Chong without Cheech.

You wonder, will it be like reefer without matches? A bong without water? Half a good time, which isn't quite good enough? And then you watch, and you start to think it's something sadder.

A few nervous hours before Tommy Chong's first show Thursday night -- actually, his first full set of stand-up comedy in 12 years -- he is saying, "I've got to get rid of the ghost of Cheech."

That's why this 53-year-old dude in faded Levi's has left his Los Angeles home to do a three-night stand at the Comedy Connection in Greenbelt. An exorcism. A rebirth. Or at least a try.

With a string of hit albums in the 1970s and some surprisingly profitable movies in the early '80s, Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong became the Laurel and Hardy of dope humor, lowbrow legends smoking jumbo joints. Five years ago, they broke up. Cheech -- the "lead singer," as Chong describes him -- "wanted to do other things. He got tired of Cheech and Chong. Tired of being part of a comedy team."

Next thing you know, bam, Cheech hits a solo homer in 1987 with the low-budget film "Born in East L.A." Chong's own solo movie, "Far Out Man," flopped last summer. Or, as he himself puts it, "it laid there like a -- " well, like something you wouldn't want lying there.

Talk about a bummer. "It's like everybody's success magnifies your failure 10 times over, so you're not really happy for anybody," Chong says, laughing at his own candor. "If you hear Eddie Murphy's making $100 million, that doesn't really make you want to go out and celebrate. It {ticks} you off. And when it's Cheech, as close as Cheech and I were -- 'Oh yeah, Cheech has another movie and another TV thing coming out,' and I'm sitting here, you know, nothing."

In the foam-rubber comfort of a Prince George's County Holiday Inn, Chong makes a casual confession: "I went through a horrible panic this morning, getting on the plane. 'Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?' " The man looks good -- workout slim, deeply tanned, his curly auburn hair and gray beard a tastefully maintained lawn. "But I've got to do it."

Four hours later, he will step onto the Comedy Connection stage, a heavy suitcase in his left hand, a yellow legal pad in his right. The pad contains notes. Notes in case he forgets what to talk about next.

"I used to be black. I was with Motown. I used to be married to a black woman. I can be black when I need to be. You want to know how black I am? I'm married to a white woman now."

Thomas Chong was born in Edmonton, Canada, his father Chinese, his mother white. And he was indeed with Motown for a while, as the guitarist for Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. They had a Top 40 single in 1968, "Does Your Mama Know About Me."

In Vancouver, around 1969, Chong was helping to run his father's nightclub. "It was a strip joint," he says. "And I introduced improvisational humor into it. So I had the first topless improv nightclub."

Chong's improv group was called the City Works, and a Los Angeleno named Richard "Cheech" Marin became a member. "He was part of the secret army up there during the Vietnam War, you know," Chong says dryly. "Came to Canada just in case the Viet Cong attacked over Alaska."

The humor revolved around sex, not drugs. Professional strippers in street clothes would undress as part of the skits, "so it was very, very erotic," Chong says, grinning. "A lot of fun."

There was a lot of drug use going on off stage, though. This was, after all, 1969. "It was mandatory. You had to."

The improv group fell apart after nine months or so, leaving only Cheech and Chong, who soon moved to L.A. and developed a comedy act around the collateral cultures of dope and rock-and-roll. Within a year, they were signed by Lou Adler, the head of Ode Records.

Their first LP, "Cheech and Chong," went gold in 1972. They won a 1973 Grammy for their third album, "Los Cochinos." They even had a few hit songs -- "Basketball Jones," "Earache My Eye," "Bloat On."

Chong excelled in the role of burned-out hippie. ("Far out, man.") Cheech was a more versatile mimic, but he specialized in playing the high-energy, jive-talking Chicano homeboy. These characters had one common bond: their never-ending quest for good pot.

"When we came up, we were the only ones doing {extensive drug humor} because no one else wanted to get that jacket, that label," Chong says. "So we got labeled. I don't mind." He giggles. "I met a lot of nice people."

Chong was quoted in Rolling Stone five years ago saying drug humor "just isn't funny anymore." But he declares now, "They quoted me wrong. I said, 'to some people.' " He laughs. "Everybody's dying to get me on this anti-drug kick. See, I've survived it. I survived it all, and I think that kind of {ticks} 'em off. Because a lot of the heavy dopers, you know, they didn't make it. And a lot of them that did, they hit the Betty Ford {Center} and then came out preaching.

"See, I was never a heavy doper," he says. "We just talked about it."

Chong does say, without hesitation, "I still smoke once in a while. I smoke dope, grass, you know, pot. That's my drug of choice. But it's {messed} with my memory, so I always forget to smoke it, see? I've gone months without smoking it. '{Shoot}, I forgot.' So it comes in handy, having damaged brain cells."

When Cheech and Chong got into making movies -- "Up in Smoke" came out in '79, and it grossed more than $60 million -- many mainstream critics took aim. Here's what Roger Ebert had to say about "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" in 1980:

"This movie is embarrassing. There's no invention in it, no imagination, no new comic vision, no ideas about what might be really funny -- instead of just dope-funny, something to laugh at if you're in the bag anyway." ("In the bag," by the way, is an outdated slang term meaning "drunk," and thus, by extension, "high." Ebert, as you can tell, wasn't part of Cheech and Chong's target audience.)

Chong, on one hand, says the Cheech and Chong movies (several of which he directed) are undervalued because they focused on drugs. Then again, when asked what makes dope humor funny, he explains, "Well, pot itself. When you get high on pot, you'll laugh at wallpaper. So it's a natural. Like Comedy Helper, you know? To this day, if I'm gonna go see something I may not enjoy, I make sure I toke up a taste, you know, so that I can enjoy it. So that's basically it."

Toke up a taste? Wow. Old-timer.

"People, they forget. Party. That's why we did drugs in the '60s. We were partyin'," Chong says. "Trouble is, a lot of people didn't know when the party was over. And then they get on the soapbox and start, you know, trying to ruin it for everybody else's party."

Actually, Cheech Marin got tired of dope humor himself. "That's one of the reasons Cheech and I broke up."

Cheech and Chong are "not tight" anymore, says Chong, "but we're friends. We had an amicable split."

At 9:49 Thursday night, Tommy Chong gets behind the microphone, a warm swell of applause rising from about 60 folks inside the club. Half a house. Most of them are blue-collar white folks who definitely know what they've come for. They're paying a cover charge of $16.50 apiece.

Within a few seconds, Chong is talking about dope. "My kid is helping me quit," he deadpans. "He's stealing my stash." Hearty laughter.

Within a few more seconds, he's talking about Cheech. "At first, I suspected my gardener. I said, 'Hey, Cheech' ... " Gardener, Mexican, Cheech. Everybody gets it and laughs. "I got a dog named Cheech too." Chong is looking down, smiling.

"You know that feeling you get? If he was doing rotten, it would be okay, you know?"

Is this what Chong meant back at the hotel when he said, "I'm going to concentrate on my live act, because I've got to get rid of the ghost of Cheech. I've got to get that off my back. And I think the only way I can do that is by working live, by myself"?

Chong does the "I used to be black" stuff. Says Spike Lee ticked him off with the ending of "Jungle Fever," with Wesley Snipes back in bed with Lonette McKee. Any real-life black man who cheated on his wife with a white woman, Chong says, would've gotten what Al Green got. The few black people in the audience smile. The white folks don't know what he's talking about.

The scalding grits. More than 15 years ago, that was. Chong doesn't explain it.

The rhythm is broken, and Chong reaches behind him, where his yellow legal pad rests on his suitcase. "Let me look at my notes here a minute ... Oh yeah, my kid."

Chong has let everybody know that this is his first full-fledged gig in 12 years. They are generous.

He talks about hanging out in a Los Angeles comedy club when Sam Kinison walks in. Scared all the gay people out of the club, Chong says. Laughter. "I love Sam. He does a lot of dope too."

A few dead seconds. He picks up his yellow pad.

Some guy in the audience yells, "Read the list, Tom!"

"I can't," Chong says. "It's too funny."

Soon, he is in the midst of an extemporaneous reminiscence of when he and Cheech got together, the days in Vancouver at his dad's club. It's about 15 minutes into his set, and there is a painful quiet in the air as Chong talks about the black guy who used to host the improv show, and who used to dance. Chong chuckles. "I don't know why I'm laughing," he says. "I guess it's funnier to me than it is to you."

The list again. "My dad. Yeah, my dad was Chinese. And my mom was -- "

"A waitress," says a man close to the stage.

"Yeah, a waitress," Chong says, smiling at him. "Did I use that line somewhere?"

"In the movie. 'Next Movie.' "

"See," Chong says, pointing to his head. "The mind is going, man. Crumbling slowly."

A minute later, he is sitting on a stool, examining the list. "How do you like this roll, huh?" he asks the silent crowd. "You guys just talk among yourselves while I get this {stuff} together. There's a lot of funny {stuff} here, but I've got to get you guys wired up again."

At this point, some supportive voices emerge from the dimness:

"Tommy, talk music, man!"

"You play a mean guitar."

" 'Basketball Jones'!"

"Let's hear what you've got to say."

And for a moment, Chong recovers. He tells an off-the-cuff anecdote about the Cheech and Chong movie "Nice Dreams." It seems $5,000 worth of actual marijuana plants, used in the movie, were stolen from the set. So Chong puts in an insurance claim. "Props," he says. And the insurance company paid up. "So I went out and bought $5,000 worth of pot." People laugh. "It's only right. I'm an honest guy, man."

Twenty minutes into his performance, Chong opens his suitcase, puts on a raincoat, sunglasses and a floppy hat, and reaches all the way back. To the very first skit on the very first Cheech and Chong album 20 years ago. He is an old blues man named "Blind Melon Chitlin." The audience hoots in recognition.

From then on, it's nothing but Cheech and Chong. He asks for a woman volunteer, gets one, and says, "Now here's a bit Cheech and I used to do. It's called 'Harry and Margaret.' " And Chong does a funny, well-timed routine about a Shriner watching a porno movie with his wife. The audience is into it. They applaud when it's over.

Chong smiles. "That's about all I have," he says. But the crowd wants more. "How are we doing on time?" Somebody in the crowd calls out, "All the time in the world!"

So Chong gets another woman from the audience, and says, "This is a bit Cheech and I used to close with. And I've always wanted to do it with a woman. It's called 'The Dogs.' "

Wild whoops from the crowd. Which you understand when you see the comedian and his attractive blond recruit crawling around the stage on all fours, chasing each other's bottoms.

At 10:30, it is over. Everybody seems happy. "I'll be here tomorrow," Chong tells his fans. "And I'll be doing different {stuff}. Because I can't remember what I did this time." He will be at the Comedy Connection tonight as well.

In the dressing room Thursday night, re-stuffing his suitcase, Tommy Chong is still smiling. "I've got a long way to go," he says. "but it felt nice. The people were so nice."

A knock on the door. It's a woman. The woman he'd used in the "Harry and Margaret" skit. She asks for his autograph. And he gives it.