Yakov Smirnoff

Yakov Smirnoff

Smirnoff promotional image
Birth name Yakov Naumovich Pokhis
Born (1951-01-24) 24 January 1951
Odessa, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
Medium Stand-up, television, art, books
Nationality Ukrainian-born American
Years active 1983–present
Genres Relationship humor, irony, word play, transpositional pun
Subject(s) Psychology, Russian-American culture, race relations, relationships, immigration, communism in the Soviet Union
Spouse Linda Dreeszen (1989–2001; divorced; 2 children)
Notable works and roles Yakov on Night Court
Nikolai on What a Country!
Shatov in The Money Pit
Website Official website

Yakov Naumovich Pokhis, better known as Yakov Smirnoff (born 24 January 1951), is a Soviet-born American comedian, actor and writer. After emigrating to the United States in 1977, Smirnoff began performing as a stand-up comic. He reached his biggest success in the mid-to-late 1980s, appearing in several films and the television sitcom vehicle What a Country!. His comic persona was of a naive immigrant from the Soviet Union who was perpetually confused and delighted by life in the United States. His humor combined a mockery of life under Communism and of consumerism in the United States, as well as word play caused by misunderstanding of American phrases and culture, all punctuated by the catchphrase, "And I thought, 'What a country!'"

The collapse of Communism starting in 1989, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, brought an end to Smirnoff's widespread popularity, although he continued to perform. In 1992, he bought his own theater in Branson, Missouri, where he performed his last show on December 3, 2015. In the late 1990s, prompted by his divorce, he retooled his stand-up act to focus on the differences between men and women, and on solving problems within relationships.[1]

Smirnoff now teaches a course titled "The Business of Laughter" at Missouri State University and at Drury University.

Early life

Smirnoff was born Yakov Naumovich Pokhis (Russian: Яков Наумович Похис) in Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union,[2] He was an art teacher in Odessa, as well as a comedian. As a comedian, he entertained occasionally on ships in the Black Sea, where he came into contact with Americans who described life in the United States to him. That was when he first considered leaving the country.[1] After two years of attempting to leave, he came to the United States with his parents in 1977, arriving in New York City. His family was allowed to come to America because of an agreement between the USSR and America to exchange wheat for Soviet citizens who wished to defect.[1] At the time, neither he nor his parents spoke any English.[1]

Smirnoff spent a portion of his early days in the United States working as a busboy and bartender at Grossingers Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York and living in the employee dormitory.[3]


Smirnoff began doing stand-up comedy in the US in the late 1970s. He chose the last name "Smirnoff" after trying to think of a name that Americans would be familiar with; he had learned about Smirnoff vodka in his bartending days.[1]

In the early 1980s, he moved to Los Angeles to further pursue his stand-up comedy career. There he was roommates with two other aspiring comedians, Andrew Dice Clay and Thomas F. Wilson.[4] He appeared often at renowned L.A. club The Comedy Store After achieving some level of fame, Smirnoff got his first break with a small role in the 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson; on the set, he helped star Robin Williams with his Russian dialogue.[1] He subsequently appeared in several other motion pictures, including Buckaroo Banzai (1984), Brewster's Millions (1985) and The Money Pit (1986). Among his numerous appearances on television, he was featured many times on the sitcom Night Court as "Yakov Korolenko", and appeared as a comedian and guest on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson.

He had a starring role in the 1986–87 television sitcom What a Country! In that show, he played a Russian cab driver studying for the U.S. citizenship test. In the late 1980s, Smirnoff was commissioned by ABC to provide educational bumper segments for Saturday morning cartoons, punctuated with a joke and Smirnoff's signature laugh.[5]

In 1988, Smirnoff was the featured entertainer at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner.

From 1992-2015, he performed hundreds of times a year at his own 2,000-seat[1] theater in Branson, Missouri, featuring comedy acts and Russian dance performances.[5]

In 2003, he appeared on Broadway in a one-man show, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh. He is a featured writer for AARP Magazine and gives readers advice in his column, "Happily Ever Laughter". He guests at the Skinny Improv in Springfield, Missouri on occasion.

After a successful career in television, movies and Broadway, Smirnoff turned his mind to understanding the mysteries of happiness. In May 2006, he received a master's degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught classes at Drury University along with Missouri State University on this topic. He also gives seminars and self-help workshops on the topic of improving relationships.[1]

Comedy style

"America: What a country!"

Some of Smirnoff's jokes involved word play based on a limited understanding of American idioms and culture:

Other jokes mocked life under Communism:

Other jokes involved comparisons between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R:

He once told Johnny Carson, "I enjoy being in America: it's fun, you know, because you have, you have so many things we never had in Russia—like warning shots."[8] When Carson asked if comedians in the Soviet Union can crack jokes about their leaders, Smirnoff replied, "Of course—once."

Russian reversal

Main article: Russian reversal

Smirnoff is often credited with inventing or popularizing the type of joke known as the "Russian reversal", in which life "in Soviet Russia" or "in Russia" is described through an unexpected flip of a sentence's subject and object; a type of chiasmus. In truth, such jokes predated Smirnoff's act, and he rarely told them. One exception was a 1985 Miller Lite commercial, in which Smirnoff stated, "In America, there is plenty of light beer and you can always find a party. In Russia, Party always finds you."[9] Later parodies of Smirnoff's act often involved him telling such Russian reversal jokes, which may have contributed to the perception that they were a part of his act.


Smirnoff is also a painter and has frequently featured the Statue of Liberty in his art since receiving his U.S. citizenship.

On the night of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he started a painting inspired by his feelings about the event, based on an image of the Statue of Liberty. Just prior to the first anniversary of the attacks, he paid US$100,000 for his painting to be transformed into a large mural. Its dimensions were 200 feet by 135 feet (61 m by 41 m). The mural, titled "America's Heart,"[10] is a pointillist-style piece, with one brush-stroke for each victim of the attacks. Sixty volunteers from the Sheet Metal Workers Union erected the mural on a damaged skyscraper overlooking the ruins of the World Trade Center. The mural remained there until November 2003, when it was removed because of storm damage. Various pieces of the mural can now be seen on display at his theater in Branson, Missouri.

The only stipulation he put on the hanging of the mural was that his name not be listed as the painter. He signed it: "The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart."

Personal life

Smirnoff became an American citizen on 4 July 1986.[11]

Smirnoff had a wife, Linda; they divorced in 1999.[1] They have two children: a daughter, Natasha, born in 1990, and a son, Alexander, born in 1992.[11]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Yakov Smirnoff interview, The Comedy Couch, 5 February 2007
  2. Backalenick, Irene. "Yakov Smirnoff filling up an entire Broadway stage with his one-man show". All About Jewish Theatre. Retrieved 24 December 2010.
  3. "Didja hear the one about the comedian who defected?". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 15 August 2013.
  4. What’s What With ... Tom Wilson, Philadelphia magazine, 3 December 2008
  5. 1 2 Yakov Smirnoff official biography
  6. The Comedy Zone Humor Network. "Yakov Smirnoff profile". Comedy-zone.net. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
  7. America on Six Rubles a Day; ISBN 978-0-394-75523-6 Smirnoff, Yakov; 1987.
  8. "Yakov Smirnoff Career Highlights". YouTube. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
  9. "Yakov Smirnoff Miller Lite Commercial (1985)". YouTube. 11 November 2007. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
  10. The mural in Yakov Smirnoff's official website at the Wayback Machine (archived 12 October 2012)
  11. 1 2 Yakov Smirnoff spreading joy of living ‘happily ever laughter’ Diana Nollen, Hoopla, 14 March 2013
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