Why waste an empty theater when you can keep those seats warm on dark nights with a low-cost, one-man show? Yakov Smirnoff (for those who missed his videos, CDs, book and syndie series “What a Country”) is the Russian-born comedian who came to the U.S. in 1977 and was adopted by name performers like David Letterman and Robin Williams, who got him started on TV (“The Tonight Show”) and movies (“Moscow on the Hudson,” “Brewster’s Millions”). Nowadays, between the TV specials and high-profile galas (he entertained at George W. Bush’s presidential inauguration), the aggressively amiable performer has acquired enough of a following to keep a Broadway house nearly filled two nights a week.
To keep it simple, let’s say most standup comedians fall into one of two broad categories: those like Jerry Seinfeld, who are vastly amused by the absurdities of their own lives, and those like Williams, who are inspired by the idiocies of the world at large. In the first and more successful half of his show, Smirnoff tries to have it both ways.
Drawing deeply on his own history, the performer recalls the days of his youth in communist Russia, drawing wry laughter from the daily fears and discomforts of living in a repressive society. More than laughter, there is poignancy in a joke he tells on himself as a naughty child hearing his mother’s threat of being taken away by a wicked witch named Baba Yaga: “I am living in this communal apartment with 20 other people. We have no hot water, the bathroom is outside. Being taken away did not sound bad. I said, ‘Mom, what time is she coming?’ ”
Smirnoff broadens his scope once he and his parents arrive in America and get their first taste of the strange customs and often incomprehensible language of their new homeland. Instead of buckling under the culture shock, the comedian finds the humor in it, with droll anecdotes that gain a lot from his bemused delivery. In his naive eyes, the “Baby Changing Station” in a public restroom sounds ominous, as does the promise of a furniture store that sells him a sofa and guarantees to “stand behind it for six months.” “That’s why I left Russia,” he says with a shudder.
Even at its corniest, this early material — which has clearly gone through many tellings since 1977 — generates the kind of warm-and-cuddly feelings that allow performer and audience to bask in mutual good will. Which is not to imply the feelings are phony. One anecdote, about the act of kindness of the elderly woman who rented the Smirnoff family their first apartment, brings honest tears to the performer’s eyes.
But once the second half of the show kicks in, with Smirnoff establishing his career in California, getting married (and unmarried), having children and becoming famous, it’s obvious that he has stopped looking around him for inspiration and has become contented with contemplating his own life for material.
To be sure, there are times when his humor touches a universal chord. Discussing his divorce, he notes: “You know, the first thing that goes in a relationship is laughter.” And some of his observations on the differing, even warring language usage between the sexes are as pertinent as they are amusing.
Just the same, it’s hard to be funny when your world is shrinking — and you don’t seem to notice it.