“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 1, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to Speaking Freely, a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is comedian, author, and artist Yakov Smirnoff. Welcome.
Yakov Smirnoff: Thank you so much.
Paulson: I’ve read — you were described as, um, America’s favorite Russian. That’s a pretty good title.
Smirnoff: Thank you.
Paulson: It sort of makes me wonder who’s Russia’s favorite American. Any idea?
Smirnoff: Um, well, when I was growing up, Charlie Chaplin was. And I grew up laughing, you know, and didn’t know the man; didn’t know the language. And that gave me that sense of understanding that you laugh in Russian the same way you laugh in American or Chinese or Japanese, so — so it was a great influence on me.
Paulson: Well, you’ve had a remarkable career and a remarkable life. And , and you look at the pattern of — of your work, and it’s one courageous decision after another.
Paulson: People who are tuning in know your face immediately. They recognize that you were the comedian who left the Soviet Union and — and, you know, built an early career talking about what life was like in the Soviet Union. But since then, you’ve branched out in all kinds of new and fascinating ways, and we want to talk about that. But — but if we go back to the beginning, which is the most unbelievable part of your story — the notion that you could, A) go into comedy in the Soviet Union, which is not a country known for its free expression —
Smirnoff: [Laughs] No.
Paulson: — and then you would make the transition to come to America, pursue the same career. Where did that begin?
Smirnoff: Um, well, I guess — guess the quest for — I guess there’s two quests. One is for humor, and one is for freedom. Um, quest for humor happened just because I enjoyed — I — I wasn’t very athletic, so I didn’t get a lot of attention for, you know, pole vaulting or anything like that. Uh, but I noticed since, you know, I was a kid that being funny gave me attention. And as a teenager, the girls would like me. And, uh, I remember in school, we had a substitute teacher who was real — real cute, and I said to her, “Marivana, I love you.”
Smirnoff: And she said, “That’s nice, but I don’t like kids.” And I said, “We won’t have any.” And I didn’t get her, but I got a couple of other dates from that. So I knew that there was something in — in humor that me want to do that. In terms of freedom, I think it came from my dad. And I talk about this in my Broadway show, how memorable it was that he was listening to Voice of America. And he would have to get up, like, in the middle of the night — because they would jam broadcasts from Voice of America, and, uh — but in the middle of the night, they would not, because they didn’t think that anybody was listening. So he would get up, like, at 2: 00, 3: 00 in the morning and listen and then tell us — my mom and me at breakfast. And one time, I remember waking up and making myself — my way to the bathroom, and I heard this crackling, staticky noise, and I came over and sat with him. And it was — they talked about Statue of Liberty, and it just — as a young child, it made such a big impression on me that I figured, “I — I — I want to meet her someday.” And, you know, I liked everything about her except the green skin.
Smirnoff: That didn’t care — didn’t care much for it. And then, you know, many years later, I was sworn in at the Statue of Liberty as an American citizen, so I guess those dreams do come true.
Paulson: So how does one become a comedian in the old Soviet Union? Um, you know, comedians in this country, they push the envelope.
Smirnoff: How much envelope pushing could you do?
Smirnoff: Well, you can — you can push it once. And then — then you’ll be looking for punch lines in all the wrong places. Um, I guess — there’s certain amount of benefit that I got from being restricted from — I couldn’t talk about politics, government, sex, and religion. The rest was fine.
Smirnoff: And I was censored by the Department of Jokes. Once a year, you submit your material. And normally you have to do jokes pretty much tried out by somebody else, because original stuff didn’t really exist there. And that way the — you know, the politician who is sitting there or the bureaucrat who is reading those things, he doesn’t have to take the responsibility for anything. So and then they approve it with a stamp, and you get it for a year, and you have to basically repeat that thing like a tape recorder. And,uh, so I did that. I did it. I was very careful. And the only — the challenge was to find humor that was clever enough that the politician or the bureaucrat could not see the double meaning of it —
Smirnoff: — and the clever audience could see it.
Smirnoff: So that was my challenge: —
Smirnoff: — how do I go around it and make it work? And I was successful at that, and I became very popular in the Soviet Union at that time and traveled around the country, worked on the cruise ships on the Black Sea. I — I called them the Love Barge. And that’s where I met American people. And — and this is where they really — for the first time, I saw their eyes. I mean, I heard about Americans, but I didn’t have contact with Americans. And seeing their eyes and seeing that spark of freedom that I — most Russian people, Soviet people those days just looked down. They were all very suppressed. And seeing people who were smiling, and they just — they were so happy. And they told me — through the interpreter, because I didn’t speak English — they told me about freedom and freedom of speech. And in Russia, they would tell us also we have freedom of speech, but here, you have freedom after you speak.
Smirnoff: Nice little feature, I tell you. So that gave me that boost of energy even more, knowing about Statue of Liberty. And how — now it’s like I was already in my 20s, and I said, “Mom, Dad, I think we should give it a try and get out.” And that’s — that’s kind of — the rest is history.
Paulson: And how long after you got to the U.S. did you begin to pursue this career?
Smirnoff: Well, I — I wanted to do comedy right away, but I didn’t know how long it would take me or what level I would ever reach. So my goal was to — where can I work to learn English? And I — I became a bartender. I went to bartending school in New York, and I spent pretty much all the money I had to just get, like, two-week course, and they teach you. But I didn’t speak the language, so I would record, um, on the little tape recorder the lesson and then at night, I would listen to try to understand what Bloody Mary was or Black Russian or whatever. So after I finished the course, I got a job in Grossinger’s Hotel in upstate New York, and I start as a bus — bar boy. And that’s where I kind of start picking up the language and learning and talking. And then I became a bartender fairly quickly, so that gave me an opportunity directly to talk to American people and start making jokes with them. And then they would, you know, see my name tag and say, “Yakov, where are you from?” And I would say, “From Russia.” And say, “Well, can you get me a Black Russian?” or something like that. And those little things — so when people could laugh, that would make me more confident that I could do it, and then I would go and watch comedians perform, and that gave me more confidence. And then I — I went to California to go to Comedy Store, and that’s where my career took off. That’s — that’s big thing.
Paulson: What a liberating thing in so many ways, for you to be able to suddenly joke about anything.
Smirnoff: Oh, my gosh. I didn’t really know, even, how to take it. Because I, um, I remember being in Playboy Club in New York watching a comedian, and he said, um, that Jimmy Carter just had a hemorrhoid operation and he’s going to be perfect asshole again. I ducked. I literally sa — ducked behind another chair, because I thought, “There’s some — some kind of a shooting is gonna happen. Somebody’s gonna die.” And then I realized that this was just nothing comparing to later on what I heard, you know.
Paulson: And you were — then you were off and running. You knew you could —
Smirnoff: Well, I knew — I mean, I’ve watched a lot of great comedians, and, you know, I — I remember somebody recommended to watch Richard Pryor in concert. And I walked out of there going, “He’s a great comedian, but he’s also a wonderful family man,” because he kept mentioning his mother —
Smirnoff: — all the time, over and over again. And I thought, “Wow.” And then I was told it was a different mom.
Paulson: What’s interesting is that here you’ve got a guy who is suddenly liberated and can say anything, but you end up with one of the cleanest acts in the business.
Smirnoff: And, you know, it was a very conscious choice, maybe because I have been trained that you can be funny without being dirty. Because I believe, and, uh — you know, I talked to Bill Cosby about this, and — and he’s also very clean, and — and he told me — said, “Your range is so much wider when you’re doing that.” And I was roommates for a long time with Andrew Dice Clay, and he was — at that time, he was doing a very clean act. And then little by little, he got more popularity by doing some off-color stuff, and, um, that’s the — that’s kind of the path he chose. But I chose to stay clean.
Paulson: What was that moment where you ascended? Suddenly you — I mean, you went from being somebody who was a struggling comedian almost overnight to being a very recognizable face in all of the country.
Paulson: It looks overnight. It — it doesn’t happen overnight. I did several “Night Courts” and then the movie “Moscow on the Hudson” with Robin Williams, and those were probably the things that were steps to that overnight moment. And then a Miller Light commercial right away. I don’t know if you remember this, that “In America, you can always find a party. In Russia, party always finds you.” And that spot was very popular. And then Johnny Carson saw it. And, uh, I tried to get on that show for, like, six years, and they didn’t see any humor in this. But when he said, “Oh, this guy is funny,” that was probably that overnight success.
Paulson: And — and nothing transforms a career or transformed a career quite like “The Tonight Show” did.
Smirnoff: I don’t think so, especially because he asked me to stay and sit on the couch with him right away. And as I sat down, um — normally they rehearse with you or ask you what you want to talk about. But because they didn’t think that he’s gonna call me over, nothing was rehearsed. So I sat down, and I said, “I really like this country, because you have things we didn’t have in Russia, like policemens have warning shots.” He almost fell off the chair, because it wasn’t prepared; he didn’t know what’s coming. And that, I think, made a big, big impact on this country.
Paulson: Well, it was a refreshing brand of humor —
Smirnoff: Thank you.
Paulson: — and also made people feel good about their country, —
Smirnoff: I think so.
Paulson: — hearing what you had to say. And then comes the fall of the Soviet Union. And knowing, as I do, that you love freedom, you had to feel very positively about that.
Smirnoff: I did.
Paulson: But did it occur to you what was gonna happen to your career?
Smirnoff: Um ,not immediately, no. And those, you know, careless politicians did not call me and said, “Hey, Yakov, we’re gonna dismantle this thing, so do you have a backup plan? I know your mortgage is pretty high by now. What — what are you gonna do?” No phone call, no. So I’m excited, obviously, when it happened. And I’m watching Letterman that night after Soviet Union was dismantled, and he had the top-ten list of things that will change now that the Soviet Union is no longer there, and I made number one: “Yakov Smirnoff will be out of work.”
Paulson: Oh. Right.
Smirnoff: And I thought it was funny. Well, later I found out it wasn’t that funny, because not — I learned that a lot more people watched Letterman than Leno that night. And so all the sudden, I start — my career was, you know — It wasn’t anything drastic. It wasn’t like, you know, anything I did that was wrong. It just — little by little, there was no tension between Soviet Union and the United States, and I was the guy who was, like, that, you know, guy who releases tension. And no tension, no need. So, um, little by little, the contracts were not renewed in Las Vegas, Atlantic City. At certain — and so — but I’ll tell you, at that moment, it was kind of, you know, “Wow, I got to do something.” But it’s been the best thing that happened to me, because, um — because you can get comfortable.
Paulson: And, uh, in recent years, you have made your mark in Branson, Missouri.
Paulson: Which, you know, if you sat down with a career counselor and said, you know —
Paulson: — “You’ve had this wonderful career, and the Soviet Union has now been dismantled. You can fix it by going to Branson,” you know?
Smirnoff: That’s good.
Paulson: I don’t hear that.
Smirnoff: [Laughing] No, neither — neither do I, but you know what? I think I’m a survivor, and I enjoy making people laugh. And I think that it was — you’re right. It wasn’t an obvious choice. But I am so grateful that I made that choice,uh, because as a — as a one-man show or one-man performance, I just — I travel, and I go to places, and I do my show, and I leave. Today I have, uh, my own theater; seats 2,200 seats. Most of the time, we’re sold out. I have 60 people working for me. I became an entrepreneur. I grew up. I — I became a man that can take care of myself. I choose my destiny. I create my schedule. I pick things that I want to talk about. And it’s been — [knocking], “Come in.”
Paulson: You’ve also embarked on this other adventure which included a Broadway show —
Paulson: — and, and talks about the relationship between men and women —
Paulson: — and marriage, and it’s called “As Long as We Both Shall Laugh.”
Smirnoff: That’s correct.
Paulson: And, uh it’s — I’ve had a chance to see a tape of it, and it’s a funny show. It’s a thought-provoking show. And clearly the audience has a ball.
Smirnoff: Yes. It’s been very successful on Broadway. I, um, went there — initially, it was supposed to be just six-week run, and The New York Times gave it a rave review, which I was pleasantly shocked, you know, because,uh, you know, they were really — they really got it. And it had that — because a lot of shows on Broadway except Disney shows, they’re kind of racy, you know, and that’s what people go to Broadway for. This was very clean, family-oriented show, and, uh, it was appreciated, which was, uh, again, another blessing. And they would extend it another six weeks. So, um, I ran it there, and then this year, I took it on tour around the country. So, um, it’s a message that I really want to — to put out there. And basically, the message is that laughter is a sign of a great relationship. It’s not that you can create — add laughter to a relationship. It’s that you can create a relationship in which laughter can effortlessly happen, which happens normally when we just fall in love. And so I do that. And then I do a workshop after the show, which gives people kind of tools to go home and create laughter on their own without me. It’s like Home Depot of comedy.
Paulson: [Laughing] Well, we began by introducing you today as a comedian and an artist, and —
Paulson: — a lot of people are not aware that you paint and are very creative. And, in fact, one of — well, absolutely the most famous thing you’ve done was at the site of the attack on the World Trade Center, Ground Zero —
Paulson: — a huge mural. And it was up there for a long time.
Smirnoff: Yeah, 18 months.
Paulson: And most people didn’t know you had anything to do with it. You didn’t sign it.
Smirnoff: I didn’t sign it.
Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
Smirnoff: Well, it was a obviously devastating day for everybody to watch that destruction, that horror happening. And I watched it, and I sat there, and for me, it probably was even more impactful, because, um, I was sworn in as an American citizen at the Statue of Liberty ceremony. And the footage that they were showing, a lot of it was coming from Ellis Island and from Liberty Island. And so — and that vision — because I had that anchored in my mind, that landscape of America with those Twin Towers there, because it was a very emotional moment when I saw it. And this time, it was being dismantled, so I had to fix it — in my mind, at least. So I started to paint that night, and I didn’t finish until, you know, like, morning time, but — but I had to finish that painting. And it was, um — instead of the Towers, I wanted to replace it with something that could not be destroyed. And in my mind, it came in the shape of a — a heart — an American flag in the shape of a heart. And, um, so — and then — by the time I finished the painting, I pictured it on a building, uh, as a mural. And picture was so clear, you know, that I had to pursue it. So for about — I figured that if I can get it up there by the first commemoration, then I would — would heal a lot of hearts and the people that was hurt by that. So I pursued it with the same vigor that I did when I was leaving Russia or all of the, you know, important things in my life that I’ve done. And I went to New York several times and wrote letters to a lot of business — people who owned buildings around it. No one — no one at city hall didn’t want to really help. Nobody wanted to help. And they said, “It’s just impossible. There’s no way anybody’s gonna let you do it.” And at the last moment — probably it was about August when the last building that was there, I sent this mock-up of what I want to do to these people who owned it — the building, and they happened to live in Ohio. And it wasn’t that New York attitude to — it was more like, “Yeah, you want to pay for doing this, we’ll let you.” And it was supposed to be there only for ten days, because they didn’t know how it’s gonna be received. And I said, “Fine. “As long as it can be there for the first — and I don’t want to put my name on it. I’m not looking for publicity. I’m just trying to heal.” And it went up. And that wasn’t the last — the most touching thing probably was — when — when I got the permission from them, I still didn’t have any permission from the city and whatever other people that needed to say okay, and so I went to this meeting where the steelworkers who were somehow connected with the billboard company — I don’t even know how it all came about. And they were union workers, and they saw this piece that I painted, and they said, “We didn’t want to come here, because we were involved in the rescue of bodies, and this is the last thing we want to do. But when we saw it…” [Chokes up] Sorry. “It gave us hope, and we want to do this.” And I said, “But do I have all the — I don’t know if I have all the permits.” And they said, “You’ll never get them, but we’ll put it up anyway.” And they showed up on Saturday morning and — [pauses] — worked 12 hours straight and put it up.
Paulson: And, of course, no one dared take it down then.
Smirnoff: Well, they actually — later on, I found out that the people from the city hall were very excited, because otherwise it was so gray and depressing — that this was, like, a — they told me later on, “Thank you for doing this, because we had this broadcast, and the cameras from the whole world were there, and we didn’t have anything that gave hope —
Smirnoff: — and this gave hope.”
Paulson: Well, we’ve just got a couple of minutes left, and I wanted to ask you, because you’ve made the point that you’re an observer, uh, and you’ve observed marriages and relationships. You also are a keen observer of nations. I mean, you made your career talking about the Soviet Union and its contrast to the United States of America. What is it about America that you think most Americans really aren’t aware of? I mean, is there some — we, we kind of take our country for granted. And what do we all need to know about this nation?
Smirnoff: Well, I — you know, it’s — I think this nation is like a — has this magnetic energy. I think it evolved way beyond, I think, other places. It might not be perceived that way elsewhere, but I — I live here, and I lived abroad, and I really think that — and evolutionwise, we have our challenges. There’s no — but as a whole, I think it has an ability to attract very, um, people from different countries who, in their personal evolution, has passed, you know, survival, perhaps, or they, they — because it takes incredible amount of energy to say to somebody in the Soviet Union those days or Iraq or anywhere, “I’m going to attempt to leave my family or leave the work or leave all this safety net of wherever I live and go.” And I think that makes the today immigrant or 100-year-ago immigrant a very selected person. And most of the time, they’re like little pieces of gold that come here, and then they’re put in this melting pot and melted into this beautiful piece of jewelry that I believe we need to preserve and protect and, and pass it on to our children and grandchildren.
Paulson: There is a — you know, you look at the Statue of Liberty, which plays such a role in your work, and there is that about bringing the huddled and the poor.
Paulson: But we’re also bringing the strong and the inspired.
Smirnoff: Oh. Vital — the vitality of new immigrants. I mean, look — I mean, if you would have rolled this film for me, like, when I arrived to America, and you had said, “Okay, here’s what’s gonna happen to you in, in here,” I would never believe you. I could never — in those moments when I was just happy to be here, I had no idea that I can perform in the White House for three different presidents, that I can make five movies, that I can, um, do television and have my own theater. All of those things, I would say, “You’re out of your mind. There’s no way.”
Paulson: It’s an amazing story and an American story. Thank you so much for joining us.
Smirnoff: My pleasure.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Yakov Smirnoff. Please join us again next week for Speaking Freely.
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