Doug Benson doesn’t recall meeting me in Austin last March. I don’t blame him.
That’s not a self-effacing comment. His eyes were like two cherry tomatoes left out in the sun at the time—he was hiiiiiiigh.
“That’s not such an unusual thing for me to forget,” he says when I offer a detail to spark his memory. “But I totally believe it happened.”
Benson is a pot comic. Whether or not you’re a toker, you know exactly what that means, although you probably picture Cheech & Chong first, maybe George Carlin, or Mitch Hedberg. Benson, however, is at the vanguard of the new wave of pot comics, ranking No. 2 on High Times magazine’s list of comedians who mine marijuana for laughs. He received the distinction for “ripping off” The Vagina Monologues (with The Marijuana-Logues) and Morgan Spurlock (with the film Super High Me). Both productions, in addition to appearances on VH1’s Best Week Ever as well as his popular I Love Movies podcast, have made Benson a popular guy—and the current poster boy for pot comedy.
“I guess I’ve taken [pot comedy] to another level by writing plays and making movies where pot is such a big theme,” says Benson. “My humor’s either about pot, or at least fueled by pot … I write some of my best jokes when I’m high. And I tell some of my best jokes when I’m high. [laughs] So I guess that makes me a pot comic!”
As for the “new wave of pot comedy,” I made that up. Pot comedy isn’t particularly new, or even a trend. Benson’s just the latest guy to make it something of a platform. Hemp jokes and promoting legalization are woven throughout other material covering sex, social networking, movies and non-stoner aspects of his life. He often performs high and never apologizes for it.
He doesn’t have to. Like a stoner getting up to answer the doorbell, pot has slowly crept to the forefront of pop culture and, like a true weed, it’s not going away. Pot references are on network television, stenciled on the sides of buildings, and legalized for medicinal use in 13 states.
Even the High Times list shows the ubiquity of marijuana. The top 10 includes names like Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Sacha Baron Cohen and Tenacious D, all of whom publicly support marijuana and perhaps admit they use it, but don’t make it the lynchpin of their work. Even Jay Leno made the list, just for goofing about it in monologues. Cheech, Chong, Carlin and Hedberg weren’t even among the 25 honorable mentions. What does that tell you—besides that someone at High Times is really high?
Well, for one thing, maybe pot is increasingly a non-issue. Cheech & Chong have taken their Light Up America tour around the country (and keep extending it, including runs through Canada and Australia) only five years since Chong left prison for drug paraphernalia charges. So far, the only legal speed bump was in Australia, and that resulted in simple possession charges for six people, none of whom were Cheech or Chong.
While Benson’s profile is much lower, it’s still notable that he can travel the country during wartime (drug war) talking about and using marijuana and be relatively unmolested. “I’ve been totally unmolested,” laughs Benson. “Some days I have flashbacks to molestations that I’ve blocked out of my mind.”
Seriously, though, he thinks he rates low on the law-enforcement priority list; Chong was caught because he’s a counterculture icon. What’s more, even in states where pot hasn’t been legalized, it may have been decriminalized. For example, in Austin—where I caught Benson red-eyed—a personal-use amount “would run you about 100 bucks and maybe a court appearance.” So, Benson figures his lower-level celebrity and personal use stash—“they can’t really arrest you for having cookies”—make him a less attractive target.
“I’m really happy with my ‘TMZ doesn’t bother me’ level of fame,” he says. “Nobody is going out of their way to take my picture and that suits me just fine.”
One wonders, though, how Benson fares in more conservative locales like the Bible Belt—or, say, Salt Lake City? Does he dare indulge in those places? Of course he does: “You just gotta be cool about it. You gotta know the lay of the land.”
But for his next tour, he’s hitting only the magic 13 states where medical marijuana is legal — not for personal convenience, but in order to draw attention to the cause. “Most people don’t know that many states have legalized it and their state isn’t one of them,” he says. “I want people to get involved, wherever they live, in trying to make marijuana legal. Not to get too political about it; I’m a silly comedian just tryin’ to entertain people with my jokes. But I also have a little bit of a cause that I’m supporting.”