Yakov Smirnoff has been in the comedy business for more than 30 years. He knows how to make people laugh.
Now, he’s trying to show everyone just how important laughter is when it comes to relationships.
Smirnoff, who spent the past two decades showcasing his act at his theater in Branson, Mo., has returned to Los Angeles. Through Sept. 21, he’ll be at the Acme Comedy Theatre in Hollywood performing his one-man show, “Happily Ever Laughter,” a mix of stand-up about his personal life and career, as well as a humorous seminar for couples.
It may seem odd that the comedian, who is best known for his “In Soviet Russia” jokes, would be doing a show about relationships. But he explains that, as somebody who makes people laugh, he felt it was his duty to help couples laugh more together.
“In a relationship, people experience a lot of laughter. They bond over it. It’s a sign that a relationship is good. People don’t know how to sustain the laughter later on in their relationships,” he said. “As a comedian, I create it on a regular basis. I thought, ‘Wow, I can figure this out.’ And that’s why I’m doing this.”
Smirnoff saw the awe-inspiring power of laughter when, in the 1980s, he wrote jokes for a speech that President Ronald Reagan gave to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He said that because Gorbachev and fellow Russian politicians laughed along with Reagan, the Cold War came to an end.
“Laughter was a byproduct of Gorbachev and Reagan’s relationship,” Smirnoff said. “I know laughter is how we change the world.”
“Happily Ever Laughter” made its Broadway debut 10 years ago. Since then, Smirnoff has taken the show all over the country and tweaked it along the way.
He’s got credentials that help: a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and experience teaching courses on relationships at Missouri State University and Drury University, both in Springfield, Mo.
The show begins with a video about “America’s Mural,” a 9/11 tribute mural that Smirnoff anonymously painted (and fronted $100,000 for) after the Twin Towers fell. He talks about his life in the Soviet Union, where he lived in a nine-family communal apartment and shared a room with his parents until he was 26 years old. He said that when his parents were being funny together, they were also showing how much they cared for one another.
“When I heard their laughter, I put two and two together. I knew I was in the presence of love. Intuitively, I felt love and laughter were inseparable companions.”
Smirnoff and his parents immigrated to New York City with very little money and no knowledge of the English language. He worked in a restaurant and then started pursuing comedy, which led to roles in “Moscow on the Hudson” with Robin Williams, “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks, and “Heartburn” with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Eventually, he was asked to perform at the White House for Reagan, which led to the speech-writing gig. During that time, he fell in love, got married and had two children — a son and a daughter.
About halfway through his show, Smirnoff travels from the middle to the side of the stage and shows video clips of fighting and happy couples. He demonstrates that when couples don’t have fun, they suffer.
This is what happened in his own relationship when, after 12 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced. Although Smirnoff is currently in a relationship, he said that he is attempting to comprehend what happened with his previous one.
“Part of this work is to figure this out because I couldn’t sustain the laughter in my relationship,” he said. “That’s probably what pushed me to try and understand it.”
Following the mini-seminar, Smirnoff closes out his show with more stand-up, and touches upon the love he has experienced in his life. He sensed it when his first landlady in New York City gave his family an apartment for $50 instead of $240 and covered the rest, and he observed it after 9/11. Whenever he’s with his kids, he feels the love, and he saw it when he met a couple from Thousand Oaks who have been laughing together throughout their 80-year marriage.
Through his show, he said he can witness laughter bringing couples together right before his eyes.
“When I do a show, I watch people walk in and they are distracted and disconnected,” he said. “They are there to get joy from a comedy show. As the show progresses I watch their body language. Twenty to 30 minutes into the show, they’re starting to lean toward one another. Then they hold hands. As the show ends they leave smiling, giggling and walking together to their cars.”
Smirnoff said that since he knows how to make people laugh, he has the obligation to make a difference in the world.
“I felt I was given this quest to figure this out because I’m a comedian, and I have this talent. However, I also have this brain, [as well as] the desire to figure out the parts, dissect it, and say, ‘Here’s how it works. Here’s how happiness works.’ I want to contribute to the pursuit of happiness. You can pursue it. I want to help people to know now.”
The ACME Comedy Hollywood Theater is located at 135 N. La Brea Avenue. Performances will be August 24, 28 & 31 and September 7, 14 and 21 at 8:00PM. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and can be purchased online at www.yakov.com or by phone at (877) 779-2568.