A whoop goes up in the Back Room when Kramer lights up a cigar in a recent episode of "Seinfeld."
It is not much of a whoop because there are only three guys in the Sherman Oaks smoking club, the only establishment in the Valley where a man can lean back in an easy chair and suck on a nice Hoyo de Monterrey without being treated like a habitual offender. But a whoop of recognition it is.
On the big-screen TV, Kramer is generating large amounts of smoke and gesticulating wildly with his Ernie Kovacs-length stogie. Off-screen, in the Ventura Boulevard club, the smoke from three real-life cigars is efficiently removed by a state-of-the-art air-filtering system.
"Michael Richards, the actor who plays Kramer, isn't really a cigar smoker," explains Brian Linse, 34. Like many of the 65 men who anted up $500 to join the club when it opened in October (women are welcome but none have joined), Linse is in the entertainment industry. He is thus more likely than the average American to be aware of the smoking habits of an actor whose face and unruly hair are more familiar than his name.
Moreover, Gus' Smoke Shop next door, the club's sponsor, is a sometime consultant to "Seinfeld," willing and able to share its expertise on such esoteric matters as the ring gauge (the measure of a cigar's circumference and a factor in its draw and smoothness) that a Kramer type would favor. So tight is Gus' owner with the "Seinfeld" crew that the cigar-store Indian that stands outside the 68-year-old shop has made a cameo appearance on the show.
The Back Room is what writer Richard Carleton Hacker calls a "smoke-easy," a refuge for cigar lovers in an increasingly hostile world. Hacker, who lives within walking distance of the club and is an honorary charter member, is an articulate champion of the rights of cigar and pipe smokers. He is also the author of "The Ultimate Cigar Book," autographed copies of which sell briskly at Gus' place at $34.95 a pop.
Frequently featured at "smokers" and other cigar events, Hacker sees private smoking clubs as a welcome presence, given the scorn heaped on people who dare to brandish even an unlit cigar in public.
"They give the average freedom-loving cigar smoker a place where they can enjoy their pastime without incurring the wrath of less tolerant individuals," Hacker says. "It's a shame that in the freest country in the world, we have to create these bastions."
Hacker makes his living promoting things most men like and most women disapprove of, including, in addition to cigars, single-malt whiskeys, small-batch bourbons and muzzle-loading firearms. He notes, with considerable pride: "I've been called the most politically incorrect writer in America."
According to the three smokers glued to "Seinfeld" and their pricey cigars, shared oppression makes the Back Room a place where friendship comes easily. "Because we're such pariahs, there's instant bonding and camaraderie," Linse says.
A colorist by profession, Linse earns the $100 a week he spends on premium cigars by ensuring that the hues stay true when images are transferred from film to videotape. On days when keeping the teals from turning into navies induces stomach acid, Linse reminds himself that it's only a matter of time until he can share a cigar and the sacrament of small talk with people like Jay Wolpert, 53, another Back Room regular.
Like most cigar smokers, Linse and Wolpert don't think Bill Clinton is talking to them when he lectures on the dangers of tobacco. Consumers of high-end cigars insist that their smoke of choice is far less dangerous than cigarettes. "There's a huge difference, and it's in the chemicals," says Linse. Premium cigars are made entirely of tobacco, with none of the additives that characterize American cigarettes and the paper they are wrapped in.
"I despise cigarettes," Linse says.
Even if the President had had these men in his sights along with Joe Camel, it is hard to imagine them rising up and fighting to the death to preserve their right to finish their Macanudos. They are laid back to the point of drowsiness. It takes more than an hour to smoke a substantial cigar, and there's not much else you can do while you're at it. Wolpert manages to be hilarious between puffs, but he seems disinclined to political action of any sort.
"Did you know I was the 1969 'Jeopardy!' world champion?" he asks. " 'Hello' is usually the second thing I say to you when I meet you. The first thing I usually say is, 'I'm the 1969 'Jeopardy!' world champion.' "
Wolpert is a writer, producer and actor. His writing credits include TV game shows. As an example of his work, he cites the question he most enjoys among the myriad he wrote for the late, unlamented "Joe Garagiola's Memory Game":
\o7 In Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Claudius kills the old king and marries his wife, Gertrude. Gertrude's son, Hamlet, is killed by Laertes, but not before Hamlet kills Laertes, kills Claudius and the Queen drinks poison. Spell Ophelia.\f7