Dr. Yakov Naumovich Pokhis (Russian: Яков Наумович Похис; born 24 January 1951), better known as Yakov Smirnoff (Russian: Яков смирнофф; //), is a Ukrainian-American comedian, actor and writer. He began his career as a stand-up comedian in Ukraine, then immigrated to the United States in 1977 in order to pursue an American show business career, not yet knowing any English. He reached his biggest success in the mid-to-late 1980s, appearing in several films and the television sitcom vehicle What a Country!. His comic persona was of a naive immigrant from the Soviet Union who was perpetually confused and delighted by life in the United States. His humor combined a mockery of life under communism and of consumerism in the United States, as well as word play caused by misunderstanding of American phrases and culture, all punctuated by the catchphrase, "And I thought, 'What a country!'"
Smirnoff promotional image
|Birth name||Yakov Naumovich Pokhis|
|Native name||Яков Наумович Похис|
|Born||24 January 1951|
Odessa, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
|Medium||Stand-up, television, art, books|
|Genres||Relationship humor, irony, word play, transpositional pun|
|Subject(s)||Psychology, Russian-American culture, race relations, relationships, immigration, communism in the Soviet Union|
|Spouse||Linda Dreeszen (1989–2001; divorced; 2 children)|
|Notable works and roles||Yakov on Night Court|
Nikolai on What a Country!
Shatov in The Money Pit
The collapse of communism starting in 1989, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, brought an end to Smirnoff's widespread popularity, although he continued to perform. In 1993, he began performing year round at his own theater in Branson, Missouri, where he remained until 2015. He occasionally still performs limited dates at his theater in Branson while touring worldwide.
In 2006 Smirnoff earned his master's degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Smirnoff recently earned his doctorate in psychology and global leadership at Pepperdine University. He has also taught a course titled "The Business of Laughter" at Missouri State University and at Drury University.
Smirnoff was born to a Jewish family, as Yakov Naumovich Pokhis in Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. He was an art teacher in Odessa, as well as a comedian. As a comedian, he entertained occasionally on ships in the Black Sea, where he came into contact with Americans who described life in the United States to him. That was when he first considered leaving the country. After two years of attempting to leave, he came to the United States with his parents in 1977, arriving in New York City. His family was allowed to come to America because of an agreement between the USSR and America to exchange wheat for Soviet citizens who wished to defect. At the time, neither he nor his parents spoke any English. On arrival to the United States, he was almost sent back to Russia when his translator mistranslated his occupation, comedian, as "party organizer", which immigration authorities thought meant that he was an organizer for the Communist Party.
Smirnoff began doing stand-up comedy in the US in the late 1970s. He chose the last name "Smirnoff" after trying to think of a name that Americans would be familiar with; he had learned about Smirnoff vodka in his bartending days.
In the early 1980s, he moved to Los Angeles to further pursue his stand-up comedy career. There he was roommates with two other aspiring comedians, Andrew Dice Clay and Thomas F. Wilson. He appeared often at renowned L.A. club The Comedy Store. After achieving some level of fame, Smirnoff got his first break with a small role in the 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson; on the set, he helped star Robin Williams with his Russian dialogue. He subsequently appeared in several other motion pictures, including Buckaroo Banzai (1984), Brewster's Millions (1985) and The Money Pit (1986). Among his numerous appearances on television, he was featured many times on the sitcom Night Court as "Yakov Korolenko", and appeared as a comedian and guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
He had a starring role in the 1986–87 television sitcom What a Country! In that show, he played a Russian cab driver studying for the U.S. citizenship test. In the late 1980s, Smirnoff was commissioned by ABC to provide educational bumper segments for Saturday morning cartoons, punctuated with a joke and Smirnoff's signature laugh.
In 1987, Smirnoff was invited to a party hosted by Washington Times editor-in-chief Arnaud de Borchgrave which featured President Ronald Reagan as the guest of honor. Reagan and Smirnoff immediately hit it off, due to Reagan's love of jokes about life in the Soviet Union. Reagan enjoyed telling such jokes in speeches, and Smirnoff became one of his sources for new material. An example of a joke Reagan later told that originated from Smirnoff was "In Russia, if you say, 'Take my wife - please', you come home and she is gone." Smirnoff was enlisted by Dana Rohrabacher, who was then a speechwriter for Reagan, to help with material for Reagan's speeches, including a speech given in front of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when Reagan visited the Soviet Union during the Moscow Summit in 1988. Rohrabacher later stated that Smirnoff became "one of the inner circle" of speechwriting advisers during Reagan's final years in office, due to the quality of Smirnoff's suggestions.
In 1988, Smirnoff was the featured entertainer at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner.
From 1993 to 2015, he performed hundreds of times a year at his own 2,000-seat theater in Branson, Missouri, featuring comedy acts and Russian dance performances. In the late 1990s, prompted by his divorce, he retooled his stand-up act to focus on the differences between men and women, and on solving problems within relationships. He returned to Branson for a 2018-2019 season of his show, starting in October 2018.
In 2003, he appeared on Broadway in a one-man show, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh. He was a featured writer for AARP Magazine and gave readers advice in his column, "Happily Ever Laughter". He guests at the Skinny Improv in Springfield, Missouri on occasion.
After a successful career in television, movies and Broadway, Smirnoff turned his mind to understanding the mysteries of happiness. In May 2006, he received a master's degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught classes at Drury University along with Missouri State University on this topic. He also gives seminars and self-help workshops on the topic of improving relationships.
He earned his doctorate in psychology and global leadership at Pepperdine University; graduating on May 18, 2019.
"America: What a country!"Edit
Some of Smirnoff's jokes involved word play based on a limited understanding of American idioms and culture:
- "I go to New York and I saw a big sign saying 'America Loves Smirnoff' and I said to myself, what a country!"
- Reading employment announcements of "Part-Time Woman Wanted": "What a country! Even transvestites can get work."
- Upon being offered work as a barman on a "graveyard shift", he remarks, 'A bar in a cemetery! What a country! Last call? During Happy Hour the place must be dead.'
- At the grocery store: "Powdered milk, powdered eggs, baby powder ... what a country!"
- At the grocery store after finding "New Freedom" Maxi Pads: "Freedom in a box! What a country!"
- "The first time I went to a restaurant, they asked me, 'How many in your party?' and I said, 'Six hundred million'."
Other jokes mocked life under communism:
- "We have no gay people in Russia—there are homosexuals but they are not allowed to be gay about it. The punishment is seven years locked in prison with other men and there is a three-year waiting list for that."
Other jokes involved comparisons between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R:
- "I like parades without missiles in them. I'll take Bullwinkle to a tank any day'"
- "In every country, they make fun of city. In U.S. you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland."
- "Why don't they have baseball in Soviet Union? In Soviet Union, no one is safe."
- Here you have American Express Card: "Don't Leave Home Without It." In Russia, we have Russian Express Card: "Don't Leave Home!"
- In a TV spot for Miller Lite: "In America, you can always find a party! In Russia, party always finds you!"
Smirnoff is often credited with inventing or popularizing the type of joke known as the "Russian reversal", in which life "in Soviet Russia" or "in Russia" is described through an unexpected flip of a sentence's subject and object; a type of chiasmus. In truth, such jokes predated Smirnoff's act, and he rarely told them. One exception was a 1985 Miller Lite commercial, in which Smirnoff stated, "In America, there is plenty of light beer and you can always find a party. In Russia, Party always finds you."
Smirnoff is also a painter and has frequently featured the Statue of Liberty in his art since receiving his U.S. citizenship.
On the night of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he started a painting inspired by his feelings about the event, based on an image of the Statue of Liberty. Just prior to the first anniversary of the attacks, he paid US$100,000 for his painting to be transformed into a large mural. Its dimensions were 200 feet by 135 feet (61 m by 41 m). The mural, titled "America's Heart," is a pointillist-style piece, with one brush-stroke for each victim of the attacks. Sixty volunteers from the Sheet Metal Workers Union erected the mural on a damaged skyscraper overlooking the ruins of the World Trade Center. The mural remained there until November 2003, when it was removed because of storm damage. Various pieces of the mural can now be seen on display at his theater in Branson, Missouri.
The only stipulation he put on the hanging of the mural was that his name not be listed as the painter. He signed it: "The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart."
Smirnoff became an American citizen on July 4, 1986.
- The Jewish Mothers' Hall of Fame, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Feb 9, 2011
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- Buck, Jerry (9 December 1987). "Comedian has last laugh". Observer-Reporter (AP TV Writer). Retrieved 8 April 2019.
He was nearly sent back to the Soviet Union on the next plane after the interpreter, groping for the right translation of comedian, came up with 'party organizer.' For a moment, the immigration people thought he was an organizer for the Communist Party.
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- Yakov Smirnoff official biography
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- Yakov Smirnoff spreading joy of living ‘happily ever laughter’ Diana Nollen, Hoopla, 14 March 2013