Yakov Smirnoff: "What Kills Laughter in People's Lives?"

At first, comedian Yakov Smirnoff's premise for his 90-minute show now on its way to Houston's Hobby Center doesn't sound, well, funny.

The man known as the father of the reversal joke -- "In America you can always find the party. In Russia, the party always finds you" -- sounds more motivational speaker than anything else.

"I started being interested in the relationship between love and laughter. So I got my master's degree in psychology [earned, not honorary] from the University of Pennsylvania. I felt like a detective trying to uncover the mystery of what kills laughter in people's lives. People laugh at the beginning of the relationship and then they stop laughing. Why? As a comedian, it presented an interesting challenge."

But when he goes on to say: "I feel like I got it figured out," and is asked for what he's determined, he reverts to type, laughing as he says:

"You'll have to come see the show. If I could do it in a newspaper article, what's the point to do the show?"

Smirnoff, who renamed himself after the famous brand of vodka upon coming to the United States ["My name was Pokiash, which was not a very catchy name."], took 13 years to develop his one-man show called "Happily Ever Laughter." And Houston is the first stop on his tour.

Smirnoff rose to fame in the 1980s after a Miller Lite commercial he did brought him to the attention of Johnny Carson, who got him on the Tonight Show. He also scored frequent guest appearances on the TV show Night Court. He co-starred in movies with Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson, Tom Hanks in The Money Pit, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Heartburn and Richard Pryor in Brewster's Millions.

Then he went back to college and now is based in Branson, Missouri, where he puts on a variety-type show which is different from the road tour and which has attracted four million audience members since 1992. He teaches psychology at Missouri State University and Drury University. He is also an artist; his mural "America's Heart" was hung at Ground Zero.

He's also even the subject of a meme (although he wasn't too sure what a meme was when we talked).

Asked how he fits everything in, he says: "I enjoy what I do and I enjoy making people laugh and I enjoy people having that ah-ha moment where they go, 'Ah ha! I can sustain laughter in my life. Now I know how.' That feeds me, that drives me. So I find the time for doing all of that."

He's been back to Russia several times, including in 1990 when the Berlin Wall was coming down. "I went back a couple more times after that. It was fascinating to see the changes, but it was proving to me that really America is where I wanted to be."

Even way back when, Russia had comedians, he said. "The state would approve all the material that they would do. Now there's a lot more comedians because there's no more restrictions on what you can do. So comedy kind of blossomed in Russia."

He says he'll make a promise at the start of his show. "I'm going to take you on a tour, a journey around the world of laughter. You will be able to create a lot more laughter in your personal lives. They laugh the whole time. They laugh and they also get something to go."

Yakov Live! "The Happily Ever Laughter Tour" is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday, October 26, at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Avenue. For more information, call 713-315-2525 or visit the Hobby Center website. Or visit Smirnov's website. $40-$55.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing