||This biographical article needs additional citations for verification. (December 2010)|
|Birth name||Yakov Naumovich Pokhis|
24 January 1951 |
Odessa, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
|Medium||Stand-up, television, Art, Books|
|Genres||Irony, Word play, Transpositional pun|
|Subject(s)||Ukrainian-American culture, race relations, racism, immigration, communism in the Soviet Union.|
|Notable works and roles||Yakov Korolenko/Yakov Kovlenko
on Night Court
Nikolai Rostapovich/Nikolai Rostopovich
on What a Country!
Shatov in The Money Pit
Yakov Smirnoff (born 24 January 1951) is a comedian who immigrated to America from the USSR. He was popular in the 1980s for comedy performances in which he used irony and word play to contrast life under the Communist regime in his native Soviet Union with life in the United States, delivered in heavily accented English. He owns a theatre in Branson, Missouri, where he performs year-round. Smirnoff is also a professor at Missouri State University and Drury University where he teaches "The Business of Laughter." He also painted a 9/11 mural (see below).
Early life 
Smirnoff was born Yakov Naumovich Pokhis (Ukrainian: Яків Наумович Похис) in Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. He is Jewish. He was an art teacher in Odessa and continues to paint. He came to the United States in 1977 and became an American citizen on 4 July 1986. Smirnoff spent a portion of his early days in the United States working as a bartender at Grossingers Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York and living in the employee dormitory.
He appeared in several motion pictures, including Buckaroo Banzai, Brewster's Millions and The Money Pit. Among his numerous appearances on television, he was featured many times on the sitcom Night Court as "Yakov Korolenko". He also had a starring role in a 1986–87 television sitcom titled 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. Since 1993, he has been a fixture in Branson, Missouri.
He has continued to amass accomplishments including books, CDs, movies, T.V. appearances, a successful Broadway show, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh, and is currently working on a humorous self-help book. 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.
In May 2006, Smirnoff received a master's degree in positive psychology from the Penn College of Liberal and Professional Studies (Penn LPS). He has taught classes at Drury University along with Missouri State University on this topic. He is reportedly developing a new talk show that is based on the important role that laughter plays in healthy relationships, a concept which he had envisioned years earlier and has been developing the pilot.
Comedy style 
"America: What a country!" 
||This section is in a list format that may be better presented using prose. (November 2012)|
- American life and custom through the eyes of a new immigrant. For instance:
- "I go to New York and I saw a big sign saying 'America Loves Smirnoff' and I said to myself, what a country!"
- Reading employment announcements of "Part-Time Woman Wanted": "What a country! Even transvestites can get work."
- Upon being offered work as a barman on a "graveyard shift", he remarks, 'A bar in a cemetery! What a country! Last call? During Happy Hour the place must be dead.'
- At the grocery store: "Powdered milk, powdered eggs, baby powder ... what a country!"
- At the grocery store after finding "New Freedom" Maxi Pads: "Freedom in a box! What a country!"
- "The first time I went to a restaurant, they asked me 'How many in your party?' and I said 'Six hundred million'."
- "In every country, they make fun of city. In U.S. you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland"
- Bizarre comparisons between the U.S. and Russia:
- "We have no gay people in Russia — there are homosexuals but they are not allowed to be gay about it. The punishment is seven years locked in prison with other men and there is a three-year waiting list for that."
- "I like parades without missiles in them. I'll take Bullwinkle to a tank anyday'"
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." When Carson asked if comedians in the Soviet Union can crack jokes about their leaders, Smirnoff replied, "Of course — once."
Russian reversal 
Russian reversal or "In Soviet Russia" is a type of joke originated by Smirnoff, and is an example of antimetabole. The general form of the "In Soviet Russia" joke is that the subject and object of a statement are reversed, and "In (Soviet) Russia," or something equivalent, is added, and the verb is often left unconjugated and articles are omitted, mimicking perceived Russian-accented speech. The original was:
- In America, you can always find a party.
- In Soviet Russia, Party always find you!
Other examples include:
- In America, you break law.
- In Soviet Russia, law breaks you!
- In America, your work determines your marks.
- In Soviet Russia, Marx determines your work!
- In America, you assassinate presidents.
- In Soviet Russia, presidents assassinate you!
Smirnoff's use of English allowed him to smooth over grammar differences in transitioning from the setup to the punchline. For example, he omits the articles "a" and "the" (which the Russian language doesn't have) in the first reversal joke above, to better preserve the congruence. Also, verbs are often left unconjugated, such as in the joke "In America, you listen to man on radio. In Soviet Russia, man on radio listen to you!"
- In America, there's plenty of light beer and you always find a party. In Russia, Party will always find you.
9/11 mural 
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 11 September 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," 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."
- Backalenick, Irene. "Yakov Smirnoff filling up an entire Broadway stage with his one-man show". All About Jewish Theatre. Retrieved 24 December 2010.
- The Comedy Zone Humor Network. "Yakov Smirnoff profile". Comedy-zone.net. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
- America on Six Rubles a Day; ISBN 978-0-394-75523-6 Smirnoff, Yakov; 1987.
- "Yakov Smirnoff Career Highlights". YouTube. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
- University, Christopher Bush Assistant Professor of French Northwestern (2009-12-31). Ideographic Modernism : China, Writing, Media: China, Writing, Media. ISBN 9780199741397.
- "Yakov Smirnoff Miller Lite Commercial (1985)". Youtube. 11 November 2007. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
- The mural in Yakov Smirnoff's official website
- Official website
- Yakov Smirnoff at the Internet Movie Database
- Branson Missouri news article re Smirnoff