The Multicultural Power of the Stoner Comedy

Fans of Cheech & Chong and Harold & Kumar never have to ask “dude, where’s my diversity?”

In all of filmdom is there any greater symbol of human brotherhood and multicultural harmony than the stoner comedy? In their own way, for the past half-century or so, this goofy genre have functioned as a safe haven for relationships that defy society’s prejudices and as a powerful countercultural influence.

From the jazz age to the present, authorities have used pot to drive people apart, enacting drug wars to demonize and imprison minority communities, suppress radical culture, and generally harsh the collective mellow. So naturally, the bumbling heroes of stoner comedies are often the outcasts, the weirdoes, the Cuban B’s, pressed together across class and racial lines by misadventure, bong rips, and a headful of smoke.

What’s really crazy is that to some powerful people, multiculturalism itself is still as controversial as weed—if not more so. Today, if you google the term, you find Breitbart headlines about how “multiculturalism leads to citizens fighting for ISIS”, how the U.K.’s multiculturalism fosters rape culture, and how multiculturalism is white genocide.

If you want to change hearts and minds, you’ve got to keep people entertained. Because even those that fear the proverbial melting pot boiling over into a delicious caramel of acceptance appreciate a good buddy comedy, and because meaningful change must reflect the increasingly diverse demographics of the future, the solution, we think, lies in the good, old-fashioned stoner comedy. We’re talking the kind of window into everyday life that only something like binge-watching the Friday trilogy or a Cheech and Chong marathon can provide. Here are five of our favorite multicultural stoner comedies—ideal propaganda for the culture wars, and guaranteed to instill a warm, fuzzy, lightheaded feeling of brotherhood. (And yeah, we’re still talking about a brotherhood here in 2014, though funny women of all races have surely been toking up for just as long as their dude counterparts).

Cheech and Chong: Up In Smoke (1978)

Cheech and Chong, who practically invented the stoner comedy, built a career smoking pot in Vancouver. To avoid the Vietnam draft, Cheech Marin, a Chicano Angeleno, fled to Canada, where he met Tommy Chong, a Chinese-Anglo Calgarian who’d moved west to tour with a soul band. They recorded hit comedy albums before releasing their first movie, Up In Smoke.

The movie has its typical madcap goofs—jokes about Maui Waui and smoking dog shit. But when Cheech explains that, "We play like everything, from Santana to El Chicano, man, you know, like, everything," it can also be taken as a radical vision of a parallel world where the length and breadth of significant rock music took place in the barrios of The Mission and East L.A.

\nFast Times at Ridgemont High(1982)\n

In this (admittedly, mostly white) coming-of-age high school comedy, the character with the most diverse group of friends is Jeff Spicoli. After smoking doobies with the little brother of the school’s football star, Spicoli drives Charles Jefferson’s Camaro off the road, wrecking it.

Terrified, the little brother is sure they’ll be killed for destroying the beloved car. But through stoner ingenuity, the duo is able to disguise the destruction of the car as an act of war, and frame Ridgemont’s rival Lincoln High for the crime. Flying into a rage at the provocation, Forrest Whittaker's star player Jefferson destroys his opponents and wins the big game, in no small part due to the work of two tricky stoners.

Half-Baked (1998)

Dave Chapelle co-wrote Half-Baked with “Neal [Brennan] andpurple haze.” It’s the story of a trio of potheads trying to free their friend from jail the only way they know how: selling weed.

Even while being kidnapped, Guillermo Diaz’s Cuban character Scarface becomes enraged at being mistaken for being Mexican. Jim Breuer wears tie-dye and orders way too much white people food. And at one point Dave Chappelle’s Thurgood sports a fake Jamaican patois. Chappelle might claim that Abba Zabba is his only friend, but his close-knit crew taught us all a little something about loyalty by taking on a drug lord and robbing a government lab to liberate their imprisoned pal.

The Harold and Kumar Trilogy (2004 – 2011)

Whereas Cheech & Chong were barely employable, Harold & Kumar were sharp college students pursuing white-collar careers. Starting out as an ordinary late-night fast food munchie run (a ritual familiar to all stoned suburbanites regardless of background) the pair’s trip to White Castle ends up affecting every aspect of their lives for years to come. In the course of their misadventures, Harold and Kumar ride a cheetah, get locked up in Guantanamo Bay, and smoke weed with President George W. Bush.

For Hayden Schlossberg, co-director of the Harold & Kumar films, race is and isn't important. “We were very aware that our protagonists were a Korean-American and an Asian-American, but on the other hand, it's totally random. Everybody always asks why did we do this, and the movies themselves don't always answer the question. We bring up race, and it's clearly there, but we try not to make it too much about it.”

Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas (1998)

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke spends a lot of time smoking dope (and ingesting every other imaginable substance) with his big Samoan compatriot Dr. Gonzo, who was neither Samoan nor a doctor. The Dr. Gonzo character is based on Oscar Zeta Acosta, a lawyer and Chicano activist who could at times even out-party Thompson. Thompson wrote the introduction to Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, and the two remained good friends until Acosta's disappearance in Mexico in 1974.

Both in real life and in Fear and Loathing, the two had an incredibly close, yet strangely antagonistic relationship. Thompson at one point appreciatively describes his compatriot as “One of god's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” Calling someone “weird” and a “mutant” might not immediately sound like high praise, but in Thompson’s gonzo parlance, the quote is practically a love letter.