The National Security Advisor gets bounced for covert dealings with a Russian ambassador, then the Pentagon announces that Russian fighter jets recently buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea, and reports come out that the Kremlin has begun testing cruise missiles in utter disregard of a bilateral arms control treaty. Finally, a Russian spy ship gets caught cruising off the coast of New Jersey.
And that’s just from one day’s news cycle.
Yes, Russia is back as the #1 seed in America’s no-goodnik bracket for the first time since, well … since Yakov Smirnoff had a comedy career.
“I’ve been waiting for this for 25 years!” Smirnoff tells me of Russophobia’s return to the zeitgeist. He adds a laugh—one part giggle, three parts asthma attack—to indicate that he’s joking.
But, all giggles aside, the bad old days in US/Russia relations really were good times for Smirnoff, now 66 years old. For the non-remembering: Smirnoff was the most period-specific superstar comedian of all time. For most of the 1980s, when cover-your-heads atomic-bomb-survival drills were a grammar school ritual and “mutually assured destruction” was part of the American lexicon, folks in the Land of the Free looked to an Evil Empire refugee for their laughs. Smirnoff had a Borat-like voice, a gift for mining out any uncommon ground between Soviets and Americans, and a willingness to promote even the most dumbass Soviet stereotype (Russian women are physically repulsive?), so long as it made us feel we were better than them.
He delivered his pro-USA catchphrase (“What a country!”) with enthusiasm and sincerity that couldn’t be faked. He loved his new homeland enough for all of us. A 1983 profile in the Miami Herald asserted that Smirnoff was providing “eyewitness corroborations of the American conviction that the Soviet Union is a Bad Country.”
Smirnoff’s job was to make America feel great again. “I was the aspirin for the headache Americans got from the Russians,” he says now.
And for that he was rewarded handsomely. Newspaper and magazine profiles from his heyday typically placed Smirnoff behind the wheel of either a Rolls Royce with the vanity license plate “COMRADE” or a Ferrari with “X-RED” tags as he cruised the boulevards of Hollywood. One example proving that he had indeed risen to the top of the comedy game? A few grafs at the end of a 1986 Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press review of Smirnoff’s appearance in town are devoted to his opening act, Jerry Seinfeld.
Smirnoff says that over time and through formally studying human psychology, he’s realized that he actually served a much more momentous purpose than merely making people laugh.
“I was helping them end the Cold War,” Smirnoff says.
Megalomaniacal? Sure sounds it. There’s ample evidence, though, that the Soviets not only were aware of Smirnoff’s shtick, but actually regarded him as a threat: The New York Times reported in 1986 that in the lead-up to the inaugural Goodwill Games, an Olympic-style competition held that summer in Moscow, the Soviet government specifically asked the TBS network to not air an anti-Soviet Miller Lite commercial while broadcasting the event to American audiences. The Miller ad featured Smirnoff, who isn’t mentioned in Times story, spouting the punchline, “In Russia, party always finds you!” The Ted Turner-owned network did not run the ad. (That Miller commercial, which was hugely popular in the U.S., also stuck Smirnoff with a reputation as the godfather of so-called “Russian reversal” jokes—“In America, A does B, but in Soviet Union, B does A!”—though he’s spent decades arguing he neither invented nor depended on such easily mockable shtick.)
More momentously, the comedian really did spend the waning years of the Cold War hanging out with President Ronald Reagan. You can look it up: When he wasn’t busy headlining Vegas casinos, or endorsing all sorts of commercial products that weren’t available to anybody in the Soviet Union, or cracking up Johnny Carson and his massive Tonight Show audience, Smirnoff was trading punchlines with the president and even coming up with material for Reagan’s use in a 1988 summit with Mikhael Gorbachev, including lines in a 1988 address that one of Reagan’s chief speechwriters insists put the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin. So anybody that credits Reagan with hastening the Berlin Wall’s fall should give Smirnoff an assist.
He was also making his act obsolete.
“When the Berlin Wall came down,” Smirnoff says, “it really ended my career.”
He became a latter-day Vaughn Meader, the nightclub performer who in the early 1960s built a very successful act entirely on his impersonation of John F. Kennedy. Meader found himself jobless the moment the president was assassinated. Legend holds that comedian Lenny Bruce opened his first show after JFK’s death by saying, “Man, Vaughn Meader is screwed.”
As the Cold War ended, Smirnoff was living in a Hollywood Hills estate formerly owned by Bruce, and Smirnoff found himself just as screwed as Meader.
Like Meader, Smirnoff for a time became the punchline. In 1990, Spy did a cheeky post-Cold War issue that imagined the opening night of “Trump Kremlin Hotel & Casino on Gorky Street in Moscow,” with the entertainment bill headlined by “Yakov Smirnoff, in his triumphant return to his homeland.” In June 1992, Smirnoff made David Letterman’s list of the top 10 items on the agenda at a George Bush/Boris Yeltsin summit. (“No. 8: Work out joint custody of Yakov Smirnoff.”) That same year, The Ben Stiller Show aired a brutal skit depicting Smirnoff as desperate and unemployable.
Cruel, for sure, but accurate: Take away a February 1993 guest appearance on the CBS sitcom Major Dad, as an officer of the “new Russian army”, and Smirnoff went more than two decades without a mainstream film or acting credit. Within just a few years of the Cold War’s ending, he wasn’t even the butt of jokes.
“Once the headache goes away,” Smirnoff says, “you put the aspirin on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet.”
But whereas Meader turned to drink and drugs in reaction to his career cratering, Smirnoff banished himself to Branson, Mo., a town in the Ozark Mountains, which might as well be Siberia to Americans on either coast but has long fancied itself as the premier live entertainment hub of the Midwest.
“The reason I went to Branson was because there they did not know the Soviet Union collapsed,” Smirnoff now says.
He claims to have played to more than four million folks in 23 years in the Ozarks, mostly with a breakfast show at his own theater that climaxed with a waltz between Smirnoff and a girl dressed as the Statue of Liberty while “Sweet Lady Liberty,” a song he wrote, played over the sound system. He left Branson in 2015, and a Chinese circus now leases his theater. Smirnoff lives in Malibu, Calif., where he’s a marriage counselor, a field he entered after studying psychology under a Penn professor credited with masterminding CIA and Pentagon torture programs. (No, really.) Smirnoff says his current mission is “to end the Cold War in your bedroom.”
But the lifeblood of Smirnoff’s first career—mistrusting Russia—is flowing freely in America after decades of post-Glasnost good vibes. Typical newscasts now have more East/West hijinks than a script from The Americans. As a matter of fact, I’m typing this at the Georgetown branch of the D.C. Public Library, located a few blocks south on Wisconsin Ave. NW from the Russian embassy, where a fleet of satellite trucks from news networks has been camped out since morning to broadcast the latest allegations of Kremlin malfeasance.
So the time is ripe for a look back at a bizarre chapter in U.S. history, when the most powerful man in the world enlisted a refugee funnyman to help fight our most fearsome foe.
It all began when a Commie-hating, swashbuckling journalist of the sort that no longer exists set up Smirnoff and Reagan to meet at his apartment for a curiously cozy D.C. dinner party ...
“So my parents and I were exchanged for wheat.”
He was born Yakov Pokhis in Odessa, a seaport city known as Ukraine’s summer capital. He was an only child and grew up in a communal apartment where he and his parents got one room. (“Fourteen people all together. One kitchen. No shower. One bathroom,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985.) He was Jewish, but didn’t practice and didn’t know anybody who did, since atheism was the only state-sanctioned creed. He says he regularly waited in an hours-long line for bread and then waited in another for milk, as did everybody else he knew.
The apartment also lacked a telephone, radio and television. But there was one wall-mounted speaker that relayed audio-only programming from a single government-owned channel. The state network briefly disrupted its propaganda programming on weekends with entertainment offerings, and from those young Yakov took a shine to performances from Arkady Raiken, the most popular Russian comedic actor of the 1960s. Yakov decided that he too would be a funnyman when he grew up.
Smirnoff told Marc Maron on a WTF podcast in 2013 that he memorized Raiken bits that he heard over the apartment speaker, and re-did them at gatherings at the local workers hall where his father, a building engineer and recreational inventor, was a member. Under the Soviet system, a performer’s original material had to be pre-approved by a division of the Ministry of Culture, which Smirnoff calls “the Department of Jokes.” Since originality was so burdensome, and put the artist in the spotlight of the government, thievery of Raiken’s material was both rampant and acceptable. Odessans would take laughs wherever they could get them.
He put comedy on hold while spending two years painting propaganda posters when he was drafted into military service as a teen. (The graphics work kept him off the front lines of the invasion of Czechoslavakia, he told Maron.) When he got his discharge, he got back into performing, and his first break came when he got a job on a state-owned cruise ship, which he dubbed “The Love Barge,” setting into the Black Sea out of Odessa. American and European firms contracted with the Kremlin for the cruises, and to please those customers, Smirnoff says, management gave the most stage time to the entertainers who got the best response from passengers. He called this his first “taste of capitalism,” since such incentives generally weren’t available to Soviet workers on land.
While ship performers were barred from talking to foreign passengers other than from the stage, the job gave Smirnoff his first chance to watch Westerners, and to learn they weren’t at all what he expected. “If the government wanted to give us pictures of Americans,” he once said, “they showed Three Stooges films.” The bigger revelation was how happy the non-Soviets seemed compared to his countrymen. “Americans were free to laugh,” he told the Washington Post in 1986. “Soviets always had something in the back of their minds that maybe they should not laugh.”
He convinced his father that they should get out of Odessa. His mother initially pooh-poohed their plan, then caved when he took her on a cruise and she saw what he saw. In 1975, the family filed papers with the government officially asking to leave. The Soviets did not like people leaving for any reason, and there were immediate repercussions for making the request. Smirnoff says he lost his cruise-ship gig, and couldn’t find much work as a comedian on land, either. Then they didn’t hear anything about their asylum request for two years. But “Freedom for Soviet Jewry” was an American cause celebre at the time, and, because years of bad crops had crippled the Soviet food supply, the USSR was open to making deals with the American government that had us giving them grain in exchange for immigrants. In 1977, the Pohkis family was told they could leave, and they came to America.
“So my parents and I were exchanged for wheat,” he tells me. “I think of that every time I see a Wonder Bread truck.” (Google indicates that Smirnoff has been using some version of the wheat joke, and most of the other lines from our interview, for decades. But it was new to me, and I laughed sincerely and hard.)
The family moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment, only this time they didn’t have to share the refrigerator or the bathroom with 14 people. His father had a creative burst immediately upon escaping from behind the Iron Curtain. The database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows he got 12 patents within two years of arriving in the country, including one for a moving handrail that he registered with Yakhov as the co-inventor.
He wanted to get back on the stage, and was willing to start at the bottom. He got a job as a bar-back at Grossinger’s, a legendary but declining resort in the Catskills. At the theater there, the 26-year-old Smirnoff simultaneously learned English and the ropes of American stand-up comedy from watching a parade of old-school Borscht Belt entertainers and some mainstream stars—Johnny Carson did shows there—working crowds of vacationers.
He wanted a stage name that Americans would immediately identify as Russian. “They knew Krushchev,” he told a Vancouver interviewer in 2007, “but that wasn’t a good association.”
“Smirnoff” won out, playing off the popularity of the biggest selling vodka in the world, which was, despite its Russian-ish branding, in reality manufactured by a Connecticut-based company.
After a brief stint as a cruise director on a Carnival Cruise vessel out of Florida, he felt his English was good enough to make a play for the big time. In 1979, he flew out to Los Angeles to try out for the Comedy Store, the hottest spot in the standup world at the time. The owner, Mitzi Shore, hired him, but not as a comic. She put Smirnoff and his dad on the payroll as maintenance men at the iconic club. He said on WTF that on his first night on the job he saw David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams all take the stage to try out new material. Shore began working him into the rotation, and gave him a place to live, in a group house with Andrew “Dice” Clay.
In comedy, timing is everything. The Soviet Union was making headlines in U.S. newspapers pretty much every day, and never for good reason. Their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan sank relations between Washington and Moscow to their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jimmy Carter ordered U.S. athletes to boycott the 1980 Olympics, which the Soviets were hosting in Moscow. Four years later, the Reds got revenge, and made relations between the countries even frostier, when Konstantin Chernenko announced the Soviets would lead an Eastern bloc boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. No other comic had the background Smirnoff had or was so equipped to rip material straight from the headlines and get laughs at the expense of our most hated adversary.
Among the gags attributed to Smirnoff back in the day:
- “We have only two channels in Russia. The first is all propaganda and the second is a KGB officer who says, ‘Turn it back to Channel 1.’”
- “We do have some good programs: Last Days of Our Lives, The Young and Arrested, Marx and Mindy, Czar Search, Bowling for Food, Wheel of Torture, Unhappy Days, and Leave It to Brezhnev. One show is about a guy who has a chance to leave Russia but stays—That’s Incredible!”
- “On the Fourth of July in Russia we had fireworks, too. They’d put you against the wall and fire. It works.”
- “In Russia, they explain very simply the shortage of toilet paper. They say, `You don’t have food; you don’t need toilet paper.’”
- On the embarrassment of riches he’s found in America: “Now I walk around, and I have four bathrooms. I don’t know where to go. Sometimes by the time I make up my mind, it’s too late.
- “Many people are surprised to hear that we have comedians in Russia, but they are there. They are dead, but they are there.”
- On why growing up in the Soviet Union is fun: “We have wonderful schoolboy games: Dodge Bombs. Simon Demands. Hide and Stay Hidden.”
- “I enjoy being in America. You have so many things we never had in Russia — like warning shots.”
- “The first time I went to a restaurant, they asked me: ‘How many in your party?’ and I said ‘Six hundred million.’”
- “I saw the signs that read ‘Jimmy Carter, Democrat; Ronald Reagan, Republican.’ When I saw ‘Johnny Walker, Red,’ I got scared.”
- “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?’”
Smirnoff headlined at Vegas casinos throughout the ’80s. He made at least seven appearances on The Tonight Show, back when an audience with Johnny Carson was considered the top TV gig for stand-up comics. He got his own sitcom, What a Country!, syndicated by Viacom for a year beginning in 1986. He wrote a bestseller in 1987, America on Six Rubles a Day. And toward the end of the decade, Smirnoff was as busy a product endorser as there was. He had the aforementioned Lite Beer commercial. Eastern roots be damned, Smirnoff became the marketing face of Best Western hotels. He did a spot for Plymouth Horizon (“Sticker price only $5995! Same price without the sticker!”). He spouted his trademark line, “What a country!” to help Amoco sell gas.
From his networking with Robin Williams at the Comedy Store, just as the former Mork and Mindy star was making a move to the big screen, Smirnoff got a role in Moscow on the Hudson. Parts in Heartburn, The Money Pit, Brewster’s Millions, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai followed. He played a Russian refugee in each.
But Smirnoff wanted more than fame and fortune. Amid a 1982 run headlining at Garvin’s, then D.C.’s top comedy club, he told the Washington Post that as grateful as he was for all the successes coming his way in his new homeland, he still “had a dream about doing a show at the White House for President Reagan.” He lived that fantasy out, sort of, in 1984, when filming Buckaroo Banzai, as he was cast as a bumbling Russian immigrant named Vladimir who somehow gets named national security advisor, then helps the fictional U.S. president save the nation.
He’d be doing something damn similar in the real world soon enough.
“If I bomb, that’s one thing. If he bombs, that’s totally a different thing.”
In late 1985, after another club appearance in the Nation’s Capital, Smirnoff was approached by Arnaud de Borchgrave, for decades a bon vivant globetrotting journalist who at the time was editor of the Washington Times, the conservative daily newspaper. de Borchgrave was a renowned expert on and arch-enemy of the Soviet Union; a New York Times report said he’d been fired from Newsweek after a long run as a foreign correspondent in 1980 for “likening the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Hitler’s pre-World War II grab of Czechoslovakia.” de Borchgrave told Smirnoff that Reagan was soon going to come to his home for a dinner party. He wanted the comedian to to be there, too, and tell his anti-Soviet jokes to the president personally.
Smirnoff recalls that he had no idea who de Borchgrave was, and dismissed him as a wacko fan.
“I thought he was off the rocker,” says Smirnoff.
Then an airline ticket back to D.C. showed up in the mailbox of Smirnoff’s L.A. home. The comedy summit was on. On the evening of January 23, 1986, he arrived at de Borchgrave’s condominium in the tony Kalorama neighborhood, with cops everywhere and helicopters flying overhead. The Reagan’s trip to the de Borchgraves’ residence got a brief mention in the gossip column of the Washington Post, yet there was no mention of the other guests there or in any other press. The Reagan Library’s photo archive, however, shows that Smirnoff was part of a dinner crowd of just 16 folks, including Treasury Secretary James Baker; France’s ambassador to the U.S., Emmanuel de Margerie; conservative diva Clare Boothe Luce; and Mandy Ourisman, a leading D.C. car dealer. And Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
There’s also a shot that captures Smirnoff’s first meeting with the president in the living room of the apartment.
There were two tables of eight, arranged in a boy-girl seating plan. Smirnoff was at the president’s table. After dinner, all the men stayed in the dining room and listened to Smirnoff and Reagan trade jokes. Meanwhile, as the Reagan Library’s photo archive shows, Nancy Reagan and other distaff diners were banished to a tiny bedroom for the rest of the evening.
Earlier that day, the U.S. government informed Libya that Navy jets would be flying missions over the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast, marking a big escalation in the aggression Reagan was showing Mohamar Qadafi, the Soviet-backed leader of Libya. That campaign culminated in April with the bombing of Tripoli by U.S. warplanes. But nobody let a little Mideast unrest get in the way of a good party back in D.C. The daily diary at the Reagan Library shows that National Security Advisor John Poindexter phoned the President at de Borchgrave’s abode at 9:28 PM on Jan. 23, 1986—and that Reagan didn’t take the call. He was likely busy joking with his brand new buddy.
“Through the whole night a Marine was standing there with ‘the football,’ the briefcase with all the codes for nuclear attack,” Smirnoff tells me. “And here we were telling jokes to one another. Can you see the humor? I’m thinking, If I bomb, that’s one thing. If he bombs, that’s totally a different thing.”
Arnaud de Borchgrave died in February 2015. “It was a great pleasure to have Yakov in our home,” says Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, his widow and co-host of the first Reagan/Smirnoff summit, “and I know the president greatly enjoyed his company.”
The immigrant comedian and the movie-star president really did hit it off right away. Just a week after the dinner, Smirnoff accompanied Reagan to the CPAC convention at the Washington Hilton, the same D.C. hotel where the president had taken a bullet five years earlier. Smirnoff gave the conservatives what they wanted, according to a Washington Post write-up of the event:“In the Soviet Union, they say they have freedom of speech,” he joked, “but here they have freedom after they speak.” Smirnoff was invited back to speak at CPAC’s next annual meeting, alongside Ed Meese, Jerry Falwell, and Anatoly Shchransky.
In 1987, Reagan referred to “my friend Yakov Smirnoff” at a gala at Ford’s Theatre, the D.C. venue where Abe Lincoln was shot: “Yakov says the only advantage that Soviet comedians have is that they’re always playing to a captive audience,” Reagan said.
Smirnoff became a U.S. citizen on July 4, 1986, having been sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in a nationally-televised ceremony from Ellis Island. (The Chicago Tribune asked him what were his first thoughts after becoming an American, and Smirnoff responded, “Those damn foreigners come here and take our jobs.”) He got the top speaking gig at the 1988 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the last one held during Reagan’s presidency. Smirnoff led the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance at the GOP’s 1988 convention, and was introduced by Reagan as “a great patriot” when the pair attended campaign rallies for the party’s presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush.
He was clearly the American government’s favorite comic.
“Certainly this is what the American audience wants to hear.”
As it turns out, the Soviets weren’t the only ones with a government-run “Department of Jokes.”
The New York Times reported in 1987 on the president’s growing penchant for Soviet gags. Dana Rohrabacher, then a speechwriter for Reagan (and now a powerful GOP Congressman from California), told the Times that the CIA provided some of Reagan’s Soviet jokes. Rohrbacher also cited Smirnoff as a “fruitful source of material” for the president’s joke stash.
In 2013, the CIA declassified a small cache of jokes approved for use by an official of the agency. There’s no date on the official document, which has gotten media play lately since the Moscow Times wrote it up, but the gags mention Reagan and Gorbachev, meaning it’s likely from the 1980s.
Among the nuggets in the CIA file is one joke that was included in a 1987 New York Times story about Reagan’s love of Russian punchlines:
An American tells a Russian that the United States is so free he can stand in front of the White House and yell, “To hell with Ronald Reagan.” The Russian replies, “That’s nothing. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan,’ too.”
That CIA-sanctioned gag was also a staple of Smirnoff’s act at the time.
Smirnoff tells me he never worked for the CIA on jokes or in any capacity.
One portion of Smirnoff’s act that hasn’t yet shown up in any CIA files but sure comes off as propaganda: His relentless riffing about the unattractiveness of Russian women.
He slurred the women of his homeland, for example, in a Q&A with the Chicago Tribune in 1985:
Q: Have you found any differences between Russian and American women?
A: Oh, definitely. American women are so much sexier. Sexually they do things that Russian women wouldn’t think of doing, like showering.
McCall’s magazine, a long-gone publication aimed at American women, wrote up a Smirnoff routine in 1988 that was full of riffs on the lines of a reference to his “Russian girlfriend, Olga Turnyourheadandcough.”
Another Smirnoff standby: “We have an expression in Russia: Women are like buses … and that’s it.”
Smirnoff didn’t invent this misogynistic stereotype. After World War II, which claimed the lives of about 20 million mostly male Russians, Soviet propaganda posters tended to feature women laboring for the military, their appearance having little to do with Hollywood-style notions of femininity. John Lloyd, who covered the Soviet Union for the Financial Times during the Cold War, traces the creep of the “ugly Russian woman” image into Western culture back to 1963’s James Bond thriller, From Russia With Love, the antagonist of which was Col. Rosa Klebb, a rough-looking woman who is unable to attract Bond romantically and whose appearance matches that of the women in the Soviet propaganda posters.
“The message of the movie was that women who look like Rosa Klebb stay in the Soviet Union,” Lloyd says, “and those who are beautiful go to the West.”
Madison Avenue also bludgeoned Westerners throughout the Cold War with the thought that only ugly women could be found behind the Iron Curtain. (Take this Wendy’s TV spot, for instance.)
But nobody pushed Russian women’s alleged repulsiveness more aggressively than U.S. comedians—Joan Rivers, herself the daughter of Russian emigres, told a joke about how how Russia was the only country in the world where men carried rape whistles on the Tonight Show in 1986—and no comedian was more aggressive than Smirnoff.
I told Smirnoff that his Russian-women material—most of which, I confessed, made me laugh—left me awed that such a sweet-seeming guy could unleash such meanness.
“Let me explain,” Smirnoff tells me, adding a guilty chuckle. “In the 1960s and 1970s, there were a lot of women who were big, burly, heavy women in the Soviet Union. There were also beautiful petite women. But they were standing behind those big and burly women so you couldn’t see them.”
In the 1983 Miami Herald profile, Smirnoff explained the appeal of his routines: “Certainly this is what the American audience wants to hear.” He knows his misogynistic bits no longer fill that bill.
“I can’t do that anymore!” he now says. “It’s not accurate.”
Smirnoff’s melding of comedy and politics peaked in May 1988. That’s when Reagan made his first trip to Russia. He consulted with Smirnoff before making the historic voyage.
Joshua Gilder, a White House staff speechwriter under Reagan, recalls Smirnoff as being particularly helpful on the address the president delivered at Moscow State University, a school regarded as the Harvard of Russia. Reagan was known for depending on crackpot consultants of dubious value during his time as the most powerful man on the planet. (Remember astrologer Joan Quigley? Or the Pentagon’s ESP program?) But Gilder, the lead speechwriter for the University address, says Smirnoff’s contributions were no joking matter.
“Yakov was extremely funny, and very helpful in terms of getting the tone just right,” says Gilder. “Comedy is hard, and translating comedy between America and what was then the Soviet Union is hard, and Yakov was extremely helpful. The lighter touches in that speech really made it.”
Among Smirnoff’s contributions to that speech was a Russian folk tale that Reagan paraphrased to make his point that the Soviet bureaucracy stifled technological progress and denied citizens any chance “to make their dreams come true”:
“There’s an old story about a town—it could be anywhere—with a bureaucrat who is known to be a good-for-nothing, but he somehow had always hung on to power,” Reagan said. “So one day, in a town meeting, an old woman got up and said to him: ‘There is a folk legend here where I come from that when a baby is born, an angel comes down from heaven and kisses it on one part of its body. If the angel kisses him on his hand, he becomes a handyman. If he kisses him on his forehead, he becomes bright and clever. And I’ve been trying to figure out where the angel kissed you so that you should sit there for so long and do nothing.”
Smirnoff says he was in Hollywood watching the Moscow speech on American television via satellite when he heard the president tell his kissing tale.
“No one laughed,” Smirnoff says. “And I’m watching this and going, ‘This is not good!’ But I forgot that the Russian politicians didn’t speak English, so they were waiting for the translation to come through their headsets. It was the longest [five seconds] in my life.”
The crowd did eventually get the joke and started clapping—the official White House transcript notes after Reagan told Smirnoff’s tale: “[Laughter].”
“And I wet my pants,” says Smirnoff.
Gilder says that Gorbachev had promised Reagan that the speech would be broadcast live by the state television networks, but reneged and didn’t televise the address at all. The government also banned any publication of the text of the speech. But Reagan’s words slowly did get out to the people via samizdat, the underground information highway in the Soviet bloc where censored materials were passed around by hand.
“This was a very important speech,” says Gilder, “the first time that Reagan had ever spoken directly to the nomenklatura, the ruling class, and the kids at Moscow State University, the children of the elite. An extraordinary opportunity. And I think for Gorbachev and the elites there it helped them realize that there was really no way to resist this. He was talking to the power of innovation, of the economic boom that was the computer revolution in the U.S. The whole thrust of the speech was you have to open up and innovate or die, and it was clear to the Soviets by then that they couldn’t keep up. I think they knew it was over.”
Soon, two things were indeed over: The Cold War, and Yakov’s comedic career.
“I’m still in love with this country.”
The guy whose sense of humor once helped cure spats between nations now wants his comedic gifts to keep domestic partners together.
Smirnoff went through a divorce in 2001, and says the failure of his marriage made him start thinking more about domestic policy and less about global issues. He enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania where, according to the bio in Smirnoff’s promotional materials, he “earned a master’s degree in psychology in 2006 under the supervision of Dr. Martin Seligman.” That’s an odd thing for a funnyman to still promote. Seligman, along with being president of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, was infamously noted in Jane Mayer’s 2008 book, The Dark Side, for his connections to the U.S. government’s post-9/11 torture programs. Mayer wrote that Seligman spoke at at least one joint CIA/Pentagon torture seminar about his theories of “learned helplessness,” derived from his experiments on dogs in which he “used electric shocks to destroy their will to escape.” Seligman told Mayer at that time that he thought his findings would be used to help American soldiers cope with being tortured. However, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report on torture said the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation programs were built around Seligman’s learned helplessness theories. When that report was published, Seligman told the New Yorker that he “grieved that good science, which has helped many people overcome depression, may have been used for such a bad purpose as torture.”
Smirnoff decided to try using what he learned studying under Seligman to help others overcome bad marriages—without the assist of electric shocks. He authored a romantic advice column in AARP Magazine in 2007, and had a brief run starring in a one-man show on Broadway about the importance of humor in a marriage, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh. He also was part of a touring seminar for couples alongside John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, called Stand Up 4 Marriage. (Typical Yakov yuk from the production: “That’s why I think they call those places Bed, Bath and Beyond, because how a woman can spend so much money on bed and bath is beyond any man.”) His current roving counseling session is called Happily Ever Laughter: The Neuroscience of Relationships, which according to promotional materials “showcases laughter’s effects on relationships and envisions a world where sadness and tears are replaced with love and laughter.”
The Ivy League studies also made Smirnoff re-assess his geopolitical contributions from the 1980s. He says that during his heyday he didn’t understand exactly how important humor was to Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev. He now believes that comedy was indeed the secret weapon in ending one of world history’s biggest feuds.
“If you think about Soviet and American leaders, like Brezhnev and Nixon, nobody was smiling when they met,” he says. “But, I think what took down the Berlin Wall was the laughter between Reagan and Gorbachev. They found give and take, appreciating and initiating humor, and vice versa.”
Smirnoff always insisted his rabid pro-Americanism wasn’t an act. On the Fourth of July 1986, the same day he was sworn in as an American citizen, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature in which he confessed that he was utterly unable to criticize anything about the U.S. “It’s hard to see bad stuff when you’re in love,” he said. “I’m still in love with this country.”
And he still can’t find fault. He lived his version of the American dream because a U.S. president spent money (by selling our grain to Russia at giveaway prices) to bring in folks who were yearning to breathe free, even refugees from enemy states. But he’s okay with President Donald Trump’s current plan to spend billions of dollars to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep wannabe immigrants out of the country, and supports other immigration-control measures Trump campaigned on. Smirnoff tells me his housekeeper, who is from Venezuela, has been scared since Trump’s inauguration. She thinks she could be deported at any time.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry! You’re good for this country! You don’t have to worry! Unless you starch my underwear … ’” he says.
I ask if he really said that.
“Yes, yes. I really did say that,” he says. “She laughed.”
Given all the headlines, Smirnoff can’t help but pay attention to the deteriorating state of the relationship between his old and new homelands. Smirnoff says he supports Trump’s stated desire to get closer to the Kremlin, though he says he doesn’t trust Vladimir Putin. “Once a KGB always a KGB,” he says.
Nobody from the Trump administration has asked for his input on how to deal with the Russian leader.
“I think I’m the only Russian they have not talked with yet,” he says. “And, I’m feeling left out.”
If asked, he’d tell Trump to show up to any summit with Putin armed with some jokes.
“When Trump and Putin meet, if there is laughter, that will be the key. That will be good for America. Everything will be okay,” he says. “That is my belief. Of course, I’m a comedian.”
And if there is no laughter? Smirnoff thinks that could mean we’re in for another Cold War—and not of the sort waged between the sheets. Restarting the feud wouldn’t be too good for this country, but…
“That would be good for me,” Smirnoff says.
There’s that laugh again.