|The name Yakov Smirnoff should ring a bell. He is the funny Russian comedian of the 80s, exclaiming with wide-eyed enthusiasm “What a country!” His meteoric rise to stardom is the epitome of the American dream. Immigrating to the U.S. and becoming a citizen in 1977 with a rudimentary command of the English language, Smirnoff soon appeared on the Johnny Carson Show and in movies alongside Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks. Not bad for a guy who in ordering quiche asked for a “quickie” and received a pitcher of cold water in his lap.
Considering Yakov Smirnoff used to open for Jerry Seinfeld, the king of observational humor, says it best as the comedian praises his predecessor in an interview and remarks on the incredulity of Smirnoff’s evolution. “Here’s a guy that comes from Russia, not knowing the language or the culture and within a few short years he’s doing standup. Think about it. Imagine going to a foreign country like China, not knowing the language, and being able to make social commentary. It’s hard enough for comedians to do that in their own country but Yakov was able to do that here. It’s amazing.”
What’s more astounding is the Yakov Smirnoff most people don’t know or hardly imagine. In his one-man hit show direct from Broadway, “Happily Ever Laughter,” Smirnoff challenges preconceived notions and entrenched assumptions by revealing himself as a patriot, an artist, an academic, a father and a philosopher on the subject of happiness and love. In our current pessimistic worldview and reflexive narcissistic sensibilities, Smirnoff defies the temptation of apathy with personal reflections on his family and his comedic career.
More crucially, he supports his claim of laughter and love acting as binding agents with his knowledge in a new, exploding field known as Positive Psychology. Having received his masters at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, Smirnoff takes his education and applies it to real-world dynamics, relationships and perspective. The Yakov Smirnoff you think you know is restricted only by bias and hasty judgments. His one-man show challenges us through his unique, naïve charm to contemplate the knee-jerk tendency to quickly dismiss and stereotype.
“Happily Ever Laughter” begins on a somber note with a recording of the late Paul Harvey describing the aftermath of 9/11. He imparts a story about a man named Jacob, an immigrant sworn in on Ellis Island in 1977, who like the rest of us on September 11, 2001, watched in transfixed horror as the Twin Towers came crumbling down. The images of the televised tragedy were viewed from the same island from where he had once sat among thousands with a miniature statue of Lady Liberty in his lap. This immigrant, an artist, immediately took to canvas and in 3000 strokes (to honor the approximate number of casualties) created a mural imbued with hope and fortitude. He signed it with a simple message: “The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart.”
Mr. Harvey’s confident voice continues to relate this human interest story as he explains how the mural was enlarged and installed with the aid of the Steel Workers Union near Ground Zero. The installation was unfurled for the one-year anniversary and stood long after as a symbol of peace, union and the invincibility of the human spirit. From the Empire State Building, viewers could find Ground Zero by seeking out the heart standing beside its hallowed chasm. In certain parts of the city, the mural was visible where once stood the seemingly impenetrable towers.
This mural was a gift—a gift from someone who chose to remain anonymous for fear that his image would compromise the gesture, minimizing its effect and sentiment due to his fame.
There is a humbling moment audibly felt by the audience when the true identity of this artist is revealed. Yakov Smirnoff should not be discredited or discounted by his trademark laugh or his Cold War probing antics. He sprouted up at a time when levity was needed in the political arena. His career enjoyed the tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during a time when Germany was divided and concerns of nuclear war loomed large in the global consciousness.
His humor took on the hue of an eager innocent entranced by American eccentricities, while retaining a keen awareness of our ridiculous hypocrisies and that which democracy takes for granted. His was the standup of our culture viewed from the eyes of an outsider. His overnight success launched him to the White House and later he wrote jokes for The Summit. He laughs at the pressure of such an assignment, “If this doesn’t go well, I won’t have any country.”
It is this Yakov Smirnoff most of us know. In “Happily Ever Laughter,” the comedian of a bygone era is revitalized by a thoughtful maturity and vulnerability to his own personal struggles and lessons, particularly on the subjects of laughter and love. What results is a meta-theatrical experience of an underdog adventure guided with the skilled timing of his stock and trade, nuanced by a greater need to relate the power and necessity of connectedness. Viewed as a one-man show from a theatrical lens, Smirnoff delivers a solid one-two punch to the gut with the aid of multimedia and a story that follows the Dream from a small one-bedroom flat in Russia to the kindnesses of strangers in the tenements of New York City. Through selfless acts of charity, Smirnoff’s exclamation of “What a country!” takes on deeper significance. His is a story of gratitude, unblemished by entitlement.
From a comedic perspective, this one-man show is as strong and humorously fulfilling as any standup concert. Recounting his Cold War days offers fans the nostalgic opportunity to enjoy his clean, victimless riffs and asides. He represents the comedy of those who did not rely on bitterness or mean-spirited jabs but rather poked fun at his own haplessness through language and the character of the foreign observer. Most astonishing is how his brand of humor remains timeless and serves as a reminder that laughter does not have to come at someone else’s expense. In this sense, Smirnoff is both a pioneer and a throwback to a time of comedic giants like Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, when humor had not yet become so razor-barbed through cheap pandering and lowbrow licenses proliferating the circuit today.
In becoming acquainted with Yakov Smirnoff, we are confronted with his humanitarianism as well as his authority on matters of the heart. His interest in psychology incited him to send emails to heads of Psychology departments in universities across the country. He yearned to explore a specific area apart from pathology and centered on optimism. His inquiry received only one response at the University of Pennsylvania where a revolutionary field called Positive Psychology had started burgeoning. Smirnoff, who at this time lived and worked at his own theater in Branson, MO, jumped in and earned his Masters in a field now offered at Harvard and other major institutions. This branch of psychological thought is defined by proponents in the field such as Martin Seligman as one that “investigates and promotes the realistic ways of fostering more joy in individuals and communities.” Sounds easy enough, especially for a comedian, but applying a positive outlook is perhaps more challenging than adopting the temptation of jaded pessimism. Here is where “Happy” and “Laughter” conjoin.
Yet, Yakov Smirnoff takes his comedy very seriously. Through a video-taped experiment, Smirnoff shows how people have stopped relating to one another in their egocentric effort to compete for dominance. The result of his test offers surprising even frightening results. Butting heads leaves one with a cracked skull. Watching how this plays out both metaphorically and literally is enough to convince anyone of this school of positive thought. (Be advised, there is a brief but graphic scene for those who are squeamish at the sight of blood).
Taking on the role of scientist/therapist and relationship guru, he explains the intrinsic and amusing differences between men and women both biochemically and culturally, but also the similarities between the sexes that keep us together. While some of these observations are not ground breaking, the message is delivered through relatable anecdotes and hilarious comparisons to keep the topic interesting. His friendly, off-the-cuff manner creates an open exchange with his audience as they answer his posed questions without reservation. He disarms and invites dialogue. He is a charming mixture of comedian and professor (incidentally he has taught at Missouri State University and Drury University. The course? "The Business of Laughter.")
It is this lesson in love where Smirnoff’s message lands with great resolve and palpable effect. Using the word “Gift” as an acronym for “Give, Importance, Fun and Time,” seems fairly elementary to comprehend but as he shows us, the practice of ultimately giving and receiving usually falls short given our lack of trust and unrealistic expectations. The dance between the sexes proves his premise on the reciprocal flow of selflessness. Without this dynamism, human relationships suffer. He strikes at the heart of what keeps love alive and offers adopting an approach of serving and a desire to please while accepting and trusting for the same in return.
The simplest of his methods is also the most dramatic as he uses a pair of magnets to explain the invisible, yet connecting agent of laughter and love. When inequity occurs with the pair of magnets, the force created between them is repelled. The trust, he says is broken. The continual energy must be in constant flux for the pair to unite. When the magnets are aligned, the two come together.
There are no excuses and no percentiles in his formula. It is not hard stuff on the face of it. Given the divorce rate, his lecture on the basis of romantic interaction is as refreshing as it is timely. Through a taped interview, he introduces the audience to a couple who have been married now for 80 years. It is their ability to laugh, listen and make the other feel special that has kept them together since their first date riding along in a Model T Ford.
There’s a pervading sentiment arising in his examples: if you can’t make love then at the very least make laughter. Taking on the responsibility to give joy increases our happiness quotient, but it cannot be one-sided. He uses tickling as an analogy. “It takes two to tickle. Try tickling yourself, it won’t work. Your brain knows that you’re doing it. We have to tickle each other.”
His show has been selling out well in advance and attracting couples (some there the night I attended to celebrate their anniversary). This is the perfect entertainment choice for a date night or married couples; the take away being a lot of “tickling” going on after seeing this show.
Supporting Smirnoff’s patriotism and positive outlook is his own clear, vodka tonic sense of interplay and wit. Through him, discoveries about the human condition and our need for attachment shine in the occasional misty-eyed recollections of his father and mother. Laughter saw them through the struggles and became a birthright handed down to their son in a coffee can as a symbol of their freedom and a tribute to their devotion. There is humility transcending the jokes and a sense of service for an immigrant who is indeed one of our own. Yakov Smirnoff is as much a part of our pop culture and a historical reference as he is an artist and expert on the universal subjects binding and bringing us together, namely laughter and love.
For those who are willing to open their minds and their hearts for an evening, Yakov Smirnoff leaves his audience thoroughly sated and a little bit wiser. This is a one-man show not to miss in its joy, its surprises and the tenderly wrought teachings imparted by a humorist who is more than the sum of his observations, but is the summation of an American who continues to give so much to his country with the GIFT of laughter.
“Happily Ever Laughter”
Due to popular demand: extended through Sept 21
August 24, 28, 31 @ 8pm
Sept 7, 14, 21 @ 8pm
Acme Comedy Theatre
135 N. La Brea Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90036
Valet parking: $6 (highly recommended)
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