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From Russia with Laughs: the Story of How An Émigré Comic Is Shticking It to the U.S.S.R.

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“Take my 26 years in the U.S.S.R.—please. “Although Yakov Smirnoff, 32, never quite puts it that way, it’s clearly how he feels. Smirnoff, a top Russian comic earning more than many doctors and lawyers, left the Soviet Union in 1977. He just couldn’t cope with censorship. As he puts it, “Hip American humor is Richard Pry or. Hip Soviet humor means you’re locked up.” Since arriving in the land of liberty, rim shots and one-liners, Smirnoff has found more than freedom: He’s found remarkable success. Gigs at the Comedy Store in L.A. and other small clubs have led to Moscow on the Hudson, a feature film with Robin Williams, which will wrap this month and be released next summer. Smirnoff drives a Mercedes-Benz 450 SL and rents, with several other aspiring comedians, a mansion in Hollywood Hills. Humor is his capitalist tool, as he demonstrated to reporter Karen G. Jackovich.

Most people don’t know it, but the Soviet Union is a lot like America. Here you can go up to Reagan and say, “I don’t like Ronald Reagan.” You can do the same in Russia. You can go up to Andropov and say, “I don’t like Ronald Reagan.”

But seriously…

I was born in Odessa and in school I was always joking around. I was 15 when I first started performing publicly. You would have to turn in your jokes to a censor. No political or sex jokes were allowed. One guy asked how many Russians did it take to screw Poland? There was no punch line, so they gave him 20 years in Siberia to figure one out.

I got drafted, and in the Army I volunteered to entertain the troops as sort of a Roosky Bob Hope. When I got out, I worked on cruise ships in the Black Sea—like the Love Barge—entertaining people mostly from socialist countries. Part of the year, to earn hard currency, these ships were leased to U.S. companies. That was my introduction to the ways of capitalism. I learned my lessons well.

As Jews, my parents, Clara and Naum, and I had been thinking of getting out of Russia. We had friends who had already emigrated and who were writing to us about the U.S. To avoid suspicion, they agreed to write the exact opposite of what it was like. They said America was a terrible place. When we got here, we realized they were telling the truth—but they were living in Cleveland.

Anyhow, we applied for visas, and for two years the Soviet government made us suffer. The first thing they do is fire you from your job. That discourages others. We were able to survive because my parents both received pensions.

They also interrogate you constantly—it’s almost as bad as being on 60 Minutes. Then they give you 10 days to get out and limit you to two suitcases and $100 cash apiece. Five minutes before your train is supposed to leave, they start searching your things, throwing them all over the platform. Still, we got out of Russia in a very unusual way—alive.

On Feb. 23, 1977 we left Rome, where we had to wait three months for our visas for America. When we deplaned at JFK I saw this huge woman. I thought she was the Statue of Liberty. Then I found out she was the Russian interpreter. She looked like Orson Welles, only with a different color beard.

Some friends were waiting to meet us, and they took us to dinner at their one-bedroom apartment in Queens. It was a mansion compared to what we were used to. In Odessa my parents and I shared a communal apartment—no shower or telephone—with five other families. At dinner in Queens there was a big table covered with a paper tablecloth, paper plates and plastic cups and forks, things I never saw before. At the end of the meal, I saw them grabbing the leftovers and putting them in the garbage. I could not believe it. That was my first reaction to American-style waste. At immigration, I felt like grabbing the carbon paper from the trash. You only use carbon paper once and then toss it. In Russia, you use it over and over again until there are little holes in it.

After a long search I found an apartment in Manhattan. Next I got a job as a bartender. I thought it would be easy, because in Russia there are only two drinks—a glass of vodka or a bottle of vodka. I figured I could work on my English while telling jokes to the customers. But I had problems at first. One guy asked me for a Black Russian, so I said, “What’s happenin’, Comrade?” I nearly got punched out.

After a week as a bartender I landed a job as a bar boy at Grossinger’s in the Catskills, the cradle of comic civilization. Every night I listened to the comedians. And the funny thing is, I recognized a lot of the jokes from Russia. Like the one about the ant and the elephant who get married. The elephant dies on the first night of their honeymoon and the ant complains, “For one night of pleasure I have to spend the rest of my life digging a grave.”

Eventually I worked up a six-minute routine. I went back to New York to try the small comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star, the Comic Strip and Good Times. The audiences were tougher than the Catskills, but I did okay. When I gained enough confidence in my material, I flew to L.A., the Big Time.

One night at the Comedy Store, Paul Mazursky, the director, came in to see me. Next thing I know I’m doing his film, Moscow on the Hudson, with Robin Williams.

My parents are happy in L.A. Professionally I couldn’t be any happier. But a few months ago I split up with the Russian girl I’d been going with here. So I’m still looking for that special person to share my heart with. That’s my new American dream.