Who is Yakov Smirnoff?
Yakov Naumovich Pokhis (Russian: Яков Наумович Похис; born 24 January 1951), better known as Yakov Smirnoff (Russian: Яков Смирнов; /ˈsmɪərnɒf/), is a Ukrainian-American comedian, actor and writer of Jewish origin. He began his career as a stand-up comedian in Ukraine, then immigrated to the United States in 1977 in order to pursue an American show business career, not yet knowing any English. He reached his biggest success in the mid-to-late 1980s, appearing in several films and the television sitcom vehicle What a Country!. His comic persona was of a naive immigrant from the Soviet Union who was perpetually confused and delighted by life in the United States. His humor combined a mockery of life under communism and of consumerism in the United States, as well as word play caused by misunderstanding of American phrases and culture, all punctuated by the catchphrase, “And I thought, ‘What a country!'”
The collapse of communism starting in 1989, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, brought an end to Smirnoff’s widespread popularity, although he continued to perform. In 1993, he began performing year round at his own theater in Branson, Missouri, where he remained until 2015. He occasionally still performs limited dates at his theater in Branson while touring worldwide.
Smirnoff earned a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 and a doctorate in psychology and global leadership from Pepperdine University in 2019. He has also taught a course titled “The Business of Laughter” at Missouri State University and at Drury University.