Stoners have been getting high and getting into car trouble in Los Angeles since at least 1928, when Laurel & Hardy visited the dentist in a short called "Leave 'Em Laughing." Ollie and Stan pump themselves full of laughing gas and spend fully the last third of the roughly 22-minute film hitting every car in downtown Culver City, cracking up the whole time, more or less oblivious to the exasperated cop who eventually takes the wheel, drives them onto a street under sewer construction, and drowns them all in a sinkhole. (This is about as kind as an LA police officer ever gets in a stoner movie.)
But stoner movies weren't really a thing until the movies themselves got stoned, which happened in the late 1960s, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his essay "What Dope Does to Movies." By then, Baby Boomer filmmakers and audiences were fully doped up and focus began to wander away from coherent narratives toward "other possible pleasures": Stanley Kubrick's aesthetically perfect images in 2001, Arthur Penn's tonal recklessness in Bonnie & Clyde, Robert Altman's distracting soundtrack and ambling camera in MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and, eventually, The Long Goodbye, a perfect Los Angeles stoner noir that has plenty of brownie mix in it, but no actual cannabis. Rosenbaum compares the "purely visual masterpieces of the late Sixties" to the "purely aural experiences [of] record albums by the Beatles and Frank Zappa." You know, great art that's even greater…on weed.
The first true stoner comedy—a comedy about someone who loves to get high—was released in 1968, a few months after the Beatles' Yellow Submarine and about a month before the Monkees' Head. Both of those movies are way more fun to watch high than I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, the stoner movie your grandparents can feel cool watching. (Compare its psychedelia-lite theme song, by Harpers Bizarre, to "Yellow Submarine" or "Porpoise Song," the theme from Head.) ILYABT was cowritten by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, who cowrote the less goofy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice the next year, and stars Peter Sellers as nice Westside Jewish lawyer Harold Fine, played at fluctuating levels of Woody Allenness. For a movie about a square getting turned on and dropping out, it is almost entirely about what a nightmare it is to drive in Los Angeles.
The story opens with Harold in his finned boat of a car, pulling at his noose of a necktie, and descending into the Garage of Existential Dissatisfaction, confronting "Wrong Way" and "Do Not Enter" signs level after level. Sometime later, after mediocre sex with his fiancée/secretary Joyce, they try to push a convertible that's blocked his car in on a sloped driveway, which is how Harold ends up driving a loaner hippie wagon painted in neon swirls, and somehow also how he and Joyce end up finally setting a wedding date.
Before they can get married, though, Harold's mother arrives to announce that Mr. Foley the neighborhood butcher has died, and tells Harold to make sure his brother Herbie shows up at the funeral ("he's with the bums in Venice!"). The hearse drivers are on strike and the psychedelic wagon ends up a scab car, with Harold, Joyce, Herbie, and Herbie's barefoot and nubile girlfriend Nancy packed in the front, and Mr. Foley hanging out the back. Naturally, they're a magnet for the LAPD, and once they've gotten their smog ticket, they've lost the funeral procession. And so they criss-cross the city, from Studio City to Westwood, on overpasses and under stacked interchanges, and Harold begins to eye Nancy like he's getting the idea that if you get lost enough you can delay your own funeral, or, if you're lucky, find your way to a freeway that hasn't even been finished yet.
Nancy ends up staying at Harold's apartment that night, she leaves him a plate of "Alice B. Toklas brownies" in thanks, and from there the awakening is on. Harold and Nancy have mindblowing hippie sex, he leaves Joyce at the altar, grows his hair out, invests in love beads, and moves with Nancy into his old boat of a car, freshly painted with doves and curlicues and parked in an alley in Venice. After the LAPD comes through to hassle them, Nancy and Harold move back into Harold's pretty sweet apartment, which has a very prominent photograph of Laurel & Hardy over the mantle, and, now, plenty of black lights and incense holders.
Harold is a (hesitant) seeker—when he becomes too jealous with Nancy, he puts his suit back on and returns to Joyce, just to leave her at the altar a second time, by foot, running down the sidewalk in search of "something beautiful out there!"—but he isn't a true stoner in the iconic mold of The Dude in The Big Lebowski, or the stoner patron saints, Cheech and Chong of Up in Smoke.
Up in Smoke came out 10 years after I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, but is widely considered the parent of all stoner comedies: two stoners—rich kid Tommy Chong and middle class kid Cheech Marin—drive around Los Angeles in a lowrider smoking enormous joints, somehow evade the LAPD over and over, sexually harass a few women, get deported to Tijuana so they can pick up a truck made entirely of marijuana, evade the police some more, win the Battle of the Bands, and get everyone high off the weed truck.
And Up in Smoke is way more stoned than I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. Cheech and Chong are arrested practically as soon as the movie starts, but the next day they're somehow free and on the hunt for weed again. The plot doesn't come along until two-thirds of the way into the movie. There's a long, apparently comedic sequence devoted to a woman making pained noises that sound like they could be sex. And most of all, their stupid, improbable journey looks really fun. Harold pulls frustrated u-turns at the same two congested freeway ramps and putters under shadowy underpasses, but from the first time Cheech swings across Pacific Coast Highway, the freeways in Up in Smoke are all fascinating riddles that Cheech and Chong know the answers to. In the last chase sequence, they lead the increasingly angry and increasingly incompetent police to an underpass only to swing across to the overpass, they swoop up to the highest point of a stacked interchange, they cruise down a ramp to safety as the cops rise on the next ramp over.
This is not at all how the Los Angeles stoner comedy usually goes. Cheech and Chong may set the example for Harold and Kumar (whose very East Coasty trip to White Castle helps them come to terms with their middle class careers), and maybe even for crypto-stoners and suburbanites Bill and Ted, but it's unusual for a SoCal stoner to feel this carefree or to come out a winner.
Cheech and Chong's stonerism is essentially libertarian—Stacey Keach's spittle-flecked Sergeant Stedenko tells his underlings it's essential to catch the weed truck because "the buying and selling of dope in this country may be the last bastion of free enterprise left." These stoners are screwing the man on his right; in ILYABT, which explicitly equates hippiedom with communism, in the extremely rare female Marxist stoner comedy, Smiley Face, in the Coen Brothers' beloved stoner noir The Big Lebowski, the stoners are just trying to stay out of the way on his left.
The Big Lebowski's Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, may have helped draft the uncompromised original version of the Port Huron Statement, but when the film finds him in the early nineties, he's more or less accepted that the bums have lost and all he has left to do is get baked and bowl. But his Los Angeles is the Western frontier of America at the end of the 20th century—tumbleweeds and all—and the rich guys, warmongers, pornographers, and nihilists who live there aren't just going to let him or his rug be. (Uli, the leader of The Big Lebowski’s gang of nihilists, is kind of a harsh burn on Angelenos, showing up first floating drunk in a pool, then cruising a palm-tree-lined freeway in a convertible, in a porn: so stereotypically LA.)
The Dude keeps his cool as long as he can—when he's punched out, he takes the opportunity to fly over the twinkling nighttime basin, following after a magic carpet ride—but his good vibes break down at about the same rate as his car. Things start to go bad when Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman) screws up a ransom money drop on a wooden bridge out past the LA County line and ends up shooting The Dude's car with an Uzi. As the movie rolls on and The Dude is tormented for the lost ransom money from every direction, his crappy old car is stolen, possibly used as a bathroom, beaten with a crowbar, and finally set on fire, with no real sense to any of it. Sometime between those last two, he thinks he may have found an amenable scene at a beach party bacchanal in Malibu, Los Angeles's exclusive neighbor to the northwest, but instead he ends up drugged with no rug to lift him above it all, just a bad trip running down PCH with red and blue flashing at his back.
The one stoner comedy where the cops don't show up is F. Gary Gray's Friday, which is supposed to be a lighthearted flipside to Ice Cube's other films of the early nineties, like Boyz N the Hood, but is still the most sobering of the genre. It's the only stoner movie that doesn't span the city—it's confined almost entirely to one block (the block where Gray grew up, at 126th and Normandie in South LA); trouble, in the form of drug dealers, bullies, annoying kids on bikes, and driveby shooters, comes to Craig and Smokey as they sit on Craig's parents' porch and smoke joints and try to find $200 to pay off dealer Big Worm. Craig (Cube) doesn't usually get high, but he's just gotten fired for getting caught on tape stealing boxes. Only he says he didn't steal any boxes (and who steals boxes?).
Because it stays in one place, Friday has a much bigger and better realized set of characters than other stoner comedies—family members, nemeses, friends, crushes; it's an exception to Rosenbaum's observation that as stonerism became more deeply embedded in filmmaking, movies became more solipsistic, less communal, more private, less public. The block is mostly middle class, but there are also rich neighbors like Stanley, who wears a smoking jacket and has a "keep off the lawn" sign, and poor ones like Ezal, the crack addict who'll steal anything that isn't bolted down.
It's all very funny in a high school boy way, but there is real fear too. Craig is hiding a gun in his room. Felisha the crack addict has a black eye from her boyfriend. The camera hovers closer and closer toward the end of the movie as Craig and Smokey lie flat in the back of a pickup truck while a van full of men with guns rolls slowly by looking for them. Craig's final triumph is handing his gun over to his dad and hitting bully Deebo with a brick instead. While Deebo's laid flat, Smokey takes his money to give to Big Worm. That one block is a community, but staying there can be stifling.
Being able to go anywhere when you're entirely on your own is pretty frightening too, especially if you're a woman who's stoned out of her mind. Women are not human in most stoner comedies. The women of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas are beautiful caricatures—the astrology-spouting hippie, the sexually unexciting nag—and the women of Up in Smoke might be actual people if they got to be anything more than sex objects. In Friday, Nia Long's Debbie makes her first appearance literally jogging in slow motion. In Gregg Araki's 2007 film Smiley Face, Anna Faris's actress/pothead Jane is treated the same as the rest of them, except that she's the protagonist.
Jane's dealer, a dreadlocked Adam Brody, tries to tell her the weed market operates on Reaganomics, and when she replies that "Just because weed isn't taxed doesn't mean it exists in some sort of, you know, laissez-faire paradigm or whatever," he asks "What the fuck do you know about economics anyway?" It turns out she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in the subject. John Krasinski's creepy nerd Brevin has a deep longing for her, just like Craig does for Debbie, but from Jane's point of view, that just makes him a weirdo who likes to stare at her.
Jane doesn't have a buddy to share her hijinks; she doesn't even have friends like The Dude does. She only has Brevin, and that's who she ends up with after she stonedly eats a tray of her scary roommates's cupcakes at 9 am, not realizing until too late that they're full of a lot more pot, spends the electric bill money on new weed so she can replace them before he notices, burns the new weed trying to make pot butter, fails entirely at driving, gets kicked off the bus, and tries to sell her precious "government weed" to a casting agent she's auditioning for, who calls the LAPD on her.
For some reason she's sure her dealer's going to come take her super comfortable mattress as payment for her debts and she's determined to find him at a "hempfest" in Venice before he can. Brevin just has to go to the dentist first, because getting his teeth cleaned makes him feel "prosperous," but while they're there, his wallet's stolen out of his car, which means they have to talk to a cop, which means Jane is out of there, running through the leafy streets and somehow ending up at the home of her old Marxist professor, where she somehow steals a first edition of The Communist Manifesto.
A stoner is someone who doesn't want to live with the world as it is: because it's unsatisfying, or dull, or sad, or too hard.
So she hides out in a sausage truck that she thinks is headed west, but is actually headed east, and ends up at a meatpacking factory in El Monte. Factory worker John Cho (of Harold & Kumar) offers to drive her back west, but they end up trapped in traffic on the 10, where Cho takes the opportunity to fantasize about how horny all that weed might be making Jane (not at all, in reality).
Jane, meanwhile, is fantasizing about her bed, and bolts out of the car in terror that she's going to lose it, running frantically around the stopped the cars, trying to make it the 30 or so miles to Venice by foot before the hempfest is over. And then one good thing happens: a mysterious woman on a motorcycle picks her up and takes her all the way to the beach, weaving through the traffic while Jane just enjoys the ride and the sun on her face.
It's the only good thing. Hempfest is over, the dealer is gone. Jane figures she can at least take a ride on the Santa Monica ferris wheel before she returns the very expensive edition of The Communist Manifesto, except that as the ride spins, she stands up and loses her grip on it, and the priceless pages flutter down from the heights, blowing across the pier and to all the places she's been that day.
Jane ends up on the side of the freeway in an orange jumpsuit, picking up trash. They don't all win the Battle of the Bands, but the men of LA's stoner comedies never lose their freedom.
A stoner is someone who doesn't want to live with the world as it is: because it's unsatisfying, or dull, or sad, or too hard. Living at an angle to reality is a tricky business, though, in a place where the landscape is already so intimidating. Take Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice—how is he even supposed to squeeze his Dodge Dart into his apartment's garage when his narrow beach street is tilted 80 degrees? (He doesn't really.) Smiley Face has the frantic kaleidoscopic high of late capitalist America, but Inherent Vice is stoned in the blunted, bewildered way of a place at a time when things are only beginning to come apart.
That time is 1970, two years after I Love You, Alice B. Toklas was released, and the place is the "flatlands" of LA—the Westside, Hancock Park—as opposed to the sloping streets of the fictional Gordita Beach, where Doc lives. Directed by SoCal's greatest living poet, Paul Thomas Anderson, from a book by Thomas Pynchon that has hit The Big Lebowski pretty hard, the very beautiful and placidly incoherent Inherent Vice might just be the stoner movie to end all stoner movies. (Pot has been more or less legal in California since the mid-nineties, and Jane's references to "government weed" were bafflingly outdated back in 2007, so it actually just might.)
In Alice B. Toklas, released the year before the Manson Family murders, Harold is occasionally and vaguely guided, or possibly corrupted, by a long-haired, white-robed "guru." By IV's 1970, a young LAPD officer's hand trembles as he points his gun at a car full of passengers and tells them "any gathering of three or more civilians is now considered a possible cult." A group of partygoers pause for a split second in a familiar pose behind the supper table.
Doc is trying to find his ex-old-lady Shasta Fay's new boyfriend, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, who's gone missing, and he's looking for the Artesia Crips turf, where his client Tariq lived before he went to prison—the whole neighborhood has disappeared—but that one's easy: Mickey bought it, razed it, and is turning it into the Channel View Estates. Doc's search stumbles from Wolfmann's midcentury modern mansion in the Hills with lighting by "Jimmy Wong Howe" to an imposing institution full of detoxing hippies in Ojai to a gold-tipped, fang-shaped building on Sunset Boulevard to his office in a medical clinic where he huffs a little laughing gas. As far as he can tell, all the money and power lead back to the developer, or to a syndicate of unhinged dentists, or an Indo-Chinese heroin cartel, or the wood-paneled social clubs of the South Bay set. He ends up Downtown a lot, too, to bicker with the assistant DA he's dating or visit the LAPD's pale modernist palace and his best frenemy, Lieutenant Bigfoot Bjornsen.
The LAPD is both terrifying and ridiculous in Josh Brolin's Bigfoot, a celebrity cop who won't ever get so much respect that he's too secure to hassle a hippie like Doc. He fellates a frozen banana in one scene, then slams Doc on the hood of a patrol car in another. He reveals something pathetic in the stoner-chasing cop, and in the grim reality that attempts to yank any stoner out of his haze: he needs Doc to hassle; Doc is doing just fine without him. The flatlanders want what Doc has so badly that Bigfoot appears in ads for the Channel View Estates in hippie drag, saying stuff like "outta sight." So badly that Bigfoot's last act in the movie is to kick down Doc's door and consume an entire tray of his weed, while Doc sits there, tearing up at the loss.
What Doc has, or Jane, or Smokey and Craig, or Cheech and Chong, or The Dude, even Harold Fine while he could manage it, is a kind of freedom that comes from checking out from The Way Things Are. But there's no money in that, as every stoner comedy tells us in its way. No wonder no one will ever leave them alone. The thing is Doc is losing a lot more than just peace and quiet—he's losing the world of the sixties he knew as it decays around him, he's losing his sense that he understands the world, and he's losing all his weed.
There is one stoner comedy thing IV doesn't have. It has parking lots, the suggestion of narrow canyon roads at night, the pristine roads to nowhere of unbuilt subdivisions, the palm tree-lined surface streets, but LA's maze of freeways is invisible, seen only on maps or in aerial photos at LAPD headquarters, otherwise unimplied even, until the very end, just after Bigfoot eats all that pot. And then they are only hinted at from the inside of a car, barely shuddering with movement, windows so opaque with the fog outside it might as well be underwater, drowned inside in shadow occasionally broken by the headlights of an oncoming car, or the darting whites of Doc's eyes watching it go past as recognition just begins to transform his face for the first time.
Editor: Sara Polsky