Russian Language Blog

Yakov Smirnoff: Russian Funny Man! Posted by on Sep 30, 2015 in Culture, History, language, Russian life, Soviet Union

Yakov Naumovich Pokhis, better known as Yakov Smirnoff, is a comedian born in the Soviet Union in 1951. After emigrating to the United States in 1977, he changed his last name to Smirnoff after the vodka. During the 1980’s and early into the 90’s, Smirnoff saw his brand of humor taking off and resonating with people outside of the Soviet Union. Much of his humor was aimed at living behind the “Iron Curtain” and he had a clever way of using word play and combining his limited knowledge of American culture and idioms.

Here are a few examples of his jokes:

“In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Union, the party always find you!”

“The ad in the paper said ‘Big Sale. Last Week!’ Why advertise? I already missed it!”

“In Russia we only had two TV channels. Channel One was propaganda. Channel Two consisted of a KGB officer telling you: Turn back at once to Channel One.”

“In America, you watch television. In Soviet Union, television watches you!”

“In Russia is freedom of speech. In America, there is freedom after speech.”

During the mid-to-late 1980’s, Yakov’s humor was quite well taken and popular in America. Even popular comedians like Rodney Dangerfield loved his act. He was featured on many television shows including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the sitcom, Night Court. He also appeared in several 80’s comedy movies such as Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams, Brewster’s Millions with Richard Pryor and John Candy, and The Money Pit with Tom Hanks. Yakov was even the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 1988.

Here is a sample of his stand-up routine:

Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Yakov’s brand of humor fell out of flavor a bit. This did not stop him though. He went on to purchase a 2000-seat theater in Branson, Missouri where he would perform many times per year. He also featured other comedians and even Russian dance performances.

The last several years have seen Yakov earning a master’s degree in positive psychology and teaching classes at Drury University and Missouri State University. He has also appeared as a one-man show on Broadway entitled As Long As We Both Should Laugh. He also gives advice to readers in his column “Happily Ever Laughter” in AARP Magazine. 

The aforementioned accomplishments are not listed in their entirety and I would say that Yakov has done extraordinarily well for himself. Growing up in Odessa, Ukraine and teaching art was not enough for him. He chose to become a comedian and left to pursue his comedic dreams in America. I wonder if his friends and family tried to talk him out of this? After all, giving up a job as a teacher to tell jokes? Not too funny! I would dare say that he has had the last laugh.


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About the Author: Jenya

Born in Russia, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Orenburg, Russia and Mogilev, Belarus. For the last eleven years, I've lived in New Hampshire and Michigan, US. While I continue to absorb and adapt to American culture, I am always thrilled to share my Russian heritage with those who find it interesting. Travel, photography and art play a special part in my life. Twitter: @iamnx2u


  1. larrie veith:

    Please, Jenya; “Russian” funny man? Why do you live in America but continue the Russian propaganda prevalencies of perporting people of former Soviet Union Republics to be “Russians”? While I understand your thrill from sharing your Russian heritage, you should do diligence to facts and not join Russians who claim other’s heritage or achievements for their own. Yakov, as I’m sure you have to know is a native not of Russia but of Ukraine. His ancestry is neither Russian nor Slavic but Polish/German Askenazem ancestry who came from the Rhine river valley of Germany. While Yakov’s professional character and fake identity is understandable for career purpose, promulgating that type of mis-identity for Russian nationalistic or cultural reasons is disingenuous and false.

  2. Jenya:

    As one that knew all of this before I posted, I also understand that opinions are to be taken with a grain of salt! In the end it all comes down to a difference in opinions. My grandmother was also a Russian-born German, does that make me German? I never considered myself one. The guy spoke Russian and made a career talking about Communist Russia, does it really matter that he was born in Ukraine? In either case, I appreciate your input 🙂 .

  3. Rosa:

    Most of the “Russians” I know are from the Ukraine. They call themselves “Russians,” they speak Russian–no big deal!