Yakov Smirnoff Remembers “The Soviet Department of Jokes” & Other Staples of Communist Comedy

Yakov Smirnoff has the dis­tinc­tion of being the most famous Russ­ian com­ic in Amer­i­ca. He’s also the only Russ­ian com­ic in Amer­i­ca (ba-dum-dum). But seri­ous­ly: In his mid-80s hey­day, he had the mar­ket cor­nered on Sovi­et humor in the U.S. What­ev­er demand there was, Smirnoff sup­plied it, sin­gle­hand­ed­ly, as a fix­ture in ads, TV show and film appear­ances, com­e­dy spe­cials, late-night talk shows…. His was the only face of Russ­ian humor any­one knew in the 80s (unless we’re count­ing Ivan Dra­go). Smirnoff even war­rant­ed a Fam­i­ly Guy ref­er­ence, which pret­ty much cements his rep­u­ta­tion as end­less­ly recy­clable pop cul­ture syn­di­ca­tion fod­der.

And yet, post-Sovi­et Rus­sia, it’s hard to imag­ine there’s a place for Yakov Smirnoff, since corny jokes at the expense of end-stage Russ­ian com­mu­nism were not only his bread and but­ter, but his whole comedic menu, such that Marc Maron intro­duces Smirnoff as a guest on his WTF Pod­cast above with: “that guy, with his hook, that cer­tain­ly isn’t rel­e­vant any­more. How does a guy like that sur­vive?” Ouch. But what a hook it was, says Maron: a won­der­struck immi­grant exclaim­ing “What a coun­try!” as he took in each new cap­i­tal­ist mar­vel. He was like a real-life ver­sion of one of Andy Kauf­man’s char­ac­ters, or a pre-Borat East­ern Euro­pean inno­cent abroad. The act car­ried him beyond his mid-eight­ies 15 min­utes of fame and through a 20-year career enter­tain­ing mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans in Bran­son, Mis­souri.

But was there much demand for Smirnoff’s brand of humor even at his peak? If you didn’t have the great for­tune of liv­ing through the 80s, you might be sur­prised at just how pop­u­lar his sort of thing could be—“a Russ­ian com­ic talk­ing about how great Amer­i­ca was.” But it wasn’t only Smirnoff’s per­sona that flat­tered our sense of eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and moral supe­ri­or­i­ty. A whole genre of Sovi­et jokes had a promi­nent place in the dis­course, with knee-slap­pers about KGB sur­veil­lance and bread lines and oth­er pri­va­tions com­mon­ly tossed around at din­ner par­ties. Even Ronald Rea­gan tried his hand at it, as you can see here. Rea­gan’s deliv­ery was nev­er my cup of tea, but you can also see Smirnoff do his impres­sion of Rea­gan telling the same joke in the video at the top of the post.

And while revis­it­ing Smirnof­f’s not exact­ly mete­oric rise to fame in the U.S. is fun for its own sake, what’s even more inter­est­ing are Smirnof­f’s seri­ous rem­i­nis­cences of his time grow­ing up and work­ing as a com­ic in Rus­sia. The seri­ous Smirnoff is full of psy­cho­log­i­cal insights (he has a mas­ters degree in the sub­ject from Penn) and soci­o­log­i­cal anec­dotes about life under a repres­sive com­mu­nist regime—though he nev­er miss­es a chance for some of the old Smirnoff mate­r­i­al, com­plete with his honk­ing, don­key-like laugh­ter.

For exam­ple, about twen­ty min­utes into his WTF inter­view, Smirnoff dis­cuss the seri­ous sub­ject of joke approval in the Sovi­et Union. That’s right, in all seri­ous­ness, he tells us, comics were required to sub­mit their mate­r­i­al to a Depart­ment of Jokes. Smirnoff also once spoke expan­sive­ly on the sub­ject in a 1985 Chica­go Tri­bune piece on him at his peak.

Yep. There’s a Depart­ment of Jokes. Actu­al­ly, the Min­istry of Cul­ture has a very big depart­ment of humor. I’m seri­ous now. Once a year they cen­sor your mate­r­i­al, and then you have to stay with what they have approved. You can‘t impro­vise or do any­thing like that. You write out your mate­r­i­al and mail it to them, and they send it back to you with cor­rec­tions. After that, you stay with it for a year.

It is per­haps for this rea­son that comics in Sovi­et Rus­sia bor­rowed lib­er­al­ly from each oth­er, rarely did orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al, and nev­er, ever impro­vised. Says Smirnoff: “I would do some orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al, but that would be unusu­al. Also, it was OK for come­di­ans to borrow—if one of the big come­di­ans went on tele­vi­sion and did a monolog, next day 10 or 20 oth­er come­di­ans would do the same thing in clubs. That was­n’t con­sid­ered steal­ing.”

It also turns out that seri­ous Yakov Smirnoff explains the com­ic stylings of his per­sona, the corn­ball char­ac­ter:

It was old jokes, more vaude­ville type of humor. More like Eng­lish-style com­e­dy. Or like Hen­ny Young­man. One-lin­ers or sto­ries that have been told over and over again but they’re still fun­ny. No impro­vi­sa­tion com­e­dy. You don’t impro­vise. You don’t tell sto­ries about your­self the way Amer­i­can comics do.

So it turns out that a lot of those bad jokes about Rus­sia at the tail end of the Cold War actu­al­ly descend­ed from the source. Take this one from Smirnoff:

A funer­al pro­ces­sion is going by, and they’re walk­ing a goat behind the cof­fin. A guy comes over and says, “Why are you walk­ing a goat behind the cof­fin?” The oth­er guys says, “That goat killed my moth­er-in-law.” The first guy says, “Can I bor­row this goat for a week?” The sec­ond guy says, “You see all these peo­ple in the pro­ces­sion? They’re all wait­ing. Get in line.”

See? It’s a joke about stand­ing in line! Also, about moth­ers-in-law, which must be a tru­ly uni­ver­sal sub­ject. Find more of Smirnof­f’s insights into Sovi­et humor and joke cen­sor­ship at the full Chica­go Tri­bune inter­view piece and on Maron’s WTF pod­cast.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

Joseph Stal­in, a Life­long Edi­tor, Wield­ed a Big, Blue, Dan­ger­ous Pen­cil

Stephen Fry Pro­files Six Russ­ian Writ­ers in the New Doc­u­men­tary Russia’s Open Book

A Look Back at Andy Kauf­man: Absurd Com­ic Per­for­mance Artist and Endear­ing Weirdo

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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