Yakov Naumovich Pokhis, better known as Yakov Smirnoff (born 24 January 1951), is a Soviet-born American comedian, actor and writer. After emigrating to the United States in 1977, Smirnoff began performing as a stand-up comic. He eventually gained fame, and he reached his biggest successes in the mid-to-late 1980s, when he also appeared in several films and television shows, including his own 1986–87 sitcom, 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 is best known as the inventor of the "In Soviet Russia.." joke, also known as the "Russian Reversal".
The collapse of Communism starting in 1989, and especially the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, brought an end to Smirnoff's widespread popularity, although he continued to perform. In 1992, he bought his own theater in Branson, Missouri, where he performed his last show on December 3, 2015. In the late 1990s, prompted by his own divorce, he retooled his stand-up act to focus on the differences between men and women, and on solving problems within relationships.
Smirnoff was born Yakov Naumovich Pokhis (Ukrainian: Яків Наумович Похис) in Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. He is Jewish. 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.
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 and crossed the picket line in 1979 when unpaid comedians went on strike.
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 Showhosted by 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 1988, Smirnoff was the featured entertainer at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner.
In 2003, he appeared on Broadway in a one-man show, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh. He is a featured writer for AARP Magazine and gives 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 positive psychology from the Penn College of Liberal and Professional Studies (Penn LPS). 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.
In March 2016, Smirnoff brought his infectious charm and practical, research-based relationship advice to PBS SoCaL viewers in a one-hour special, Yakov Smirnoff’s Happily Ever Laughter: The Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships. Throughout the course of the show, Smirnoff introduces his four keys to success in a relationship using the acronym GIFT: for Give; Importance; Fun; Time. He also explains some of the findings of recent relationship-focused studies on hormones, the honeymoon stage, laughter and more. A highlight of the show is when he recounts heart-warming stories of his parents' inspiring relationship and explains how they were using GIFT to bring love and laughter to each other throughout their lives.
Smirnoff goodnaturedly states, “In the 1980s, my humor helped to end the Cold War between countries, now I want to help end the cold war between couples." Happily Ever Laughter: The Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships premiers on PBS nationally in August, 2016.
"America: What a country!"
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!"
He once told Johnny Carson, "I enjoy being in America: it's fun, you know, because you have, you have so many things we never had in Russia—like warning shots." When Carson asked if comedians in the Soviet Union can crack jokes about their leaders, Smirnoff replied, "Of course—once."
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." Later parodies of Smirnoff's act often involved him telling such Russian reversal jokes, which may have contributed to the perception that they were a part of his act.
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 4 July 1986.
In popular culture
- In a 1992 episode of the sketch comedy show The Ben Stiller Show, a sketch called "Yakov Smirnoff's Last Stand" showed Smirnoff (played by Ben Stiller) struggling to perform a comedy routine after the fall of the USSR had left him without subject matter. The sketch was criticized by television critic Tom Shales, who called it "needlessly cruel".
- In a 1997 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Smirnoff (played by an actor), is brought in to lecture about the 1964 Russian film Jack Frost, but simply delivers a series of one-liners.
- In a 2001 episode of Family Guy, "There's Something About Paulie", a car navigation system has a "Yakov Smirnoff" setting, in which it intersperses directions (in a Russian accent) with jokes such as "In Soviet Russia, car drives you!"
- In a 2002 episode of King of the Hill, "The Bluegrass Is Always Greener", Smirnoff (voicing himself) agrees to buy a joke written by Bobby Hill ("In America, you put 'In God We Trust' on your money. In Russia, we have no money!"), despite the fact that he no longer performs such material.
- In a 2002 episode of The Simpsons, "The Old Man and the Key", as part of a comedy revue, Smirnoff (voiced by an actor) states "In Soviet Russia, review watches you!"
- In a 2002 episode of Futurama, "Crimes of the Hot", Fry states, "That ice dispenser is so big, the ice crushes you! Yakov Smirnoff said that."
- In the Back to the Future game Back to the Future: The Game, Marty McFly uses the name Yakov Smirnoff as an alias.