What a Country! The Amazing Story of Yakov Smirnoff

James Logie

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Despite the cold war tensions between the United States and Russia in the 80s, a Soviet comedian was able to break his way into American pop culture.

Yakov Smirnoff is a Soviet-born comedian who moved to America in the late 70s. He would find success with his particular brand of Soviet/American humor.

In Soviet Russia, blog read YOU! I grew up in the 80s, so with late-night TV talk shows, we really only had a few options.

There was David Letterman that came on pretty late, and then the juggernaut of all talk shows; The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

The 80s were a time when comedy was booming and the Tonight Show was the place to be seen and featured.

Johnny Carson was so powerful that one outstanding performance on his show — for any form of entertainer — would make them a star overnight.

Yakov Smirnoff really appealed to a kid like me in the 80s. The humor wasn’t over our heads, and he had this friendly “fish out of water” foreign vibe that was not only part of his act, but part of his charm.

I always felt that he appealed to a wide range of audiences, and families and kids could enjoy him — even if we didn’t know what the hell was going on with the Soviet Union at the time.

He seemed so happy to be performing and you would always pick up on his enthusiasm.

They did a lot of work to scare us off Russians in the 80s as they were made to feel like brutish intimidating soldiers.

Just think Ivan Drogba in Rocky. With Yakov Smirnoff, he seemed more like your friendly neighbor.

This article will be a look back at Yakov Smirnoff, his comedy, and how, for a while, he could ease some Cold War Tension.

The Early Life of Yakov Smirnoff

The great Yakov Smirnoff was born Yakov Naumovich Pohkis on January 24, 1951.

He was actually born in the Ukraine in the town of Odesa right near the Black Sea, but it was then part of the Soviet Union.

Life in Odessa was a little bleak, but Smirnoff claims that he did not know any different. He grew up in a communal apartment where 9 families would live.

All nine families would share one kitchen, and one bathroom — for twenty people…

They didn’t have a phone or car, but this was just normal life for them. He and his entire family lived in the same room for 26 years.

Smirnoff got into comedy quite early as they considered Odesa the capital for humor in the Soviet Union.

The city served as a port so a lot of unique people from distinct cultures would make their way through there and a lot of original ideas, jokes, and humor would also make their way through.

As a kid, Smirnoff would spend his time memorizing jokes from friends and those around him, along with the odd radio comedy performance.

The crazy thing is, the only jokes they would hear were the ones that made it through the censors.

I had never heard of anything like this, but on the Dr. Drew Show, Smirnoff would explain how there was a “minister of jokes.”

Every state has a Minister of Culture and they had different departments to control everything that was coming through. There was even a department of poetry...

His Early Comedy Career

Around the age of 24, Yakov Smirnoff would perform stand-up comedy on cruise ships that would travel around the Black Sea. But he always was at the mercy of the censors.

His stand-up comedy acts would have to be approved beforehand by that minister of jokes and they weren’t allowed to talk about politics, government, sex, and religion.

I think this is why his act worked so well for a wide variety of ages. Since he had to take out a lot of controversial stuff he had to focus on a cleaner, less ‘blue’ variety of comedy, and this works very well for network TV.

It’s a lot like Jerry Seinfeld who could work dirty if he had wanted but just chose not to go that route.

This approach makes you find more day-to-day, less offensive humor that everyone can relate to.

You may like the most offensive humor in the world, but the simple concept of why airlines hand out such small packages of peanuts can still be found funny.

Since Smirnoff had no choice but to develop an act that was politically correct in Russia, it would end up being able to transfer over to a very wide audience range in North America.

Back to the cruise ships: It was around this time that Smirnoff says he started recognizing something about America.

The cruise ships would appeal to people from a lot of different countries — including English-speaking ones. Smirnoff would act as comedian and MC, using an interpreter to get his jokes across.

People in the Soviet Union at this time apparently could not even leave the country back then, and they didn’t have any exposure to foreign people.

But the jokes and charm of Yakov Smirnoff were resonating with the foreign audiences.

Was There an Actual Possibility of Leaving the Soviet Union?

Smirnoff tells an interesting story where he thought they fired him from the cruise ship as he was asking if they would allow his parents to have a cabin for a brief vacation.

A messenger would come to their apartment with tickets for him and his parents for the next cruise.

Since European companies owned the cruise ships, they did the usual thing of rewarding talent.

This didn’t happen in the Soviet Union and it made Smirnoff think that if he was an above-average talent in another country, he would get more rewards and things.

He would learn that this is how countries like American worked and it planted a seed in his brain.

In the late 70s, the Soviet Union was facing its own problems with supplies and had to strike up a deal with then-president Jimmy Carter.

Since the U.S. was supplying a vast majority of the wheat to the Soviet Union, it opened up the option of the favor being returned in the form of different types of exchanges.

One such type of exchange involved the opportunity for people to leave for America. The Soviet Union, however, was doing everything they could to not have people leave.

One such stipulation they put in place was that if a younger person would leave, his parents had to go too.

This was an ideal situation for him and his parents and even though it took years, he eventually got a visa.

Coming To America

His mother was hesitant to go, but both Yakov and his father were excited to leave Russia for the U.S. despite none of them speaking English.

Their lives were so regimented and the newfound freedom was a bit overwhelming to deal with.

It was 1977 and he and his parents were now living in New York City. Since he didn’t speak English yet, he spent his early days working as a busboy and bartender in the Catskill mountains of New York State.

As his English developed, he was able to start working on his comedy. One issue right off the bat was that of his name.

Yakov Naumovich Pohkis didn’t exactly roll off the tongue and wasn’t very accessible for American audiences.

He chose the name Smirnoff as he thought it was something more recognizable and he had learned about the brand name from those days bartending.

He had started performing his comedy in the late 70s and in 1980 would move to LA with his father.

This blows my mind, but while in L.A. he would be roommates with the legendary Andrew Dice Clay and Thomas F. Wilson aka Biff Tannen from Back to the Future.

He would begin performing at the famous Comedy Store where he would hone his craft for the next few years.

Yakov Smirnoff Gets His Big Break

Before he would appear on television across the country, Smirnoff got a small role in 1984 in a film called Moscow on the Hudson featuring another young up-and-coming comedian named Robin Williams.

Williams was playing the role of a Russian and Smirnoff would help him develop the proper accent. You might not remember, but he also appeared in:

  • Buckaroo Banzai (1984)
  • Brewster’s Millions (1985)
  • The Money Pit (1986)

I remember seeing the Money Pit at one point but I think I was only around 10 years old or so, so the only thing I remember is that scene with the toilet…

Another big break was appearing in a 1985 Miller Lite beer commercial:

He would then start appearing on the Tonight Show, which really launched his fame. This would lead to other TV appearances including some guest spots of Night Court.

He would then appear in the starring role of “ What a Country “ which was an aptly named — and Smirnoff-driven concept — about a cab driver in America studying for his citizenship test.

Like a lot of great American sitcoms, this was based on an original British comedy called “Mind Your Language.” The show debuted on September 27, 1986, and lasted for one season of 26 episodes.

The show also starred the great Don Knotts and George Murdock, who played Yuri Testikov in the “Marine Biologist” episode of Seinfeld. It also stars Harry Waters Jr. who was Marvin Berry in Back to the Future.

Many people at first — myself included — had thought that Yakov Smirnoff was just playing the part of being a Russian.

But he was the real deal and, again, gave a new impression that Russia had regular people just like we did. With guys like this, what was there to be afraid of?

The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Yakov Smirnoff was now a household name and making a great living by performing in places like Vegas and Atlantic City. He was living the American dream.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed.

Smirnoff says that he was not expecting this to happen and was unprepared for the entire thing. He would appear on David Letterman that night to appear in a top ten list.

The list was about new things that would happen because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and number one — read by Smirnoff himself — was how Yakov Smirnoff would be out of work.

They obviously did this as a joke, but it turned out to be an unfortunate reality. 6 months after the fall, none of his contracts were renewed.

Since they did not consider the Soviet Union an issue; the guy telling jokes about it wasn’t really needed either.

No one wanted to touch Smirnoff and he couldn’t get work at casinos, or even small clubs.

So how could he find a place that was pretty out of touch, didn’t know the Soviet Union collapsed, and he could continue his specific brand of humor?

Yakov’s Dinner Adventure in Branson, Missouri!

I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missourah.”
- Abe Simpson

Yakov took his show on the road and set up shop in Branson, Missouri. This was the perfect place to lie low and keep doing his act. Smirnoff says that Willie Nelson was the one that recommended making the move to Branson.

The Yakov Theatre was created, and the show comprised of magic, entertainment, and the story of Yakov’s life played out in a theatrical experience.

This is also dinner theatre at its best. Not only did it include dinner but, well, just watch the commercial for it:

Believe it or not, Smirnoff played in Branson for 20 years. People had poked fun at the show, but the show had great reviews on Google and TripAdvisor.

American/Soviet Humor Makes its Way Into Politics

The Cold War was so tense, but the humor of Yakov Smirnoff really helped take a bit of the edge off everything.

It’s fascinating to have watched his evolution into pop culture in the 80s, and I’m not sure if this act would have worked as well at other points in history?

Either way, this American/Society comedy was easing the tension a bit and then making its way into American politics. Yakov would end up going to perform at the Whitehouse and meet president Reagan and Bush.

Ronald Reagan had really got on board with the Soviet jokes and loved to find stories of jokes being told between Russian citizens that he could use in his own speeches.

The man loved a good Soviet joke.

In an address to the company employees of Reynolds Metal on March 28, 1988, in Richmond, Virginia, Reagan explained how there was a ten-year wait for the delivery of a new car in the Soviet Union.

It was quite a process to be able to buy, and eventually, you had to put up the money in advance. Here’s the joke:

“This man laid down his money and the fellow who was in charge said, ‘OK, come back in ten years and get your car.’ The buyer said, ‘morning or afternoon?’ And the fella behind the counter said, ‘ten years from now, what difference does it make?’ And the buyer said, ‘well, the plumber’s coming in the morning…

Reagan also claims to have told this joke to Mikhail Gorbachev:

“An American and a Russian arguing about their two countries and the American said look, ‘in my country I can walk into the Oval Office, I can pound the president’s desk and say, Mr. President, I don’t like the way you’re running our country.’ And the Russian said, ‘I can do that.’ The American said, ‘you can?’ The Russian said yes, ‘I can go into the Kremlin to the secretary’s office, pound his desk, and say, Mr. General Secretary, and say: I don’t like the way President Regan’s running his country.’”

Do we have time for one more? OK, here we go again, courtesy of the Gipper:

“One of the most recent ones I heard was about the man walking along the street at night in Moscow, Soviet soldier called at him to halt, he started to run and the soldier shot him. Another man said, ‘why did you do that?’ The first man said ‘curfew.’ ‘Well it isn’t curfew yet,’ he said, ‘I know, he’s a friend of mine I know where he lives — he couldn’t have made it.’”

What is Yakov Doing Today?

Yakov Smirnoff is one smart cookie — or pechen’ye if I’m getting that right. He is now a doctor. In the last year or so he has moved into the area of psychology and is getting a better understanding of the science of humor, among other things.

His interest in the psychology of laughter took him to the University of Pennsylvania to study psychology, and then he got his master’s degree at UPENN.

Smirnoff decided that wasn’t enough and wanted to continue his research into the psychology of laughter. He then got a doctorate degree at Pepperdine University.

His whole dissertation was based on the “law of laughter,” and he has actually developed a formula of how laughter can be created, whether in a relationship or in front of a comedy crowd.

The idea with this formula is that you need:

  1. “complimentary opposites.” This would be the performer and their audience.
  2. You need to meet the audience’s needs, and they need to meet your needs. Now there is a complementary exchange happening when the comedian tells a joke, and the audience laughs. They are now both exchanging a “currency” which is important to both, in this case, the currency is laughter.
  3. Both need a shared sense of humor. The comedy can’t go over the audience's head, be too low brow, and needs to be understood by them.

These three things add up to laughter, and the work he does shows how this can happen on a small one-on-one scale or a comedian in front of 10,000 people.

Some Classic Yakov Smirnoff Jokes

Here are a few of my favorites from various Tonight Show appearances:

  • “There are no things like American Express, they give you Russian Express: Don’t leave home…”
  • “You have to be very careful about what jokes you pick, like ‘take my wife, please,’ you get home and she’s gone
  • “I make fun of Cleveland because everybody makes fun of Cleveland. Every country has one city people make fun of. In Russia, we used to make fun of Cleveland.”
  • “I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘we guarantee our furniture, and we stand behind it for 6 months.’ That’s the reason I left Soviet Union!”
  • “In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, party always finds YOU.

Wrapping it Up

It was awesome to go back and dig deeper into the glorious career of Yakov Smirnoff. I love comedy, and when I think of the 80s — and comedians — he always comes to mind.

He was one of those great regular fixtures you would see on the Tonight Show and in different forms of media.

His comedy made a long-lasting impact as “in Soviet Russia…” which is now known as Russian Reversal.

When you go back and watch his original comedy and performances, you can see how he influenced a lot of future comedians. You can also really see where Sacha Baron Cohen got a lot of Borat influence.

From Russia, With Love is truly the best way to sum up, the iconic Yakov Smirnoff.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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