Interview with Yakov Smirnoff

"What a country!" The Comrade of comics remembers the Department of Jokes, Club Red, and Leonid Brezhnev's greatest line.


"On the Fourth of July in Russia we had fireworks, too.
They'd put you against the wall and fire. It works."

Yakov Pokhis, a.k.a. Yakov Smirnoff, was born January 24, 1951, in the USSR of Joseph Stalin. But the Soviets had a little trouble with this New Socialist Man. Today he is arguably the most enthusiastic new American, and, fortunately for this New Capitalist Man, also one of the funniest.

With a syndicated television series, "What a Country," movie appearances (Heartburn, Moscow on the Hudson), talk show gigs, and a well-traveled night club act netting $15,000 to $20,000 a concert date, Yakov has captured the American Dream in scarcely a decade of residence. His home, a Hollywood Hills estate formerly the domicile of Lenny Bruce, his status as Ronald Reagan's favorite comedian, and his cars—a Rolls (license: KOMRADE), a Mercedes, and a Ferrari (license: EX RED)—are the easy symbols to recognize. Yet Smirnoff is more than rich and less than funny when he ponders his dramatic traverse of geopolitical terrain. When he became the most famous new U.S. citizen at last year's Fourth of July gala beneath the Statue of Liberty, "I jumped so high I almost hurt myself. It's the same feeling I had when they told me I can get out of the Soviet Union. It was like actually your lungs opening up and the fresh air of freedom coming in."

Today, at the top of Hollywood figuratively and in the flesh, Smirnoff jokes about the "Russian Express Card: Don't leave home." He realizes full well why he did and what it means. "I'd have stayed in Russia if I'd liked it," he told the Los Angeles Times. REASON Contributing Editor Thomas Hazlett recently interviewed Yakov at his Hollywood home and found out he was right: Russia is no place for Yakov Smirnoff.

Reason: Why and how did you come to America?

Smirnoff: It was 1977. I was 26 years old. I legally applied for a visa and they gave me MasterCard, and I'm here.

Reason: What was your life in the Soviet Union like?

Smirnoff: I was working all the time as a comedian, making a lot of money as a performer—a lot of money by Soviet standards. And making a living as a comedian in the Soviet Union is not necessarily something Americans picture. They see a suppressed society more than they see somebody who can do comedy. So that's unusual, but it does exist.

Reason: What kind of people did you perform before?

Smirnoff: I would say the majority of the people were regular folk. It's like here pretty much—what do you need to go out? You need to earn a living. If you want to spend 15, 20 dollars a person at these places, you can have a good show. The same thing there. It wasn't like only a bourgeois class or whatever.

But I was invited a lot of places, like resort areas on the Black Sea, where I used to live. Places like Club Red—which is what it was. It was where a lot of party members have their sanitarium, as they call it—I wish it was cemetery. They would have doctors overlooking their health while they were resting for a month or two weeks or something like that. But it didn't mean that we only would work those places. All the major factories have big nightclub settings—1,000 or 1,500 seats—and that's where we would travel, and I would go with a group of musicians. Or there would be a master of ceremonies, and it would be just a variety show, like a Lawrence Welk type of show. It was real Lenin sisters.

Reason: What was it like to play a crowd of Communist Party chieftains? Any nervous laughter there?

Smirnoff: They can be lying in state and you know what they can do. You get nervous a little.

Reason: Brezhnev was never noted for his sense of humor, for example.

Smirnoff: No. But he was collecting jokes. It's true. There was a joke going around: They ask him what's his hobby and he says, "I collect jokes." He says, "I have two prison camps full."

Reason: I want to ask you about our impression of the Soviet Union. How far off is it?

Smirnoff: Well, the major difference is that you are not there, so it's hard for you to imagine that it's that bad. It's all relative. Your standards are set way high and you don't believe that people could stay in line for hours to get bread. Or you don't believe that people could live in communal apartments with no phone, with a bathroom outside, or whatever. For us it was reality, it wasn't a big deal. We lived there that way and it was okay. We didn't know any better. It's like people in Cleveland. They have no idea what's going on. They will stay there forever. Why doesn't everybody leave? Because they don't know any better, and nobody encourages them to leave. And the human personality will only work if somebody can encourage it. Like the crises in Poland were encouraged by the Pope, in a way. He went there and the Polish people realized that there was some support from outside and they can do something. And that's how it started.

Reason: What's the best part of freedom in the United States?

Smirnoff: The best part of freedom is that you don't have to look over your shoulder every time you say something. The basic thing is freedom to practice things that you believe in and believing that you can be better so you strive for something. That was suppressed in the Soviet Union. In my case, that was the major difference, because I found my outlet of freedom working—going on stage and improvising without the Department of Jokes approving my material. This is true—I'm not making that up! They approve your stuff—and they only do it once a year, so you can only change material once a year. I would sometimes get my material without any changes, sometimes it would just be hello and good-bye.

Reason: Did they ever miss a punch line?

Smirnoff: Sure. Most of the time. Those guys are retired soldiers. How do you tell a joke to retired soldiers?

Reason: What is the worst part of freedom in America? Many Soviets, even someone like Solzhenitsyn, have trouble adjusting to Western life.

Smirnoff: I think the worst part of freedom is the goddamn foreigners who come here and take our jobs!

I don't think that the worst part of freedom is that people don't adjust, because it's up to them. It's like anything else: you plant a tree and sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn't. And in Solzhenitsyn's case, as much as I admire the man, I feel that he closed in. He was telling the truth and he was being very open about a lot of things and gave Americans a lot of information that was very valuable. But people in America don't want to hear that. They want to believe that everything is fine. He just started screaming, and people after a while just said, "Who cares, we don't want to hear this anymore."

Otherwise, I think people generally adjust pretty well. You only see people who don't, and those people make the news. I also believe that the business that you're in and I'm in—media—is a problem. Freedom was suppressed in Russia. It was terrible. There was one newspaper, which was told by the Communist Party what to write. That is terrible, and that is the way they control their people. What I'm seeing here is that the freedom of speech or First Amendment is taken a little bit too far. It is taken to the stage of sensationalism and it's money-making or career-making. That is what it boils down to.

Reason: The Reagan administration has found this out.

Smirnoff: And that is a shame in a way. I think that one of the basics of freedom is to hear you out and give you an opportunity to defend yourself. Innocent until proven guilty. In Russia you are executed. Period. I believe that media became an executioner here.

Reason: Do you think Americans really value the freedom they have?

Smirnoff: They appreciate it, but I think they take it for granted.

Reason: Did you notice yourself being different than the Soviets when you were there?

Smirnoff: Absolutely, I was very different. Just being a comedian—a comedian here is very different from a normal person because you need to have a certain outlook on life. Most people couldn't make a living being driven to make people laugh. It is definitely an unusual thing in the Soviet Union and here.

Reason: Do you think that is a contradiction in terms, "Soviet comedian"?

Smirnoff: Yes, like "Mormon hippie" or something.

Reason: Does the Soviet citizen love his country?

Smirnoff: You're told to. You're brainwashed enough so you probably think that you do.

Reason: Would the average Soviet want to leave the country if he could get his family out?

Smirnoff: Yes, if they knew. Most people don't know.

Reason: Particularly around the rural areas.

Smirnoff: Most of the big cities have the influence of blue jeans, chewing gum, and cigarettes of America. Other people don't even know what it is or where it is coming from. So if you ask an average folk in the street he'll say, "Boy, I have my TV, I have my vodka every night, I have this…"

Reason: Did you have much contact with Americans or other Westerners while you were in the Soviet Union?

Smirnoff: Yes, because the place where I found out about America was on the cruise ships—the Love Barge, as they call it. I met a lot of Americans there and a lot of Westerners. Even East Europeans, they were much freer. So those people were very helpful for my purposes, helping me to make up my mind and say, Wait a minute, there is a better life somewhere else.

Reason: Were you nervous about talking to them because…

Smirnoff: Very nervous.

Reason: I've read about how difficult it is to establish real friendly relations. Even when the Soviets seem very genuine, they are extremely nervous and sometimes disappear.

Smirnoff: You think somebody will see you and hurt you. Not necessarily physically. You can lose your job, get a bad reputation. It's not necessarily that they are going to destroy you the way we picture in movies; it's done sometimes on a different level.

Reason: Who was your favorite Soviet dissident?

Smirnoff: I don't know. I admire them, but what happens is they make their own dissidents there. It's a PR firm in a way. They say, "Lets make Shcharansky."

Reason: They use people for their purposes.

Smirnoff: Of course. They are a huge PR firm. They know exactly how your mind works, the American mind, and they know what to give you and what to take away from you. They are succeeding.

Reason: Under Gorbachev, Pravda has written a major attack on Brezhnev, and this is supposed to be an amazing turn of events.

Smirnoff: It's not amazing, because they did similar stuff to Khrushchev. They destroy each other. Khrushchev attacked Stalin and Brezhnev attacked Khrushchev and Chernenko wasn't there to breathe so they didn't attack him. He just died himself. It's something you anticipate.

Reason: What about American women versus Soviet women? What is the difference there?

Smirnoff: Freedom. American women are free. A few of them charge, but most of them are free. Again, I look at it all as publicity. Probably the majority of people will think that Soviet women are shaped like buses. There are some beautiful women in the Soviet Union; the problem is that sales of magazines in this country are based on pretty things. You walk into America and you see pretty women on TV, pretty women in the movies, and on the cover of magazines. You don't see that many happy women in the middle of Ohio or something. Since the Soviet Union doesn't need to promote any products—they are all made by the government so there is no competition—there is no need for promotion. When you walk into the Soviet Union you see only reality. And reality doesn't look that good.

Also, there are no cosmetics for women. Oil of Olay doesn't get there. They get Lard of Olay. Raisa Gorbachev is publicity. She is wearing nice clothing by Pierre Cardin, and I think that throws people. You hear more and more of fashion in the Soviet Union again. Gorbachev saying, "Show them our pretty women." Overall, relationship-wise, I like American women much more. They are much more open. If they like you, here I am. If they don't like you it's good-bye. In Russia there would be more games. It's a more rigid society.

Reason: Apparently Soviet women feel they are not really in an equal relationship with Soviet men. There is a lot of animosity—Soviet men don't treat women very well. For all the talk about egalitarianism, the society is biased against women.

Smirnoff: I don't quite buy that because, like everywhere else, what you get is a male who is drunk 90 percent of the time.

Reason: That's the chief complaint…

Smirnoff: And when you are dealing with a drunk male it doesn't matter. I had a couple of friends over last night who are just as classy as you can get, and they got a little tipsy and all of a sudden they were talking with their hands. In the Soviet Union it was a challenge for men to go home and beat up their wives. Because there are only four guys in the country who can do that.

Reason: You have appeared in a funny Lite beer commercial: "In America you can always find a party; in the Soviet Union the party always finds you." My understanding is that that commercial, and also a Wendy's hamburger commercial—which was a very humorous takeoff on a Soviet fashion show—have been attacked by some writers in America as damaging to U.S.-USSR relations. What is your view on that?

Smirnoff: I say bull. I say it is a shame because they were very funny, those commercials. I feel that what is happening is that the Soviets work so hard on their PR, all of a sudden they were allowed to go on American television and say, "Wait a minute, what are you doing? This is not the way we do it." Sometimes Americans don't think about what is good for them. Since when did it become so sensitive? Since when did it become such a big deal?

Reason: What about some of the people the Soviet Union sends over here to be their face? Like Vladimir Posner, the journalist who has done shows with Phil Donahue. What is your view on Americans dealing with people like Vladimir Posner, who are obviously very well-trained propagandists. Do you think we're naive?

Smirnoff: Absolutely.

Reason: Do you think it works?

Smirnoff: 100 percent. In American people's minds, you want to knock down your system yourself. Are you saying, "We want to protect it"? No. You have the freedom to bitch, and you do it. You have the freedom to say that your government sucks, and you do it. And it works for them. Because they are saying that your government sucks. It's like karate. They are concentrating the body into their punch, and you're helping.

Reason: Talk about some differences in your life here from your life in Russia. What are the different things you see in shopping? There are so many choices here.

Smirnoff: That's a problem sometimes. I am not very good with choices. I'm learning that things can be delivered to you, which is amazing to me. I can call in, I don't have to go anywhere. You can take things back if you don't like them. You can do anything by phone. It's great.

Reason: That's better than Russia?

Smirnoff: Yeah. There you have no phone.

Reason: Otherwise you could have made the same choices?

Smirnoff: Sure. You could call America and have them deliver.

Reason: Are you Jewish? If you'll excuse me asking a personal question.

Smirnoff: Partially, yeah.

Reason: Did you try to be Jewish in emigrating?

Smirnoff: There was no religious background in my case because they suppressed that. So I didn't feel any positive things about that. But negative-wise, when they needed to figure this out they said, "Wait a minute—isn't he partially Jewish?" That's like a scapegoat for them. To find somebody who is guilty of something. But overall it's just one of those things. You make a decision to leave and everybody can try to apply and then see what is going to happen. In my case it worked out for the best.

Reason: Is the tax rate higher in Russia or in the United States?

Smirnoff: They found a solution for taxes there. Very easy. They don't pay you.

Reason: That is very easy. No audit.

Smirnoff: No, and they don't ask you to pay back. Sometimes they do but not very often.

Reason: Getting back to Soviet humor, aren't there a lot of anticommunist jokes in the Soviet Union?

Smirnoff: Plenty. And people tell those all the time. It's like a life-line for people in a way because they need to joke about those depressing situations. If they don't they'll hurt themselves. It's like going to the funeral and watching people make jokes about certain things because…

Reason: It's too tragic not to laugh.

Smirnoff: Yeah, it's very hard.

Reason: Are there yuppies in the Soviet Union?

Smirnoff: Yup in Russian means "sucks," so…

Reason: How about other American types. Would you find rednecks in the Soviet Union?

Smirnoff: No, their whole body is red. You can't separate the neck.

Reason: If Marx were to be rereleased, as they say in the movie business, and show up on a Moscow street, what would be the public reaction to him?

Smirnoff: I think the majority would probably want to kill him. They'd say, "We had caviar in the stores before you showed up with your theories. We don't have it anymore. Remember the rest of the things we had? No more." No, the theory doesn't work. It's a tool. It's like religion in a way. You can turn it any way you want. You can twist it around and become a controller of people. Most of the wars were basically religious wars. It's called communism, but it's making people follow.

Reason: Here in America we often hear that money corrupts. You've been in a system where apparently there is some corruption, but it's not necessarily from money. How does it work in the Soviet Union?

Smirnoff: Power, money, the same thing.

Reason: Is it the same?

Smirnoff: Oh, absolutely. You live much better and you have more power. And you have no press to destroy you, so you really have a dictatorship and it's the ultimate for people. Here you have limited power, so people find their outlets in different ways. They find big industries and they can be kings and build up this empire. Like McDonald's. They expand and that is their way of winning. But it's not bad winning—it's good winning, in a way. I mean, what is wrong with having McDonald's? If it's optional, God bless you. But there the power goes into political power, and that is when it turns into dictatorship, because they say, "I don't want another McDonald's on this street."

Reason: Let me just ask you for one good Gorbachev joke.

Smirnoff: Gorbachev went to the factory. He was fighting this alcohol problem. And he said to a worker, "If you had a shot of vodka, could you work?" He said, "I guess I could." "If you had two shots of vodka, could you work?" He said, "Yeah, I think I could." "If you had three shots of vodka, could you work?" He said, "I'm here, aren't I?"