What the Puff: Pipes in Pop Culture

I smoke tobacco pipes. I’ve enjoyed them since I turned 18 and even make them. So, I am pleased when I see television or movies including characters smoking their pipes. You’ll never know where pipe smokers are going to turn up in these things, from Colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds to Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. Even the First and Fourth Doctors in Doctor Who were seen smoking pipes. However, I’m almost always infuriated when I see how they smoke them. This is because many times the characters smoke their pipes wrong. Typically, these characters seem to be most interested in making as much smoke as possible. This isn’t wrong because of arbitrary etiquette, but rather is wrong because it ruins the taste of the tobacco, burns the mouth, and can ruin a pipe over time.

Gandalf Smokes his Pipe

The Lord of the Rings movies, and, more recently, The Hobbit, are the first to come to mind. One can clearly identify some of the principle reasons people choose to smoke pipes from these movies. Gandalf does so both for his own enjoyment and to help him think. I’m all for how he enjoys himself. Blowing smoke rings and making animated, magical smoke sculptures is great fun indeed!

But Gandalf loses me when he smokes as he concentrates. The smart old wizard puffs vigorously when he thinks, leading me to believe that a bitter taste and tongue bite is somehow his muse. I suppose that it must be that doing one thing unintelligently and creating distractions as a consequence is tantamount to the magic of becoming more intelligent and focusing one’s attention.

Then there’s Bilbo, in The Hobbit, smoking in his nervous youth to relax. I find it quite curious that he makes such a habit of constantly covering the bowl with his fingers and puffing in strong pops relax. Does he really find the game of burning his mouth and fingers relaxing? While the book describes his nervousness as being responsible for inadvertently doing such things, Martin Freeman apparently thinks Bilbo did this quite deliberately. To me, this implies a character who is intent from the beginning to make himself anxious and bitter, rather than one who is shaped this way despite his own wishes.

It’s an interesting character development that I have to say largely kills the character of Bilbo for me. I’ve engaged in many delightful conversations about pipes as a direct result from the pipes seen in these movies; people want that “Gandalf pipe.” I always tell people that these long-stemmed pipes, called churchwardens, are actually good pipes for beginners because the long stem cools the smoke before it reaches the mouth. This tends to please them–a mindset which I have a habit of heartlessly crushing when I inform them that it will not cool the smoke enough to not burn the mouth if one smokes it like in the movies.

And as for the bit about it being “smoke weed” and not tobacco in The Lord of the Rings, I’d just like to point out that Tolkein was a pipe smoker. “Smoke weed” is an analogue for tobacco which characterizes Middle Earth as both similar to Earth, yet other.

Sherlock Smokes his PipeThen there’s Sherlock Holmes, such a prolific pipe smoker that calabash gourd pipes are often identified as “Sherlock Holmes pipes.” In Sherlock Holmes (2009) starring Robert Downey Jr., we see Mr. Holmes smoking a pipe more accurate to the one he smoked in the book, and he mostly smokes it quite well. In this particular case, it is not so much the pipe smoking that is wrong but rather the writing and Robert Downey Jr.’s past.

It’s already bad having to deal with the vast majority of the population thinking of marijuana when they see tobacco pipes (a cultural bias which I would like to name “cannibarchy.”) With the emphasis placed on Sherlock’s drug use, the connection becomes so natural that it is in fact physically painful to attempt disconnecting the pipe on screen from illegal substances.

There’s also the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Steven Moffat, in his infinitely narrow wisdom, decided that cigarettes are basically the same as pipe tobacco. In acknowledgement of London’s bans on smoking in most public places, this iteration of Mr. Holmes features excessive uses of nicotine patches rather than tobacco pipes. Funnily enough, Sherlock Holmes did not smoke pipes for the nicotine. In fact, I’ve yet to find a pipe smoker who does so because it is an efficient nicotine delivery method.

One smokes a pipe for other reasons, such as enjoying the taste. To smoke a pipe, one must control their breathing and devote constant, if not sometimes minute, attention to the repetitive task of smoking the thing. These days, the only difference between smoking a pipe and meditating is that smoking will piss people off. They will, however, both get you called either a wise sage or a hipster.

Top: Calabash Pipe Bottom: Sherlock Holmes Pipe

Top: Calabash Pipe
Bottom: Sherlock Holmes Pipe

So I do applaud the BBC and Mr. Moffat in their brilliant reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’ character for completely missing the point of an activity which greatly informed his character.

Speaking of Sherlock and pipes and informing on the character, I would like to bring up two more characters. Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation plays the role of Sherlock Holmes in the holodeck. His insistence on smoking a pipe in that circumstance despite not having the ability to taste it greatly informs the overall awesomeness of his character as well as how much I like him. Then there’s Zoidberg, from Futurama, who eats a pipe in a similar situation to Lt. Cdr. Data’s. This informs how stupid and gross (also funny) Zoidberg is.

Mad Men earns its title every time it shows one of the male members of this past generation smoking their pipe like a stark-raving lunatic. Yes, I can appreciate the dramatic effect of “slimy jerk” they’re going for here, but my God—at what cost?! They do it all wrong on Mad Men. They puff like a chimney so as to better burn their mouths and eyes. They relight it when it’s still lit to make sure we know they’re stupid. Best of all, the way in which they gesture with it in their hand implies that they truly believe that the pipe is the best way to let people know that they have a penis and they’re going to use it to tell people stuff.

It’s so sad how the men at this time lived. They clearly all had a very strong gender identity and seemed to take pleasure in partaking in what they perceived to be a masculine cultural pastime. Little did they know how very wrong they were getting it. Their ancestors who started the ritual would likely be disgusted. It’s almost as if the men at the time were somehow oppressed to put them in such a bad way. I for one choose to blame cannibarchy. Maybe if those men weren’t busy all of those years wagging their pipes like some sort of palm penis then I’d have more women to sit and smoke with.

Ladies Enjoying their PipesI’m a pipe smoker. The activity of enjoying a pipe is quite meaningful to me, and I just cannot help but notice when they get it so wrong in pop culture. While I can certainly understand if it seems like I am missing the point of its portrayal, reading too far into things, and focusing on the worst moments, I don’t think that it is fair to say that I am being unreasonable. While it was only one part of what made the original writing so great, Sherlock Holmes’ habit of pipe smoking was quite intentionally meaningful to the character. Since pipe smoking is something that I’m so personally connected to, it helps me empathize with Sherlock.

It’s right for me, as it was for Albert Einstein and William Faulkner, so it feels important to piece of our shared reality well reflected in fiction. It feels good to see a good representation of something so meaningful to me. Maybe pipe smoking—the art of doing so and the pleasure of doing it well—is a little silly. Indeed, the jargon of cool smokes, tongue bites, churchwardens, and calabashes is somewhat esoteric to a specific population to which I belong. But even if this population is small in comparison to the whole of humanity, my silly affinity for pipe smoking is part of what makes me human and unites me with the whole of humanity. If it’s not pipe smoking for you, it’s surely something else. Maybe it’s baking, history, music, high school, or gaming culture. I’m not just talking about pipes, but humanity as well.

And yes, I appreciate the irony of posting about poor portrayals of pipe smoking on this site. In fact, that irony is part of my point. Really, if it’s a little silly that pipes are so mishandled as often as they are when rarely portrayed, then it is absolute, utter lunacy when more serious “little things” like homosexual or female human beings are fucked up so royally. I’ll reflect on this further over a nice smoke, and I invite you to light a pipe and join the conversation.

“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs.” -Albert Einstein, 1950

“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs.”

-Albert Einstein, 1950


4 thoughts on “What the Puff: Pipes in Pop Culture

  1. Very good. It’s like I’m reading an article from NPR. Unexpected, intriguing, interesting. Just what I come to this blog for.

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