Yakov Smirnoff comes to town March 22
By ANDY HALLMAN
Ledger news editor
The Fairfield Arts & Convention Center will host a comedian of international renown when it welcomes Yakov Smirnoff to the stage at 7:30 p.m. March 22.
Smirnoff will make his debut performance in Fairfield that night as part of his “Happily Ever Laughter” tour. It will not be his first visit to town, however. Smirnoff stayed in Fairfield for a week-long retreat at The Raj about 12 years ago.
Smirnoff describes Fairfield as an “oasis of enlightenment.” He was advised to come to Fairfield by a friend and MUM graduate, Marci Shimoff, who is known for co-authoring the book series, “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
“The town is really wonderful,” Smirnoff said. “I toured the local high school and the private high school (MSAE),” he said.
Smirnoff hails from Ukraine and moved to the United States in his mid-20s. His background as an immigrant has supplied many of his jokes through the years, particularly his insights contrasting America and the Soviet Union.
In 1985, Smirnoff filmed a television commercial in which he debuted what would become his trademark “reversal joke.” The reversal jokes began with a line about American society, followed by a similar line about Russian society but where the subject and object were reversed.
“My line in the ad was, ‘In America, you can always find party. In Russia, party always find you,’” he said.
The Russian “party” he was referring to was the Communist Party. Many subsequent reversal jokes followed the original in highlighting the perceived surveillance state under which Soviet citizens lived. However, Smirnoff said he has gotten credit for “reversal jokes” that he never did.
“I did some of those jokes, but a lot of times people made their own jokes and I would get the credit,” he said.
Smirnoff said that those jokes about the Soviet Union were common during his early comedic routines, but he has since moved away from them. He said his sets focus on whatever he is going through in his life at that particular time.
“I became famous for Russian jokes. When I got married, my jokes were about relationships,” he said. “When I had children, the jokes were about children, and now they’re about grandchildren.”
Smirnoff has made audiences laugh his whole life, but now he has a new mission: make them understand why they laugh. He wants people to know how to create laughter in their daily lives, for no other reason than it makes life more enjoyable.
“Our goals are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “We’ve got life and liberty covered. Someone has to cover the pursuit of happiness, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Smirnoff has promised the March 22 show will be more than entertaining; it will be educational. He will help the audience understand laughter scientifically just as he does, thanks to years of studying the subject.
He obtained a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and now teaches classes on the psychology of laughter and the business of laughter at two universities in Missouri, Missouri State University and Drury University.
“It’s a formula, and once you understand the formula you can create laughter,” he said. “It’s all about the connections you make with people. My goal is to teach people that laughter does not happen randomly. It’s a specific thing that happens when a connection is established.”
Smirnoff continued, “When a minister gets up to speak, he will try to tell a joke. Why? He wants to connect with the congregation. When we hear laughter, we know we’ve made a connection.”
Humans still do not understand the “whys” and “hows” behind laughter, even those who practice the trade, Smirnoff said.
“People in comedy clubs can create laughter, but they do not necessarily know how they’re doing it,” he said. “I was like that, too, at first. I thought I was just a funny guy and the result was people liked me.”
Smirnoff said society is still in the “Dark Ages” when it comes to comprehending comedy. He compared the current state of affairs with early humans who had no way of creating fire except to wait till lightning struck a tree.
“They had no way of creating fire, and now you can buy a lighter and a matchbook and be in control of the fire,” he said. “That’s where I want to take people.”
Smirnoff knew none of the science of laughter when he came to America in 1977. In his native Ukraine, Smirnoff painted and taught art. He also worked as a comedian on cruise ships, where he rubbed shoulders with Americans.
“The Americans were so much happier than Russians,” he said. “I wanted that spark in my eyes and in my children’s eyes. I thought, ‘Maybe I can go to America.’”
When Smirnoff moved to America, he worked as a busboy and bartender. His constant interactions with people allowed him to improve his English, and before long he was telling jokes at comedy clubs alongside Robin Williams and David Letterman.
Smirnoff also worked with Williams when the two starred in the 1984 film “Moscow on the Hudson.” Smirnoff recalls that Williams was learning Russian at the time and that Williams never missed an opportunity to practice with him.
The former busboy went on to star in other films such as “Buckaroo Banzai,” “Brewster’s Millions” and “The Money Pit.” He had his own HBO special and a starring role in the 1980s television sitcom, “What a Country!” which was also a phrase he often employed in his stand-up.
For the past 20 years, Smirnoff has run a theater in Branson, Mo. He used to perform 200 shows a year there. Now he just performs in Branson for two months: October and November. The rest of his year is spent touring.
“At this time, I’m probably performing four days a week,” he said. “For instance, the day before I come to Fairfield I’ll do a show in Cedar Rapids, and the night after Fairfield I’ll do a show in Dubuque.”
Smirnoff said he thoroughly enjoys touring. He said he loves sharing his laughter with the rest of the world.
“I believe my mission is to spread the word in addition to entertaining, so I’m like a funny missionary,” he said. “I’m choosing to do this because I love to and not because I have to.”