Iconic Russian comic in high demand right now
ST. LOUIS - I was really hoping Yakov Smirnoff would give me a call but when it finally happened, I have to admit, I was a bit stunned and momentarily star-struck.
"Hello, Pat. This Yakov Smirnoff," the famous Russian stand-up comedian began.
The words "oh my God!" escaped my mouth involuntarily.
"Yes! This is the reaction I like best! The 'oh my God' reaction," Smirnoff laughed.
Yakov Smirnoff, who most recently is best known for his theatre in Branson, was a household name in the 1980's.
The stand-up comedian escaped communist Russia in the last decade of the Cold War and took America by storm with his wide-eyed observations on the wonder of America.
"What a country!" continues to be his catch phrase. In the 80's, Smirnoff belted out his famous line on TV sitcoms, movies, and even car commercials.
But long before he migrated to comedy clubs in Los Angeles and New York, Smirnoff honed his craft in remote Russian outposts.
One of them happened to be Sochi, Russia, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
As a result, Smirnoff is in suddenly back in the limelight in a big way.
The Cold War Comedian is suddenly red hot.
He's been featured on the Today Show, CBS radio, Kansas City Public Radio, and on Wednesday he's flying to New York to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Smirnoff's affable persona hides a sharp wit and critical eye that helps to explain, in a delightfully comic way, the many oddities and "cultural disconnects" we've seen at this year's Winter Games.
Bathrooms without toilet paper, side-by-side toilets, and hotel bathrooms without shower curtains.
"Well I think the main thing people need to know, is that when the Iron Curtain came down, so did the shower curtains, so did the window curtains, they take orders very seriously and all the curtains are down," Smirnoff explains.
Smirnoff says Sochi always seemed like an odd choice for the Winter Olympics because Russians see Sochi the way Americans think of Miami, Florida.
"It's like holding the winter Olympics in Miami. It's very difficult to predict the temperature. It's like 50 degrees there. It's hard for skating for ice hockey you might need lifeguards in case the ice melts. The Cuban team would do really well there in the swimming competition."
And the rampant spying by the Russian government?
"It's just normal there, you know. I grew up in an apartment with my parents and I lived there until I was 26. Nine other families lived with us. When my parents wanted to be intimate they would just tell me to look out the window. I would look out and see the neighbor kid in the other window. My father would say, 'What do you see?' And I said our neighbors are being intimate. He said how do you know? And I said because their son is looking at me!
"Here when someone breaks into your data it's hacking, there it's called room service. So It's normal.
"You've seen those toilets that are side by side, on the internet. They don't want anybody to be alone. So you go side by side. And if you bring Charmin, you will make a lot of friends.
Smirnoff says, as a child, his Olympic dreams were quickly squashed.
"Hockey was huge so I spent a lot of time on the ice as a puck. So that was the end of my dreams. So I decided I would just make people laugh about the Olympics.
Smirnoff is taking his career renaissance, thanks to the Olympics, in stride.
"I'm the go to Russian," he jokes. "I think when you Google 'Sochi', my picture comes up."
Smirnoff says he isn't concerned about security at the games because he's confident Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to run an impressive show.
"The Russians want to project the image that it's clean and flawless and so that's the main thing. The order come from Putin: make it look good. And they'll do whatever it takes. Because Putin is a prodigy of the KGB and as you know the KGB stands for 'kiss goodbye your butt'. So they don't ask questions they just get things done.
Smirnoff says he will return to his theatre in Branson in the fall.
When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Smirnoff's career almost went with it. So why did he come to Branson?
"Someone told me I had to find a place that either didn't know or didn't care that Russia was not our enemy anymore," Smirnoff explained to fellow comedian Marc Maron in a recent podcast.
The comic says he never misses a chance to take his kids to the City Museum when he visits St. Louis, even though his children are now 23 and 21, respectively.
"We enjoy it tremendously," he says.
His voice mail greeting offers a touching sentiment that's stayed with me.
"Leave a message after the beep. And remember: They won't care how much you know unless they know how much you care."
Yakov is back!
What a country!