If Yakov Smirnoff has his way, he’ll laugh himself right out of a job. He’s on a mission to save us from ourselves by spreading the gift of glee.
Comedy has been the saving grace for the Russian expat who came to America in 1977 with his parents, no English language skills and no money.
Armed with wit, grit and determination, the young man who grew up in a communal apartment in Odessa, Ukraine, worked his way to a $2.5 million home in Pacific Palisades. And found himself summoned to the White House to rewrite a speech for U.S. President Ronald Reagan to deliver to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
No wonder “What a country!” became his declaration of independence.
Born Yakov Pokhis — Smirnoff is easier to remember — this one-time college art professor at his Odessa alma mater became a U.S. citizen on July 4, 1986. He was among two new citizens from each state sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger in a nationally televised ceremony at the Statue of Liberty. He jokes that he “felt like Miss America,” then turns serious.
“The patriotism at that moment was probably the highest I’d ever seen in America. It was building up to that and building up to that, and I was right in the middle of it. Then (Burger) said, ‘My fellow Americans,’ and I was realizing he was talking to me,” Smirnoff, 62, says by phone from a recent business trip to Los Angeles. “It was a beautiful, beautiful feeling of being part of this community I was in.”
Every step of his Cinderella story has led to his “Happily Ever Laughter” tour, which swings through Eastern Iowa this week. He’ll be at Penguins Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids for two shows March 21, at the Sondheim Center in Fairfield on March 22 and at the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque for two shows on March 23.
- Yakov Smirnoff: "Happily Ever Laughter"
- Cedar Rapids: 7 and 9 p.m. March 21, Penguins Comedy Club, 208 Second Ave. SE; $22.50, (319) 362-8133 or Penguinscomedyclub.com
- Fairfield: 7:30 p.m. March 22, Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts, 200 N . Main St.; $25, (641) 472-2787 or Fairfieldacc.com
- Dubuque: 4 and 7 p.m. March 23, Mississippi Moon Bar, Diamond Jo Casino, 301 Bell St.; $27 to $42, (563) 690-4800 or Diamondjodubuque.com
- Artist's website: Yakov.com
Now based in Branson, Mo., where he owns and operates an 1,800-seat theater, Smirnoff is on the road, spreading the gospel of laughter.
“That’s the ... premise of ‘Happily Ever Laughter’ — that laughter is a gauge of a happy relationship, no matter who you’re dealing with, whether it’s your children, whether it’s your spouse, whether it’s your friends or co-workers. It’s all an indication of a happy relationship.”
He wants people to “laugh their Yak-off.”
He grabbed the spotlight on television, onstage and in movies from “Moscow on the Hudson” with Robin Williams to “Brewster’s Millions” with Richard Pryor and “The Money Pit” with Tom Hanks. He’s written two books, performed his one-man show on Broadway, painted a mural after 9/11 that was displayed at Ground Zero and teaches college classes on the positive effects of laughter.
Now divorced, he raised his children to find their passion, so their work will never feel like work. Daughter Natasha, 22, is a yoga instructor and son Alexander, 20, is studying art in France.
He’s well aware things don’t always go smoothly. His own career actually faltered with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early ’90s, but he rebounded by moving his art to Branson in 1992 and he continues to branch out, eager to make his contribution to society.
“Comedy creates laughter, but laughter itself is an entity,” he says. “I would put it in the vital sign category like air and water and food. It’s not as crucial to have it, but people perish if you don’t have that.”