into Half Baked and Harold and Kumar). Either way, fears associated with the perceived harms of pot gradually wore off. The national conversation over marijuana use even made its way into the 1992 Presidential Election, with Bill Clinton famously saying he tried the drug but never inhaled. There was more weed around, too, as the signing of NAFTA increased the amount of trade and traffic across the U.S./Mexican border and made it tougher for Customs to sniff out drugs that were being moved into the country.
The filmmakers, writers, and actors who emerged to make the drug films of the 1990s and the following decade were the ones who grew up watching Cheech & Chong and the first wave of pothead flicks. They’re the drug movie equivalent to Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Rodriguez, the self-taught VCR filmmakers of the same era. The Friday movies and Half Baked modernized the Cheech & Chong formula, while Dazed and Confused and Detroit Rock City broke from it a little bit, following potheads with the films focusing on other things besides the drugs. Over the course of the ‘90s and this past decade (whatever you want to call it), new talents like Ice Cube, Dave Chappelle, Richard Linklater, Danny Leiner, Seth Rogen and David Gordon Green have put their own spins on the stoner film. These were guys that watched the pot comedies of the 70s and 80s on home video, and the influence shows. Casual marijuana use found its way back into non-drug comedies, too. It’s almost rare to see a mainstream comedy without drug use these days. Hot Tube Time Machine, Get Him to the Greek, Easy A, Going the Distance, Due Date, No Strings Attached, Hall Pass, and Paul each feature at least brief pot use, all of them released within the last year.
The Stoner Comedy Canon
These are the classics, making up the essential stoner comedy viewing list. These are the best-known films in the subgenre; the ones that had the greatest influence and still remain relevant today.
1. Up in Smoke (1978) and the rest of the Cheech & Chong series (1978-1984)
Cheech & Chong were definitely the trendsetters when it comes to stoner comedies. Although comedies in the past had featured significant drug content, these two made the first one in which marijuana largely drives the plot. They popularized the “two stoners driving around and getting into little episodic misadventures” format that’s still in use to this day. Cheech & Chong are at their funniest in Up in Smoke, helped out by supporting turns from Tom Skerritt as Cheech’s Vietnam vet cousin Strawberry and Stacy Keach as obsessive cop Sgt. Stedenko.
Subsequent outings failed to recapture the magic of Up in Smoke, but Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie and Nice Dreams are the most enjoyable of the rest of the series. Cheech & Chong’s films were also notable for giving roles to several comedic actors before they were big names, including Phil Hartman, Sandra Bernhard, Michael Winslow, and Paul Reubens, whose earliest onscreen performance as Pee Wee Herman was in Next Movie.
2. Reefer Madness (1936)
This cautionary anti-drug film didn’t make much of a splash when it was first released. After trying pot, the film’s characters face over-the-top, incongruous consequences including mania, suicide, manslaughter, attempted rape, and a car accident. Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), rediscovered Reefer Madness in the ‘70s and started showing it at pro-pot gatherings and festivals. Audiences found the film’s inaccurate views of marijuana’s side effects, campy production values, and absurd panicky attitude to be hilarious, and the film became a cult classic and a hit midnight movie. New Line Cinema, still a new company at the time, found early success in distributing Reefer Madness to college campuses, where it continued to delight stoners as a piece of unintentional comedy. Years later, it even inspired a musical and a film based upon that musical.
3. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Although Fast Times isn’t a traditional stoner comedy and doesn’t feature very many scenes of pot use, it did introduce us to Sean Penn as Jeff Spiccoli, one of the most famous movie stoners of all time. Spiccoli’s scenes with history teacher Mr. Hand are some of the best in the film, and the character of Spiccoli was a big influence on later slacker-surfer types Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth.
4. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Richard Linklater’s ensemble coming-of-age comedy is more than just a pot movie, but most of the central cast spends the film stoned out of their minds and the movie has been embraced by potheads for its great characters, impressive classic rock soundtrack, and heavy drug use.
5. Friday (1995)
Friday was the film that resurrected the classic buddy stoner comedy after almost a decade’s absence. Although movies like Dazed and Confused and The Stoned Age were the first significant pot movies after the dry spell, Friday brought the stoner film back to the Cheech & Chong basics, jumpstarted several big film careers and inspired two sequels.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Jeff Bridges as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in this Coen Brothers gem gives one of the best pothead performances in cinematic history, and it’s a perfect marriage between actor and character. Along with Cheech & Chong and Jeff Spiccoli, The Dude is amongst the most famous stoners in film. The Big Lebowski has had quite an impact, inspiring several books, a Internet-based religion called Dudeism, and the annual Lebowski Fest gathering in Kentucky.
7. Half Baked (1998)
Dave Chappelle and co-writer Neal Brennan would create a much bigger hit with Chappelle’s Show a few years later, but their stoner comedy Half Baked shows early signs of their comedic prowess. The film featured an impressive roster of cameos that includes Tommy Chong, Jon Stewart, Willie Nelson, and Tracy Morgan. Half Baked didn’t succeed at the box office, but it’s been a stoner staple since fans discovered it in the early 2000s during the period in which Comedy Central seemed to be airing it on a nonstop basis. On his Inside the Actor’s Studio appearance in 2006, Dave Chappelle lamented the meddling of studio executives, who he claims turned what was originally a smarter comedy into “a weed movie for kids.” Even if it didn’t pan out how Chappelle and Brennan planned, Half Baked is still a favorite amongst stoners and comedy fans alike.
The New Classics
1. How High (2001)
Method Man and Redman’s stoner comedy How High involves the pair smoking marijuana that was grown with their dead friend’s ashes, which cause the friend’s ghost to help them ace their college entrance exams. This is the kind of plot that can only exist in a stoner comedy.
2. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
After playing supporting roles in four previous Kevin Smith films, Jay and Silent Bob are put front and center here. Featuring a roster of cameos that rivals Half Baked's, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the only Kevin Smith movie that can be safely considered a stoner film.
3. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
Director Danny Leiner, who also helmed Dude, Where’s My Car?, made a much more competent drug comedy with Harold & Kumar. The film ensured John Cho and Kal Penn would escape being known solely for their respective roles in American Pie and Van Wilder, kicking off a pothead comedy franchise that’s this generation’s answer to Cheech & Chong. And I’d be remiss not to mention Neil Patrick Harris, whose career comeback began here, where he plays a deviant, ecstasy-fueled version of himself who steals the heroes' car. Two sequels have followed: 2008’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, which is set for release this November.
4. Grandma’s Boy (2006)
Frequent Adam Sandler bit player Allen Covert co-wrote and stars in this stoner comedy as a video game tester. Grandma’s Boy didn’t do too well in theatres, but has become a cult hit on home video, and it’s not hard to guess why. The film caters to potheads more than the average comedy on this list, as it’s chock-full of video game references, attractive women, and irreverent gross-out humor. The film plays like a stoner fantasy, as the main character is a marijuana user who plays video games for a living and ends up with an attractive girlfriend.
5. Pineapple Express (2008)
While weed was a large part of Seth Rogen’s character’s life in Knocked Up, it can hardly be considered a stoner movie. Rogen starred in a full-on pot comedy the following year with Pineapple Express, pairing him with James Franco. There’s more production value to this one than the typical stoner flick, as Rogen and Judd Apatow sought out indie auteur David Gordon Green to helm the project. Pineapple Express proved to those unfamiliar with Freaks and Geeks that James Franco’s a sharp comedic actor, while showing that the stoner comedy and the action genre can complement each other well.
While the above films are the stoner comedy standards, there are many worthwhile films that were dwarfed by the impact of these ones but are nonetheless quite enjoyable. Anything I didn’t mention here hasn’t had the same influence on other pot comedies as the listed films did or been embraced by stoner culture in the same way. Also worth checking out are the Craig Ferguson marijuana-growing comedy Saving Grace, the Doug Benson documentary Super High Me, and the KISS concert-centric Detroit Rock City. And before you drag my name through the Internet mud in the comments section for leaving one of your favorites out, I’d just like to clarify that I don’t consider Super Troopers a stoner comedy because the main characters aren’t pot users and the only significant drug scene — albeit a very funny one — is at the very beginning and lasts just a few minutes. And the Hunter S. Thompson movies Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas aren’t in here because they feature so many other drugs that marijuana isn’t the main focus.
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Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.