smokeshow

A Cultural History of the ‘Smokeshow’

From Bartstool bros to… well, more Barstool bros, honestly, but a bunch of other stuff too

We’re such stoners that 4/20 isn’t just a day, it’s an entire week. And it’s not just weed we love, it’s the act of smoking and everything even loosely related to breathing in toxic fumes — whether that’s chain-smoking cigarettes, vaping Juuls, suffocating a rack of ribs, or hell, even committing arson! Welcome to our exploration of all things smoke.

The year was 2008. Barstool Sports was still just a burgeoning website featuring all things Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago sports and not… whatever the fuck it is now. East Coast fan-bros of the Barstool brand had grown weary of the term “smoking hawt” to describe very attractive women, so after much deliberation, a few guys who probably play hockey or lacrosse got together in a musty basement with a 30 rack of Natty Light, under the auspices of a friendly frat-sponsored circle-jerk, when one of them turned to his bro and said, “Y’know bro, that chick you were talking to last night, she was smoking hawt. She’s a total…….. smokeshow.” The other men in the room immediately ceased their drinking and/or jerking, and like a fly to blue light, began chanting the word “smokeshow” like a ritualistic hymn. And thus the smokeshow was born.

As any bro knows, lexicology travels quickly in this community, so it wasn’t long before a stooge at the Barstool brand decided to create a subcommunity under the Barstool umbrella featuring attractive college women from all over the country, submitted in hopes of becoming “Smokeshow of the Day” — an amateur collegiate conception of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The rest, as they say in overwrought mythical tales, is history.

1) Admittedly, the above is just my own imagining of where the term smokeshow came from, but it does lean on some fairly obvious cultural moments beginning, at least according to Google Trends, in 2008. Before this date, searches for the term “smokeshow” were practically nonexistent other than a few small spikes in 2007. But beginning in October 2008, searches for “smokeshow” gained some traction, ranging in search interest from 0 to 28 relative to its own popularity (100 being the most popular point, which was reached in February 2019).

2) The first mention of the term “smokeshow” as a descriptor — used to suggest maximum visual attractiveness — seems to be an Urban Dictionary entry published on October 6, 2003. “A term used to describe an extremely hot girl,” it reports. “I didn’t know she was that good looking, what a smokeshow!” In other words, as one redditor puts it, “It’s an old term for good looks, akin to calling someone smoking hot.” Coincidentally, this initial Urban Dictionary entry was published the same year Barstool founder Dave Portnoy launched the print publication of Barstool, which was distributed in the Boston metropolitan area offering gambling advertisements and fantasy sports projections.

3) But even before that, “smoke show” was a more literal term, used to describe the cloud of smoke that would encompass a given setting when you revved the engine of a car or motorcycle that was in park. This variation of the term is also the name of an underground street racers show on VICE called Smoke Show, featuring the underbelly of street racing all over the country.

4) Scott Kiesling, a linguistics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, tells me that while he’s unable to track down any etymological sources for the term, he does offer that it makes sense that the idea of smokeshow comes from the smoke seen with things related to fire, and also “show,” which is something one gazes on from a distance but doesn’t interact with.

“But there are a couple of other ways it’s used that could be related to its provenance,” he says. “The first is that it seems to be a term associated with multiple barbecue restaurants around the U.S. You get plenty of hits for this in search engines. This could be the source, since there’s also a metaphor in which women are sexualized in terms of taste, so a ‘smokeshow’ could be ‘tasty.’” The other use, according to Kiesling, is, as mentioned above, for doing a “burnout” in a car. “This seems less likely but possible, as the beautiful person leaves you in the smoke and disappears,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the latter one, but one never knows without evidence.” Which is why if he had to put his money on where the term stems from, Kiesling says he’d put it on the “hotness” and barbecue sources (not sauces) for the term, adding, “Of course, once it’s used, people will make their own assumptions and it will reinforce its use.”

5) Additionally, Kiesling says that when you look at Twitter, you see lots of uses describing various women, but there’s also a surprising number of uses of the term by women describing men (especially significant others). “There seems to be a genre — or a bot as well — in which one half of a committed couple identifies the other as a smokeshow, often on an anniversary or birthday,” says Kiesling. “It’s an interesting phenomenon, I’m not sure what to do with it. Of course it’s also used in Instagram accounts unremarkably devoted to posting sexy women in bathing suits. So the objectification implicit in the ‘show’ part of the word is certainly there.”

6) Which brings us to the most popular and widely used definition of a smokeshow — to describe a “seriously hot girl,” per Urban Dictionary. It’s an interpretation of the term that most redditors agree is the true definition. “It sounds interchangeable with ‘smoking hottie.’” Another says the term means “looks and nothing else, like she’s really attractive but no personality.” To which yet another redditor noted that it has nothing to do with personality and is purely based on appearance. At its core, then, the smokeshow is both literal and metaphorical in its description of attractiveness. “A word to describe someone so hot that you basically see the smoke coming off them…” Luis Folk writes on DefineDictionaryMeaning.com.

7) To that end, and per Kiesling’s observations, since the inception of Barstool’s Smokeshow of the Day — which now boasts its own separate Instagram that features several “smokeshows” in one day — the term has permeated the online discourse so much that women also use the term to describe attractive women. For example, in 2016, Keely Flaherty, a BuzzFeed staffer, referred to Kim Kardahsian’s GQ cover as “a total smokeshow.”

8) In fact, a quick poll of my female colleagues indicates that calling a woman a smokeshow beats the usual compliments of “hot,” “cute” or “pretty.” “It’s a little more creative,” says MEL Deputy Editor Alana Levinson. “It’s funny, this is used as an example of their misogyny, but what’s better — ’BIG-TITTED COLLEGE HOTTIES?’ That’s the other option for that site [Barstool.com].” Editorial Assistant Magdalene Taylor agrees. “Smokeshow is like a very red-blooded, all-American type of compliment,” she says. My fellow staff writer Tracy Moore does point out, though, that the term is still “a bit of a cheesedick phrase,” suggesting that it’s at least more elegant than telling a woman she’s “bangin’.”

9) In 2013, a Republican staffer sent around an email soliciting an internship for his female friend, using the term to describe her… qualifications? Per HuffPo, the email reads: “One of my friends from college, just graduated and is trying to intern on the Hill this summer. She is a smoke show from FSU, but she happens to be a Dem so I’m having trouble finding her a spot. She’s a smart girl and has worked for FEMA. She’s real cool and gets along with everyone. If one [of] your interns falls through or you can squeeze another in, give her a shot.” So were there any repercussions for this Republican staffer whose foot is clearly wedged in his jaw? Not really. “No, they thought it was funny,” he told RollCall.com. “[I] just wish some people who saw it didn’t, if you know what I mean.”

10) As mentioned previously, the term “smokeshow” isn’t entirely relegated to describing attractive women: There are a couple different Pinterest boards featuring male smokeshows, including celebrities and models, most of whom are not wearing a shirt.

11) But of course, the common usage of the term to describe attractive women is the basis of professional wrestler Scarlett Bordeaux’s show on IMPACT Wrestling. It boasts porn level acting and plot, sans actual nudity.

12) There’s also an L.A.-based burlesque show aptly named Smokeshow Burlesque which, per their Facebook page, promises to “arouse your senses with an evening of reckless burlesque.” And possibly actual smoke? Who knows.

13) Unsurprisingly, there’s a mezcal cocktail named the “smoke show,” a tribute to the smoky-flavored liquor brought over to the U.S. from Mexico. “The bright, fresh taste and warming herbal properties of this cocktail by bartender Liz Martinez at The Purple Pig bring to mind Christmas trees, cold snowy mornings and evenings spent by a crackling fire,” reports Liquor.com.

14) If you’re wondering how no one has written a song named after the “smokeshow” yet, well, country singer Brett Young has you covered. In 2015, he released a video for his song “Smoke Show,” featuring a woman flirting with a man who was also probably in a fraternity and who also likely played lacrosse or hockey and who in the video is wearing a gray hat with the word “SOUTH,” on it.

Two years prior to Young’s rendition of a song named after a Barstool-incepted term, electronic trio Clifflight graced the world’s ears with their dance-y song also named “Smokeshow.”

15) The Smoke Show is also the name of a 2016 Canadian cannabis reviews show on YouTube from the Cannabis Life Network.

16) And while the term smokeshow is almost always a seemingly positive descriptor, in at least one case, according to a BMW driving forum, it’s considered an affront. “An insult usually directed at any hot shot turbo that tries to impress people with their skills as a motorist,” writes kickinindian.

17) But who, oh who, was the first smokeshow? According to the original purveyors of the term: Faye Dunaway. So now you know.