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.