ESCONDIDO — A staple in the 1980s who found a new path returns to California in a unique comedy show at the California Center for the Arts Escondido.
Yakov Smirnoff takes center stage for two shows Saturday (2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) as he unleashes “Happily Ever Laughter.” The show will also be aired on PBS SoCal March 5.
The show, he said, is fighting against the Cold War in the bedroom. Admittedly a different angle to comedy, Smirnoff said, although he has received heaps of praise in previous performances in his hometown of Branson, Mo.
Despite positive feedback, he said nerves always play a role when performing in front of a new audience.
“It kind of became my laboratory of laughter,” Smirnoff said of his Branson theater. “I figured I needed to switch my attention to the Cold War between couples. For the last 20 years, I’ve been developing this. It’s a comedy show, however, picture a TED talk and inspirational show and Broadway show.”
Perhaps more intriguing than the show, however, is Smirnoff’s path to landing in Branson.
Born in the former Soviet Union (Odessa, Ukraine), he immigrated to the U.S. in 1977 at 26. Within a few years, Smirnoff found himself sharing the screen with legendary actors and comedians such as Tom Hanks and Richard Pryor.
Smirnoff appeared in “The Money Pit,” “Brewster’s Millions “and the hit TV show “Night Court,” where he had a reoccurring role, appeared seven times on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and performed for three presidents.
But it was another legendary funnyman who jokingly pegged Smirnoff’s career would soon be over.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Smirnoff was the target of David Letterman. During his Top 10 countdown, Smirnoff landed at No. 1 when Letterman psychically, and jokingly, said the Russian’s time was over.
“I was laughing and thinking ‘Yeah right,’” Smirnoff recounted. “I was looking for a place where they did not know the Soviet Union collapsed, so I ended up in Branson, Missouri. And they still don’t know. And thank God for that. That was the shift in my career.”
Six months later, he said his contracts from Las Vegas to Atlantic City dried up, and living in a multi-million dollar home in Pacific Palisades drowned Smirnoff.
So, Smirnoff, who changed his last name from Pokhis when he immigrated, according to a Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader story in 2012, packed his bags and landed in Branson.
Since meager beginnings in Branson, Smirnoff built his show into one of the biggest in the city with more than four million attendees.
For the next 20 years, he performed on his own stage, but also dove in the world of academia. He earned his master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and became a professor at Missouri State and Drury universities.
He was drawn to psychology after a divorce, but used comedy as a bridge into understanding how relationships dissolve.
“It kind of became my quest,” he explained. “I can create laughter pretty much on demand, but I couldn’t bring it back into my marriage. When people connect, laughter was one of the first indicators that they’re connected. As life kind of happens, laughter goes away. When things don’t work, laughter is the first thing to go. It became my mission … and I went back to college and got my master’s degree.”
Smirnoff began incorporating those aspects into his act and developed a show focused on relationships. He said throughout the more than 60-minute show couples in the audience tend to engage in more intimate behavior such as holding hands or arms, although they don’t realize it.
“It hits such an interesting nerve,” Smirnoff added. “You can see, from where I am standing, they are disconnected. As the show progresses, I can watch their body language and see them leaning toward each other. As they are walking out, you can see they are connected. It’s a really remarkable transformation.”
In addition to comedy and academia, Smirnoff is also an artist. His most famous mural, “America’s Heart,” was on display on Sept. 11, 2002, as a tribute to the terrorist attacks one year earlier, according to the News-Leader.
The mural was 200-feet tall, 135-feet wide and 60 New York Sheet Metal Workers worked for free to hang the art. On the one-year anniversary, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather all used it as the backdrop for their respective news broadcasts, the News-Leader reported.
Tickets for Yakov Smirnoff’s “Happily Ever Laughter” are on sale through the California Center for the Arts Escondido box office, online or by phone.
Cost is $23, although prices may vary through online and phone sales. Smirnoff will perform two shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Jan. 9.
Tickets can be purchased at the box office, 340 N. Broadway Blvd., by phone at 800-988-4253 or online at artcenter.org.