You'll laugh your Yak-off (The Province)


You’ll laugh your Yak-off

Pre-Valentine’s Show: Comedian giving love seminar for singles

The Province, February 9, 2007

When Yakov Naumovich Pokhis emigrated with his parents to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1977, he knew two things. One, he’d have to learn to speak English if he wanted to make it as a comedian in his new country.

And, two, he’d need a new name.

He accomplished the former by locking himself in his room and watching TV for three months straight.

“Then I realized it was a Spanish station,” he jokes.

As for the name, while working as a bartender in New York, he tried to figure out what would be a name Americans would respond to.

“They knew Krushchev but that wasn’t a good association,” he says. “But they had a smile on their face when they heard Smirnoff.”

Yakov Smirnoff went on to become one of the hottest comedy stars of the 1980s, featured in movies, his own sitcom, and Miller Lite commercials. As kind of an early model Borat, his observations on life in America compared with his former home, usually followed by his catchphrase “What a country!” kept him in the limelight until the fall of the Soviet empire.

“I thought it was very inconsiderate of them to do this to me,” he says of the collapse. “Not even a phone call! I mean, at least they could have said, “OK, get ready. Your mortgage is gonna be the same and your income is going to plummet.’”

But the resourceful comic moved shop to Branson, Missouri, where he owns his own 2,000-seat theatre and plays approximately 200 shows a year there.

“It was actually one of the best things that happened to the world and to me, as well,” he says, “because I needed it. I was too comfortable. I was doing Vegas, Atlantic City and was living high on the hog. It helped me to reevaluate and see what is it I really want to do.”

With the dissolution of both the USSR and his marriage, Smirnoff turned his attention away from east-west relations and toward human relations.

Taking a hiatus from comedy to get his masters in applied positive psychology from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, he has now incorporated humour into the classroom, teaching a course entitled “Living Happily Ever Laughter.” He’s at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club on Burrard this Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. with a pre-Valentine’s Day seminar for singles called “Let Laughter Lead You to Love.”

“The secret here is not that laughter creates love,” he says, “it’s that love creates laughter.”

He believes that cachinnation is the canary in the coal mine that monitors the health of a relationship.

Don’t expect a dull dissertation. He claims you’ll laugh your Yak-off.

“Laughter is a serious matter but it’s very much an entertaining workshop,” he says. “My goal is to pass on this information because I am personally so excited by this. My mission statement is ‘to experience happiness and teach it to the world with passion through comedy and sensitivity.’ So I’m making it very fun and interesting but mainly this information has to go out there because there are too many unhappy people.”

He could easily impart the same message within the framework of his standup comedy, but Smirnoff says people would just walk out laughing.

“What I want to give them is tools that they can take home and create laughter in their own homes. It’s kind of like the Home Depot of comedy.”