‘What a country’: comedian Yakov Smirnoff’s post cold-war reinvention as relationship guru

photo copy 2A few weeks ago, I had just finished interviewing Deepak Chopra at a church in Beverly Hills in front of 500 people, and a man approached me to pay a compliment.  I shook his hand, asked his name, and he responded, almost surprised that I hadn’t recognized him: “Yakov Smirnoff.”

Now, I haven’t heard of or thought that name in quite a while, and suddenly associations flooded back:

The Horshack-esque laugh. Moscow on the Hudson. Night Court. The whole relieved Russian exile wet-kiss “what a country” schtick. A comedic symbol, if you will, of the cold war era. For a while, Yakov Smirnoff was everywhere. And then, as celebrities so often do, he faded away. Blame the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.

Suddenly, I snapped out of my nostalgic trance and thought, “What the heck is Yakov Smirnoff doing coming to see a touchy-feely guru like Deepak Chopra?”

Actually, I didn’t just think it — I asked him. It turns out: Mr. Smirnoff has become something of an evangelical guru himself.

As the cold war dissolved, he switched gears to another battle for which there is no detente: personal relationships. He earned a degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He moved to Branson, MO, bought a theater, and started performing a show called “Happily Ever Laughter.” About how to make relationships work, humor has to be present.

And now he’s back in Los Angeles, where the show opens tomorrow for a limited run at the Acme Theater.  So we invited Yakov in to talk about it: