"It was a very daring thing. I used to work in cruise ships on the Black Sea as an entertainer. I call them the Love Barge. I met a lot of Americans and that's where I kind of got the idea that there is more to life than being in Russia."
– Yakov Smirnoff
Guy MacPherson: Have you been to Vancouver before?
Yakov Smirnoff: I came here several years back, probably 15 years ago. I think I was playing here at a club. That was kind of early in my career. And now I'm back.
GM: What kept you?
YS: I didn't hear from you so I figured nobody wants me here. And then I heard about your interview so I said, "Hey, I'm coming."
GM: Excellent. I have that kind of pull.
GM: I first saw you, I think, on Johnny Carson.
YS: Could have been, yes.
GM: Was that your first national TV exposure?
YS: Prior to Johnny Carson I did a couple of other things. I did the movie Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams and I did several Night Courts.
GM: You got those before you were on The Tonight Show?
YS: Yes. What was happening, the Carson people – the producer there – didn't really see me being on that show. And then I did a Miller Lite commercial and Carson saw the Miller Lite commercial, thought it was funny, and said, "Why don't we have him on?" And at that point the producer said, "Of course. We were planning soon."
GM: So you had a profile, then, as a comic before Moscow on the Hudson?
YS: Yes. And I was a comedian in Russia prior to that. So when I came to the United States I didn't speak English, so that was a little obstacle. But I eventually learned the language and little by little started working clubs. And probably I was here [Vancouver] – I don't know, I don't remember the exact date – prior to The Tonight Show.
GM: Did you also teach art in Russia?
YS: I taught art for a while in Russia before immigrating to the United States.
GM: And that was in 1977?
GM: And a comedian. I would imagine deciding to emigrate when your job is telling jokes in Russian...
YS: Was not a popular choice.
GM: Was it difficult back then to get out?
YS: Very difficult. It was a very daring thing. I used to work in cruise ships on the Black Sea as an entertainer. I call them the Love Barge. I met a lot of Americans and that's where I kind of got the idea that there is more to life than being in Russia. Because they told us that we have freedom of speech and all of that. But Americans told me that they have freedom after they speak, which is a nice little feature. So that kinda intrigued me. And so I took a daring kind of a move and decided with my parents I said, "You know what? Let's give it a try." It took a long time. It took two years for us. And it was, like you guessed it, it was not a popular thing to do. They fire you from work pretty much. They turn people against you. So it wasn't a great thing.
GM: But you did it through the proper channels?
YS: I did it legally, yes. And the American government at that time - Carter was president - he wanted the Soviets to show human rights. Because they wanted wheat from the United States so we were basically exchanged for some wheat. So now when I see Wonderbread truck, I salute.
GM: What was your act like as a comic in Russia? You couldn't do the comparisons because you didn't know any comparisons.
YS: No. It was very safe. What they did at that time, they would censor your material. The government controlled everything. So once a year they censor your material and you could not talk about politics, government, sex and religion. The rest was fine. They had topics like buttons and fish and mother-in-law kind of stuff.
GM: Was your life there decent?
YS: Comparatively, I would say yes. But I lived in a communal apartment with my parents until we left with nine other families. But they told me I was having a good life.
GM: (laughs) So you believed them.
YS: Yeah, I believed them. We had no phone, no car, but I had the opportunity to travel. Compared to other people I was better off.
GM: Were your parents both on board with coming over?
YS: Mom was the last one to join. My dad was very much for it, even before I was. He was listening to Voice of America even though it was forbidden. In the middle of the night he would sit there with the short wave radio and listen. So he was very much encouraging us to get out. But mom was very cautious.
GM: What did he do there?
YS: He was a building construction engineer and inventor. He invented a bunch of stuff. A lot of it wasn't working, but one invention worked well. It was a device that measured the integrity of concrete. And in Russia, concrete was a national flower. The Berlin wall was one of the displays. So they paid him some money for that and that was enough for us to get some tickets to get out.
"I tried to figure out what would be a name that Americans knew. They knew Krushchev but that wasn't a good association. And they knew Brezhnev and all that. But they had a smile on their face when they heard Smirnoff. And I also was a bartender when I started in America."
– Yakov Smirnoff
GM: Was the transition difficult for you or for your parents?
YS: It was harder for them because they're older than me. I don't know if that's an obvious thing. But for me it was exciting. Scary but exciting. For them it was a little bit more scary because they lived all their life there with all their friends and relatives. And the process, they made it very difficult when people wouldn't talk to you because you're a traitor and they announce it on television that people who leave are traitors. So it made it difficult, to say the least. But on the big picture, I'm lucky I did that.
GM: Have you been back?
YS: Yeah. Yeah, I've gone back several times. Everything changed dramatically.
GM: For the better?
YS: The majority, yes. I think there's a lot of kind of anarchy in some ways because people who are sort of black market people, they made it big and now it's legal, and people who were poor are still poor. But at least then they felt equal. Now they know they're not.
GM: How's your Russian? Have you lost it?
YS: It's perfect. My mom's still alive so I talk to her in Russian. I have some accent. When I speak to people from Russia they say, "Oh, you have an American accent." But it takes me two, three, four days or so and then I get back to normal.
GM: Now living in Missouri you must have a southern accent.
YS: I have a hillbilly accent. Absolutely. I was learning English for twenty years and I moved to the Ozarks and I have to start all over again.
GM: The culture shock of moving to Missouri must have been greater than when you moved from the Soviet Union.
YS: (laughs) You're right, you're right. In some ways, it is. On the other hand, it's safer. It's a nicer environment where you have your own theatre and you have people coming to you. So it's really something I could never imagine having.
GM: How many shows a year do you do there?
YS: About 200 shows a year. I have 2000 seats and it's pretty full most of the time.
GM: Do you constantly change the show from season to season?
YS: We have some big production numbers so you normally get three or four years out of it. In terms of my standup, I change it as much as I can to keep it fresh. But people enjoy seeing certain things and you've got to give them your greatest hits. That's what they come for.
GM: Smirnoff is a stage name, is it?
YS: Yes. Used to be Jack Daniels.
GM: (laughs) Did you change it because it was the vodka?
YS: Yes. I tried to figure out what would be a name that Americans knew. They knew Krushchev but that wasn't a good association. And they knew Brezhnev and all that. But they had a smile on their face when they heard Smirnoff. And I also was a bartender when I started in America. That was one of my first jobs.
GM: Where were you?
YS: In New York. That's where I kind of decided that Smirnoff is a good name.
GM: I've heard that even if people are really funny in their own language, it's much more difficult for them to be funny in their new language.
YS: I think I was very determined. I tell people I locked myself in my room and I watched TV for three months straight, and then I realized it was a Spanish station. But I was very driven and comedy was really important to me so I definitely wanted to learn. And I still have an accent but in terms of understanding of humour, working in the Comedy Store I was blessed with working with people like Robin Williams, David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno. All of those guys were coming up at that time. So in a way I couldn't have asked for a better... I didn't even realize how lucky I was at that time.
GM: Were any of these guys like your mentors?
YS: Oh, absolutely. Robin, we were making Moscow on the Hudson and I was helping him with Russian and he was helping me understand things about American comedy. Bill Cosby was very influential. Carson. All of those people were very helpful.
GM: That was a good movie, by the way.
YS: Yeah, it was a fun movie. And it kind of started my career.
GM: A lot of your material these days is based on relationships. In the past, it was more Soviet versus American way of life.
YS: Also a kind of relationship, huh?
GM: Yeah, yeah.
YS: It was just more global.
GM: Did you have mixed feelings about the fall of the Soviet empire?
YS: Yes. When the Soviet empire fell I thought it was very inconsiderate of them to do this to me. Not even a phone call.
GM: They were just getting back at you for moving away.
YS: I think so. I think so. I mean, at least they could have said, "Okay, get ready. Your mortgage is gonna be the same, and your income is going to plummet." But it was actually one of the best things that happened to the world and to me, as well, because I needed it. I was too comfortable in that environment. I was doing Vegas, Atlantic City and was living high on the hog. And when this happened it helped me to reevaluate and see what is it I really want to do. And this new direction that I took I think is so much bigger than anything I'd ever done.
GM: In importance?
YS: For me, yes. And I think as a legacy, that's what I would like to leave for my children and grandchildren. You see, what happened here, I was blessed with a sense of humour and ability to be funny and make millions of people laugh. I took it for granted but I didn't really understand it empirically. I didn't understand what's funny, how am I doing it? I was just naturally funny. And most comedians probably don't even ever think of that. But when I started tracing it, I realized that laughter has a very specific formula. It has to do with two ingredients that most people overlook. It's kind of like Yin and Yang. There's somebody who creates laughter and somebody who laughs. You need two of those to create laughter. And in a relationship, exactly the same thing needs to be there, too. There has to be somebody who creates and somebody who appreciates otherwise it's not working. So it was like one of those epiphanies. And once I realized it and started tracing it, I realized that in the beginning of the relationship everybody laughs. And I have polled over three million people in my theatre and nobody remembers a good healthy relationship without laughter. In the beginning. And then it goes away. Little by little. And nobody knows why. And that's what happened in my marriage.
GM: Familiarity breeds contempt.
YS: There you go. In the beginning you're starting something and you're putting your effort into it but you didn't know what you were doing to begin with because the hormones are sponsoring you at that time. And then they check out and you're on your own. And you don't know what you did right or wrong. Every fairy tale ends with "happily ever after" but they don't tell you how. I believe I've figured that out.
GM: When did you figure it out?
YS: It's a process. It started right after my separation and divorce. But I'm tenacious. Just like I wanted to learn the language and become a comedian and, like you said, it seems not quite normal for somebody to come to another country and learn the language and figure out show business and Hollywood and make movies with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams and perform at the White House. All of the things that I chose to do, I did. But something that was so important to me, to create laughter in my marriage, and love, I couldn't make it work. So I failed. And that energy that I felt was so powerful to go after this and figure this out. So it started right at that point.
GM: How many years ago was that?
YS: Eight years. Then I went to college and got my Masters degree in psychology at an Ivy League university [Pennsylvania] and I just kept digging and digging. Now I teach at two universities: Missouri State and Drury University in Springfield. And the class is called 'Living Happily Ever Laughter'. And it changes people's lives. They're just blown away by this.
GM: You've figured it out but can you or your students put it into practice?
YS: Absolutely. Yes. Like anything new, like driving stick shift or typing, if you don't know how all of it takes practice. But what's amazing is that once they get it, it's so simple. They can implement it immediately. And then it's up to them, like anything else, whether they stick with it or not.
GM: People laugh at humour often because it's something fresh and new and something they hadn't thought of before. But if you're in a relationship for years and years, it's not fresh and new. You know the person inside and out.
YS: The secret here is not that laughter creates love; it's that love creates laughter. So what I'm teaching is that there is a formula of communicating and that formula brings the laughter. It's not the jokes, it's not your timing. It's about your intent in the relationship. I tell a story in my workshop. One of the things that changed the world was Reagan and Gorbachev meeting. Those were people who had great senses of humour. At that time, I was invited a lot to the White House so when Reagan was going to meet with Gorbachev, the head speech writer for Reagan called me and asked me if I would write some jokes for the summit because Reagan wanted to do a speech in the Kremlin in front of all the Russian politicians. And I'm thinking, if this doesn't work, I don't have any countries to go to! So but I did write the jokes and they used them in the speech. And that summit was crucial because after that the world started to change. I was friends with the interpreter who was in the room with Gorbachev and Reagan and I said to him, "What happened there that so dramatically changed the world?" And he said at first they were butting heads, Reagan and Gorbachev. They were both in the thinking modes. I call it thinking and feeling modes. The thinking mode is when you're all in your head and you're thinking how to create something. And the feeling mode is when people laugh and they feel good. So you need two ingredients, each person in a complementary mode. So Reagan and Gorbachev were both in their thinking mode, telling each other how to deal with the problems of their respective countries. And then Reagan, he said, got fed up. He got up and he headed for the door. And before he opened the door, he turned around and he smiled at Gorbachev and said, "My name is Ronnie. Can I call you Mischa? Let's play." And he told him a funny joke and it shifted Gorbachev into laughing. And then they connected and that's how the Berlin Wall came down.
"I was invited a lot to the White House so when Reagan was going to meet with Gorbachev, the head speech writer for Reagan called me and asked me if I would write some jokes for the summit because Reagan wanted to do a speech in the Kremlin in front of all the Russian politicians. And I'm thinking, if this doesn't work, I don't have any countries to go to!"
– Yakov Smirnoff
GM: Wow. And you had a small role in it.
YS: A tiny role, but it's not even that. It's about understanding that role. So when I teach the class or what I'm going to be doing here at the seminar, they have an opportunity to start seeing when they're in a thinking mode or a feeling mode and they can change it depending on where they want to be. I teach them how to do it. What do preachers or sales people do at the beginning?
GM: They lighten the mood, ease tensions.
YS: They tell a joke. What they're doing is they're positioning themselves saying, "I'm going to be in a thinking mode, thinking how you feel. And if you're laughing, you're saying you like me the way I think." The same thing happens in a relationship. Husband, wife, they fight when they're in the similar mode. When they're in opposite modes, or complementary mode, laughter is there. No problem. But when they get into their heads or their hearts and not understand where the other person is, they clash.
GM: So when you point this out to the people...
YS: I make it funny. I tell them you learn and laugh your Yak-off.
GM: Do they have little exercises?
YS: Absolutely. Most of the time they spend practicing with each other and understanding that. Women's laughter is what men are after. They're the audience most of the time. A lot of research explains this phenomenon, that men are very much – and that was my graduate work – that men are very much interested in making women laugh. Women are interested in men who can make them laugh. So when people say they want someone with a good sense of humour, they mean two different things. There's research with 10 million people that says the number-one desired quality is a sense of humour. After financial security, education, even communication skills, they say they want a sense of humour. But what they're not realizing is they want two complementary opposite things. The men want somebody who will laugh at their jokes and women want somebody who can make them laugh, but they don't realize it. Once they realize it, and start seeing it everywhere, then they can focus on what it represents. And it represents a bunch of other qualities that they're not aware they're looking for. Like a good sense of humour in a guy is a sign of intelligence and creativity.
GM: Not everybody does have a good sense of humour, so are they doomed to a life alone?
YS: I don't think so. I think it's just one other measurement. If they have other qualities that are desirable... Most people laugh if you're funny. Most people. There might be one percent or two percent that are totally just not there. But if it's 99 percent that are laughing, they have a good sense of humour.
GM: I was just thinking that if it's the guy, whose role you say is to make the woman laugh, and he doesn't have that ability...
YS: But it's not... Here's the key. It's not about creating a joke; it's about understanding how a woman feels. That's where the rubber meets the road because the guys who will crack jokes that are inappropriate, they could be funny jokes, but you see women roll their eyes and they're going, "I don't want to be around this guy." But the guy who understands how a woman feels and can tune in to her feelings, that's the guy who will make women laugh.
GM: Has this helped you in your new relationships?
YS: Dramatically. Not only in my romantic relationships, but it helps me in my relationship with my kids, relationships with my employees. I understand which mode I'm in and then I try to position myself in the complementary mode with them. And the language is what I teach in this workshop seminar. It's very simple. All you need to do, the person who is in the thinking mode, they respond to the word 'think'. So when you talk to them you say, "What do you think about that?" And the person who is in the feeling mode, you ask them how they feel. And if they identify, if they say "I feel stressed, I feel frustrated", you know, then, how to talk with them. It's like Gorbachev and Reagan. Reagan didn't tell Gorbachev what he was doing. He just did it. And it turned around the whole thing. They could have been launching nuclear missiles if that didn't work.
GM: This seminar is for singles, aged 25 to 40. But you say this works in any relationship. So you don't need to be single. You could be married or use it in business.
YS: The reason I'm holding it for singles is because the name of the workshop is 'Let Laughter Lead You To Love'. And I don't think married people need to do that! I believe you can use laughter as a gauge not only in how your relationship is doing but who you want to attract in a relationship. That's why I wanted to specifically offer it before Valentine's Day to singles because they may use that immediately. There's going to be a lot of people there and they can mingle and practice it looking for the right person based on laughter and smiles and the joy they can create with that technique.
GM: Do you ever have people hook up at these seminars?
YS: I do, yes. I have people connect and stay together, or if it's married couples, they have improved their relationships so much based on this simple formula. I'll give you an example. A friend of mine called me yesterday. I was teaching at Drury College and she was helping me with my class. And her longtime boyfriend, they'd been having some challenges prior to this information coming their way. And she called me yesterday morning and she said, "I gotta tell you something. This was just so amazing. My boyfriend drove an hour, left me a message under my windshield wiper that said, 'Hurry home, sweetheart, there's a man waiting for you.'" And she didn't expect it, obviously. Branson is about an hour away, but he drove an hour there to leave her that message. And she said, "I couldn't drive fast enough home." And she said, "I'm so grateful to you." All I did for them was to explain that if you want to have this passion and laughter, all you need to do is to think how she feels. So he put his thinking cap on and kept thinking of different things to do for her to make her feel good. And they'd been in a relationship for twelve years. And she was just so excited that he knew what to do to get her excited. Obviously they had a very good evening.
GM: Is it possible for people to change? People get set in their ways.
YS: I think so. This formula can help people totally change because it's very, very simple. Men normally don't know. When we say "I do", we don't because we don't know what to do. Nobody gave us an instruction. My thought when I was getting married was my quest ends when I catch the girl. On the wedding day, once we're married, everything will live happily ever after. And that's all I need to know because no one said anything else. And the only other information we're getting is after people get in trouble and they're already unhappy. But in the middle, nobody's filling that gap. And I'm suggesting that laughter is that gauge. You know when the coal miners used to go in the mines and they didn't have any equipment to detect carbon monoxide, they would bring a canary with them. And if the canary was singing, they knew everything was fine. And if it stopped, they knew they were in trouble. So laughter, I believe, is that canary in the relationship.
GM: Interesting analogy. What do you think the biggest mistake people make in relationships is?
YS: The biggest challenge right now, in my opinion, in western society, is this: There's a 57 percent divorce rate. There's 120 million single people in the United States alone. The reason it is, when you're in the same mode, you repel just like magnets do. When I went to school I was able to learn that there's a lot of new information coming out with CAT scans and MRI's saying that we are genetically different in certain ways. Women are prone to feel first and then they think, and men are prone to think first and then they feel. So in the beginning of the relationship, we're kind of doped up for about a year with hormones and other new hormones that people didn't even know before like oxytocin, dopamine and things like that. And we do things right in that honeymoon stage of a relationship. It's always there. But then the hormones wear off and because society wants us in a thinking mode - we go to work and we're thinking and making deals and all that - and when we come home we're in the same mode. And you get into this, "Where do you want to go to eat?" "I dunno. Where do you wanna go to eat?" "I dunno." And you get those little challenges that grow into bigger challenges. To create laughter you need to have two complementary entities. Have you ever tried to tickle yourself?
GM: It's impossible.
YS: It's impossible, right? But somebody else can tickle you. That's how basic it is. You need people in opposite modes: one to be tickled and one to tickle. But if you have both people trying to do the same thing, it doesn't work.
GM: It's all very interesting and serious stuff.
GM: But your seminar is being held at a comedy club. And people, of course, know you as a comedian.
YS: They will learn things that will make them laugh for the whole time. When I talk about things that make us different. For example, women's eyes are designed totally different from men's eyes. Women have wide peripheral vision because when we were hunter/gatherers, men had to get the animals so they developed tunnel vision. And women developed peripheral vision because they stayed with children and watched for the predators. So when we're in a social situation, if the woman wants to check out another guy, she doesn't have to turn her head. Men, we have to turn our head to look so that's how we get caught. Women's eyes by nature are designed like those wide-angle mirrors on the side of the car. That's why to women some objects appear smaller than they really are.
YS: And women are more intuitive. They can read between the lines and they want men to read between the lines. We can't even colour between the lines! So I interact with jokes and humour. And the presentations and the questionnaires I give to them all have humorous punchlines. Laughter is a serious matter but it's very much an entertaining workshop. 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.
GM: Could also do this within the framework of your standup?
YS: Absolutely. I do, but when I do, I have to have a two-hour show and my whole second act is about relationships. And it's all standup and very funny. I did a Broadway show, actually, in 2003. It was called As Long as We Both Shall Laugh. And that was all funny stuff. But for them to learn the technique, you can't just do standup because then they walk out and they laugh, but they don't know what to take home. So 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.
GM: Do you perform often outside the States?
YS: Not as often because I do a lot in my theatre. So once in a while I'll get out. But I'll be all this week, actually, in Yuk Yuk's working on new material. So I'll be there every night working basically on what we're talking about, just to make it more fun, more interesting, more entertaining.