This post is part of our High-tech High series, which explores weed innovations, and our cultural relationship with cannabis, as legalization in several U.S. states, Canada, and Uruguay moves the market further out of the shadows.
Marijuana has long been celebrated in the world of music and song. In the world of movies and TV, meanwhile, the majority of cannabis-loving characters tend to slot in somewhere between bumbling idiots and dangerous outcasts.
This divide in media representation stretches all the way back to 1936. That was the year a hit jazz song called “If You’re a Viper” provided a positive view of marijuana use that still checks out (“you know you’re high when your throat is dry / everything is dandy”). But it was also the year of Reefer Madness, the infamous propaganda film that depicted pot as a precursor to lunacy and murder; its users were crazed buffoons to be laughed at or pitied.
Fast forward 82 years. Even after widespread legalization and societal acceptance of weed, it doesn’t seem like much has changed. Because yes, marijuana in music is cooler than ever; a recent study found that 75 percent of U.S. top 40 tunes feature positive shout-outs to weed — often for enhancing the creativity or prowess of the songwriter.
But on screens? Well, even including recent indie movies that landed with a thud (see: Hansel and Gretel Get Baked), our cinematic cannabis canon contains a litany of bro-tastic stoner dudes on couches. The pot smoker is here presented as a hapless fool who keeps getting into scrapes — all brought on, in the immortal words of Afroman, because they got high. (Not to mention hungry.)
Which is not to say stoner comedies can’t be funny. They’re often hilarious! Take the negative sides of heavy pot-smoking — short-term memory loss, paranoia, poor motor skills — exaggerate them, and you have seams of comedy gold for talented moviemakers to mine.
It’s just that, well, we’ve seen that movie so many times. What Cheech and Chong were doing in Up in Smoke in the 1970s is pretty much what Harold and Kumar did in the 2000s, and what Seth Rogen and James Franco did earlier this decade in Pineapple Express and This is the End, not to mention Mark Wahlberg and a CGI bear in the two Teds. If we’re going to keep doing this, Hollywood, how about some more female leads in stoner comedies?
If a character gets high in a comedy, it’s generally shorthand for them being a doofus. If they get high in a drama, it’s still code for them being a weird outcast. They may be the hero or a sidekick, but there’s definitely something wrong with them — some kind of arrested development.
Granted, screenwriters don’t always show alcohol in the best light either; we have the Hangover movies as Exhibits A-C there. But at least there’s more balance, even romance, in its portrayal. For every drunk-ass W.C. Fields, there’s a suave Jay Gatsby or James Bond. (Alcohol, which has been found to do more damage to your brain than marijuana in at least one recent study, is surely less deserving of this fair and balanced treatment.)
And yes, you could argue that alcohol and weed have differing impacts psychologically, but if we can embrace both James Bond and the Hangover bros, we should make room for more nuanced portrayals of weed, too. Yet we more readily think of grand old celebrities who can hold their liquor and use it in their performance — Peter O’Toole being the archetypal example. For the equivalent in the marijuana-user world, you’d have to look to the music business again; someone like Paul McCartney, casual consumer of at least one joint a day since 1965, has no equivalent in movies.
For a brief time in the 20th century, cinematic stoner heroes could be cool, too (see Easy Rider for the best example). But in the 21st, there is no sign of a mainstream movie hero that can do for weed what Bond did for martinis — that is, to portray it as a refined pleasure often consumed socially.
Not a central part of the plot, nor an important flaw in the main character (as marijuana was for Joaquin Phoenix’s detective in Inherent Vice) — just a totally legal thing people happen to do on an evening, without it necessarily turning them into the Big Lebowski.
When someone like Daniel Craig appears in a movie as a character who takes a languid hit off a vape pen and nothing more is said of it, that’s when you know Hollywood is taking weed seriously. (Appropriately enough, Craig opened his 2004 movie Layer Cake doing a long monologue about future drug legalization and how it would prevent mobsters like his character; it’s looking more prescient with each passing year.)
Good joints, bad joints
Our ongoing Golden Age of Television should provide us with more nuanced portrayals of marijuana usage, right? Well, yes. Sort of. With big caveats.
TV went to pot relatively late in the game, and seemed cautious about putting cannabis front and center in the story even when it went there. The highly bingeable eight seasons of Weeds (2005-2012) made a lot of peripheral use of the plant, and had plenty of marijuana users who weren’t clowns or weirdos.
But the show was also oddly clear about the fact that its hero Nancy Botwin (the peerless Mary Louise Parker) rarely got high on her own supply. She was just a suburban mom, forced into dealing the green stuff by circumstance. Her personal drug of choice: venti frappuccinos.
Then there was Broad City, which successfully updated the stoner comedy concept for the small screen (and gave us the female protagonists that the movie business didn’t). Tellingly, Broad City was not developed by network executives, but was born as a series of web shorts. Season 5 will be the last, and attempts to spin off the same schtick into other formats — such as co-creator Ilana Glazer’s short-lived Time Traveling Bong — haven’t gone anywhere so far.
More problematic were the two seasons of Disjointed (2017 and 2018) on Netflix. Kathy Bates stars as Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, proprietor of a recreational dispensary in Los Angeles, ringleader of a motley crew of stoners including her son and his crush. Netflix opted not to pick it up a third time. And it’s not hard to see why.
Disjointed is, as its title suggests, a strange show and something of a mixed baggie. It is a very 20th century-style studio sitcom, complete with a laugh track. Nothing wrong with that — it’s actually great that pot got its mainstream laugh-track workplace sitcom, its Cheers moment at last. Move over, alcohol! The problem is more that this format seems to have led the writers to go for the weaker, safer, more frequent kind of jokes, usually ones that reinforce marijuana stereotypes.
Take Disjointed‘s two most clownish, over-indulging stoner characters, Dank and Dabby. In the Season 1 finale — spoiler alert, I guess? — this couple gets stuck on the roof of the dispensary, and we learn what happens when they’re deprived of weed for a few hours: They remember their former lives as academic geniuses.
It’s intended as a joke, of course, but suddenly Dank and Dabby become tragic figures, chronic underachievers, no less victims of the demon weed than any character in Reefer Madness.
Still, there’s a lot to commend the show for in terms of representation. Ruth’s son Travis, a black man, is also that rarest of characters: a rational, normal, non-hippyish, level-headed, business-running, occasional marijuana user. There’s Maria, a suburban mom who takes to vaping with the zeal of the convert.
And then there’s Carter, the Iraq vet security guard whose internal struggles with PTSD are illustrated with dramatic, trippy animations. His journey, from adamantly refusing to even try pot to discovering that it quiets the bad stuff in his head, is the most touching arc on the show. Carter, a Muslim, is by far the most complex character; had he been the focus of Disjointed, Netflix may not have canceled it.
A more successful show, and the only one to truly represent marijuana users on a regular basis, is High Maintenance — which returns for a third season on HBO on January 20, 2019.
Like Broad City and unlike Disjointed, which was a top-down network-style show from Big Bang Theory guys, High Maintenance floated from the bottom up — starting life as a series of web shorts on Vimeo. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious hipster, the old, obscure ones are still clearly the best; a 15-minute format is the way the show should have stayed.
Each webisode was utterly fresh, a realistic slice of life of a different quirky New Yorker. At some point in the story, usually incidental to the action, each character receives a weed delivery from a bearded bike messenger known only as The Guy (Ben Sinclair).
In these shorts, The Guy was often the foil for the strangeness of his clients; he was a very New York type himself, a working dealer hustling to make a buck, and he bowed out quick.
When the show stepped up to HBO, a half-hour runtime requirement created a need to stitch the short stories together. The Guy became that stitching, and started to look like more of an eternal stoner type in the process: smoking out with his clients every episode, taking mushrooms and running around the city, and in the final episode of Season 2, even revealing that he has a name. (Unimaginatively, it’s Ben.)
But the show has opened up a seam of storytelling about New York City, one of the richest character mines in the world. It could dig for years and keep coming up with gold — because how many millions of New Yorkers continue to need a Guy, in the absence of legalization? (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for legalizing recreational marijuana in 2019, but nobody knows yet whether he’ll actually follow through or is just associating himself with a popular program.)
Nearly every High Maintenance character is striving for something that makes them sympathetic. They’re trying to make it in the big city, to create something, to find themselves, find love or explore a new fad. They are flawed and fascinating and just so happen to need, or like, the flawed, fascinating uplift that THC provides. They read the news today, oh boy (as in the Season 2 opener, which deals with a never-specified international catastrophe) and they’d love to turn you on.
In terms of anti-fascist political messages, however, there’s nothing to beat Reefer Madness. Not the 1936 version — the 1998 musical parody, immortalized in an Emmy-winning 2005 Showtime movie starring Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell.
The musical is mostly 1936 propaganda exaggerated to absurdity. An opening number warns that marijuana is “turning all our children into hooligans and whores.” A gangster’s moll laments her addiction to “The Stuff.” Young innocent Mary Sunshine (Bell) has a handful of puffs and turns into an insatiable dominatrix.
The American president himself (Cumming) shows up at the end to tell everyone how to combat the green menace. And then comes the sting in the musical’s tale: Once they’ve rounded up all the pot-smoking freaks, the cast vows, it’s time to round up everyone who deviates from the norm based on race and religion as well.
It’s fair to say this ending is rather more resonant in 2018 than it was in 1998. Life may be good for American stoners in some states right now, but others are still getting arrested and incarcerated by a plainly racist justice system.
The public may no longer associate marijuana with Mexican immigrants, as they did during the early part of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the current president squeaked into office after demonizing Mexicans for bringing unspecified “drugs and crime.” Fear of The Other is alive and well, and remains a factor in marijuana policy.
We really aren’t as far away from 1936 as we think, both on screen and in real life. But if moviemakers and showrunners can give us more than stoner comedy tropes, if they can stop giggling for long enough to give us more even-handed, realistic representations of a mostly harmless intoxicant, then society at large will follow.