- - Monday, September 21, 2015

He was one of the most memorable comics of the 1980s with his Russian accent and catchphrase “what a country!” He appeared in films alongside Robin Williams, Tom Hanks and Richard Pryor. He befriended and performed for President Ronald Reagan.

But as the Cold War melted and the Berlin Wall crumbled, so did Yakov Smirnoff’s career, leaving the resourceful funnyman to reinvent himself in the unlikely town of Branson, Missouri.

Mr. Smirnoff opened his Malibu home for a look back on his amazing life, which included lunches with President Reagan and his connection to The Washington Times.

Question: What is your connection to The Washington Times?

Answer: I was playing a show at a D.C. club Comedy Cafe. After the show this gentleman comes over. He says, “My name is Arnaud de Borchgrave, and I am chief editor at The Washington Times. I’m hosting a party for President Reagan, and I would like you to be one of the guests. I think he’ll get a kick out of you.”

I didn’t know if this guy was was for real, but I gave him my number. A few days later he sent a ticket. I fly to Washington. He meets me. We get to his place [and] there are helicopters overhead. They blocked all the streets, and there are guys with bulletproof vests and machine guns. It was like Russia.

We pull up and the guard tells Arnaud to step out of the car. Arnuad says, “I’m the host of the party!” The guard says, “We don’t give a damn! Step out. Paperwork!”

I’m thinking, “I’ll never pass this test.” The guard shines a light on me and says, “Miller Lite commercial, right? Go ahead.”

Q: What was it like meeting Reagan for the first time?

A: They introduced me to President Reagan as “Russian comedian.” It was like a magical moment. We locked in. It was like everybody else disappeared. He said, “Let me tell you a Russian joke.” Then I told him a joke. For two hours he and I locked into each other.

Q: Did you actually become friends with President Reagan?

A: He and I continued to see each other socially after he was the president. He loved the jokes. He would call up and say, “Wanna have lunch?” I would say, “Yes, sir! But who is picking up the bill?” It was always me! He would say, “You realize the president doesn’t carry a wallet.” He called me “a national treasure.” That was the greatest compliment.

Q: How did you come to America from Russia?

A: I was a comedian in Russia, and I worked on the cruise ships there. I met a lot of Americans, and they were laughing even though I didn’t speak their language. My dad and I wanted to go to America. But not my mom. One night she saw me perform and saw people reacting to my comedy. We then moved to New York. I took a bartending course. The bartending school helped find you jobs. They called and said, “There is a job at Grossinger’s hotel in the Catskills.” I took a bus up there and I fell in love. I knew this was home.

Q: How did you make the jump from bartender to performer?

A: I spoke very little English, but I translated some jokes and tried them on bar costumers. I asked the talent coordinator if I could tell a few jokes in the afternoon show. There was this one lady who started laughing really hard. I thought I was doing great. But she was actually having seizures in the middle of my performance. People didn’t even realize it. After the show they are coming up to me slapping me on the back saying, “You were killing out there!”

Q: Was that your big break?

A: The other major break was when I was working for a company in New York. The owner said, “Yakov, I know someone in Hollywood.” He was the executive producer of “Three’s Company.”

I flew to Los Angeles for a week and booked an audition for the producer at The Comedy Store. Right before I go on-stage I get the message that he can’t make it. I performed and I did well. But what did it matter? The producer wasn’t here.

I leave with my head down. This young woman comes chasing me: “Yakov, congratulations!” I said, “For what? The guy didn’t show up.” She said, “But Mitzi [Shore, owner of The Comedy Store] liked you.” I said, “Who is Mitzi?”  

I talked to her. Mitzi said, “You’re very funny. You should stay in Los Angeles. There is always a place for good and different.”

Q: Were you there when the Berlin Wall came down?

A: I was there with Bob Hope literally tearing down the wall while filming this special.

But there was writing on that wall that I didn’t see. It said, “Look for another career. Because you are cutting the branch you’re sitting on.” I went from making so much money to nothing.

Q: How did you end up in Branson, Missouri?

A: I had to find a place that didn’t know that the Soviet Union collapsed. They didn’t know. They didn’t care. That town is the best town on the planet. I’ve been there 24 years.

Q: How has your stand-up act evolved?

A: Missouri was great for me because I had a chance to reinvent.

My new show is “Happily Ever Laughter.” It’s about relationships. In Branson I perform two hours and 15 minutes. That gives me a chance to give them what they came for — the old brand — then quickly transition into the new.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: PBS is filming my special, “Happily Ever Laughter” on September 25. I would like to do a “Happily Ever Laughter” sitcom.

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