Before comedian Yakov Smirnoff immigrated to the United States in 1977, his material had to be approved by his native Soviet Union’s Department of Jokes. Today, Smirnoff says he sees freedom of speech being curtailed under Putin.
He joins WBEZ’s Worldview to talk about life after the collapse of the Soviet Union and his new show, “Happily Ever Laughter, the Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships,” which plays Friday at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts in Skokie.
On moving to Branson, Missouri
On the night of the collapse of the Soviet Union, David Letterman had a list of “Top 10” things that will change now that the Soviet Union is no longer there, and I made No. 1 on the list as: “Yakov Smirnoff will be out of work.”
And I thought it was funny, but six months later it wasn’t funny at all, because all of my contracts in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Reno, Tahoe were not renewed.
Now, I started looking for a place where they did not know that the Soviet Union collapsed, and I ended up in Branson, Missouri. They still don’t know. And I’m not telling.
On pursuing a doctorate in psychology
It’s like an engineer mind of a comedian. I engineer the joke — each joke is very carefully engineered — and then I reverse engineer if something doesn’t work. I go, ‘What didn’t work?’ And I noticed that there was a very clear correlation between laughter and happiness.
On what’s new in his act “Happily Ever Laughter”
I’ll sprinkle a little [joke] here and there, like that there is a new Ukrainian ice cream called “Rootin’ Tootin’ Putin: You Don’t Eat It, I’ll Shove It Down Your Throat.” People recognize it’s fine.
But my new direction… as much as I was helping to end the Cold War in the War Room with my humor, I feel like I have a bigger quest. I’m hoping to end the ‘cold war’ in the bedroom. Nobody talks about it and yet it’s happening in many, many homes.
On his presenting psychological research through humor in his show
Bringing that awareness to people is so important, because then they can make up their own minds: What is it that I need to focus on? The body language of my audience is so fun to watch, because they’re disconnected at first and then as the show progresses they get closer and closer, then they hold hands and then they walk out of the theater and there’s a skip in their walk.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.