"I got out of Russia in a very unusual way--alive! People don't know we have comedians there. We do. They're dead, but they're there."
Yakov Smirnoff is testing the small opening-night crowd at Garvin's Laugh-Inn. The audience has seen all kinds of comedians troop across the stage, but Smirnoff is undoubtedly the first Russian e'migre' to drop Gatling-gun one-liners.
"Here you have freedom of speech. You can go in front of Reagan and say, 'I don't like Ronald Reagan.' We can do the same in Russia; we can go to Brezhnev and say, 'I don't like Reagan.' "
The crowd is warming up as the small, dapper Smirnoff kicks into a hilarious description of his departure five years ago. "I was leaving on Thanksgiving Day. It was July, but any day you leave Russia is Thanksgiving."
Yakov Smirnoff, 31, looking a bit like Ringo Starr with a normal nose, was a successful comic in Russia. Insisting that he "was funny even in school," he had started performing at 15, eventually working his way from variety shows to cruise ships in the Black Sea, the Soviet equivalent of the Catskills. "But the comedy business is pretty limited there. They censor your material and you have to stay with the script; you can't go left or right." Improvisation? "There is no such word in the Russian language. At a certain point it became dull because I had to repeat like a tape recorder."
There have been advantages, of course. "I used to live in a communal apartment--and I was probably making four or five times what a doctor or lawyer did. I lived in the same room with my parents until I left Russia, with five other families, no shower, one kitchen. I waited 13 years for a car, 12 years for a telephone, and got neither. I came to America and in two days, I had a phone. The first call was from Russia. 'We've got your number.' No, just cho-king." The accent is surprisingly slight, considering Smirnoff never spoke a word of English until five years ago.
When he and his parents applied for an emigration visa seven years ago, it signaled the end of Smirnoff's career. "It's a hard process. They want all your characteristics, re'sume's from all your jobs. Then they fire you from work. It's just to make it harder so that other people will look at you and see how you suffer and they will not apply. They make things tough, interrogations, making you say things you don't want to; they use the same techniques you use here on '60 Minutes.' "
Banned from performing, Smirnoff worked as a dishwasher and cleaner in the clubs he used to star in. Two years later he got his answer: "Get out. You have one week, $100 a person."
"My first stop was in Cleveland and they made me feel at home. I had to escape again."
In truth, Smirnoff's first stop was the Catskills, the American Black Sea. He managed to get a job as a bus boy at Grossinger's, a resort, eventually working his way up to bartender. As he mixed drinks, he also observed the parade of comics passing through the famous resort. "It was a smart decision to choose that profession because in a bar I could crack jokes and get tips. It was a great school for me, and trying material behind the bar is the best place."
To speed up his learning English, Smirnoff cut himself off from the Russian community. Six months after arriving in America, he appeared on the "Stanley Seigel Show" in New York. "I hardly knew any English, but I cracked a couple of jokes."
From there, he went to Florida, landing a job as bartender and assistant cruise director on a ship, eventually moving on to Los Angeles. He hooked up with the Comedy Store three years ago and it has since become his home base. Smirnoff is living communally again, not with his parents, but with two other comedians . . . in a million-dollar house. He finally got a car, too. A Mercedes. "I did it for myself," he admits with a grin. "It was an accomplishment."
"This is a real Russian suit," Smirnoff tells the Garvin's crowd as he unveils the Cossack clothes he's been wearing under his suit. "It was made in Poland. Don't look for the union label. I also have Russian designer jeans, Calvin Kremlins. If they could talk, they'd be shot."
There are fewer differences between Russian and American humor than one might suspect, according to Smirnoff. "Some of the subjects are different. You will not be laughing about a shortage of toilet paper because you don't understand that. In Russia, there is no toilet paper. They use Pravda newspaper, which is a good way to use it. And in some places--Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad--audiences are much more sophisticated and laugh more easily. Out of town and in the countryside, the level is so low you have trouble adjusting."
There are common grounds: mothers-in-law, product shortages and Polish jokes, which in Russia have been transformed into police jokes ("How many policemen does it take . . .," etc.). "I heard a lot of jokes here that I knew in Russia," Smirnoff said. "But there are few jokes about politics (except among friends; 'Have you heard about Brezhnev?' . . . underground humor is very big--and six feet underground)" or sex, though the latter is more a reflection of the cultural than the political milieu.
There were no comedy clubs per se in Russia, mostly variety shows where comics acted as emcees. "The level of things you have to deal with is very small. And the Russian style is 30 years old, like burlesque." On television, there were no sitcoms. "There was a variety show with regular sketches five years ago," Smirnoff remembers. "It was set in a Polish tavern. Maybe they don't have it any more."
"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,' 'Love Barge,' 'The Young and Arrested,' 'Marx and Mindy.' One show is about a guy who has a chance to leave Russia but stays--'That's Incredible!' "
Humor behind the Iron Curtain has always been noted for its "protective coloration . . . I bring to American audiences the truth with exaggeration to make it funny," Smirnoff says. "I educate them, give them more information." The comics he admires most are Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor and Woody Allen ("from tapes only"). "I feel that's an intellectual comedy, a comedy you can take home with you, which is what I was trying to do in Russia, sometimes going to the edge of the knife, bringing innuendos that dumb officials will not get but the public will. Sometimes it was risky, but . . ."
"Some people don't believe I am Russian because my accent isn't heavy enough," Smirnoff sighs. "They come up and say, 'Are you really from Russia?' " Which he prefers, of course, to, "Are you really a comedian?"
Smirnoff, who works regularly in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Los Angeles, has also been on a number of television shows, including a recent Dick Clark special, "Inside America," that also featured his parents. "They called to interview them and then said they'd be by to shoot them the following week. I called my parents and they were in tears. Now of course, they're enjoying it. When I go home, they say, 'So when is the next show?' "
The next show is the upcoming Smirnoff vodka convention in Connecticut and a "Today" show segment scheduled for the end of July. But the big show is not Carson (though Smirnoff wouldn't turn it down), but the White House. For several years Smirnoff has had a dream about doing a show at the White House for President Reagan and then receiving his citizenship. "Have you ever heard of anything like that?" he asks hopefully. "I have all the time in the world. I want to win the game, not just play it."