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Thursday, February 24, 2005

When Yakov Smirnoff Was King

What a country!

Date: December 26, 1991

yakov smirnoff: I just wanted to stop by in person to thank you again, Morty, for the booking at the Flamingo. This is a big one; I couldn’t be more excited. Back in Russia, they never allowed that many people to gather in one place. Unless it was a bread line!

his agent.: Listen, Yakov, sit down. I have some … consequential news for you. Gorbachev has declared Russia a democracy. The Soviet Union is no longer.

y.s.: (Long, long pause.) Oh, fuck. Yob tvayu mat.

h.a.: How are you doing for money, Yakov? Do you have anything saved up?

y.s.: It’s all invested in my act, you know that. There’s nothing in the bank.

h.a.: When you were in Russia, did you ever study juggling?

y.s.: Yes, of course. We all did. But I can’t keep that up for ninety minutes.

h.a.: I don’t see how you can work the Flamingo, much less—

y.s.: The act still works fine, Morty. Just a few tweaks here and there. I’m still relevant.

h.a.: But—

y.s.: Try this—“In California you can always find a party. In Russia, the Party always finds YOU. In order to register you … to vote. In their free, democratic elections.”

h.a.: Hmm, it’s not quite—

y.s.: “In America, you watch television. In Soviet Union, television watches YOU. To get the Nielson ratings. So they can calculate how much to charge for commercials … since it’s a for-profit business now.”

h.a.: Maybe there’s a—

y.s.: “In America, people wait in line for hours to see Meat Loaf. In Russia, they wait in line to eat burgers at the new Moscow McDonald’s. Because it’s such a novelty. And they like anything that has to do with America.”

h.a.: Yak—

y.s.: “In Russia is freedom of speech. In America is also freedom AFTER speech. Then in Russia is also college lecture tour in the U.S. to talk about our new freedoms in Russia.”

h.a.: Yak!

y.s.: “In Russia there were two TV channels. Channel One is propaganda. Channel Two consists of a K.G.B. officer telling you to turn back to Channel One at once! Now Channel Three is MTV. Channel Four is reruns of Mary Tyler Moore. Channel Five is local programming: kids shows, sports, public interest. Channel Six is all puppets.”

h.a.: I think I have a solution. You need to perform somewhere where the audiences have their heads so far up their asses that they don’t even realize that the Iron Curtain fell.

y.s.: But what about the Flamingo?

h.a.: Forget about the Flamingo. I’m sending you to Branson, Missouri!

Today, you can see Yakov Smirnoff in his own theater in Branson, Missouri, seven days a week, where he has twice been honored as “Branson Performer of the Year.”

Jonathan Stern is a screenwriter and film & TV producer living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He's produced the films The Ten (starring Paul Rudd, Winona Ryder, Jessica Alba, Adam Brody, Rob Corrdry, Justin Theroux, Ken Marino, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen, and Liev Shreiber), Scotland, PA (starring Christopher Walken), Oxygen (starring Adrien Brody), and HBO's The Vagina Monologues, as well as the Web series Wainy Days (starring David Wain). His allergies are bothering him this season.