Russian evolution Eighties relic turned master's candidate at Penn, comedian Yakov Smirnoff is on a mission of spiritual healing. The psychology of Smirnoff

Posted: April 26, 2006

There's a new Yakov Smirnoff in town, and his name is . . . Philosopher.

Like the little caterpillar that could, the '80s comedian has reemerged as a guru on a cherubic mission: to heal our broken souls with his Metaphysics of Laughter.

"Falling in love is a chemical reaction," Smirnoff says, softly rolling his Rs. "But it wears off in a year.

"That's why you need a strong line of communication . . . which includes laughter," he continues in his Russian-inflected sing-song, explaining the dialogic role of laughter in marriage.

Yakov Smirnoff?

Dialogic?

We're in Bizarro World.

This isn't that same wide-eyed Soviet-out-of-water jester who 20 years ago constantly sprang up like an impossibly cheerful "What a Country!" jack-in-the-box all over the tube.

Doppelg┬Łnger Smirnoff, who will graduate next month with a master's degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, is in town for his final classes.

Smirnoff, M.S.Psych.?

No, he doesn't plan to put up a shingle as a family therapist. Smirnoff has a mission: to use his act and his books to help launch what he Voltairishly calls the "Age of Enlaughterment," a family-friendly Age of Aquarius where love and laughter heal all our pyshic scars.

Sporting professorial garb and a neatly trimmed beard, grad student Smirnoff fits in beautifully with the academicos at the generic McCafe next to the Penn Bookstore. He's wired and animated, a brainier version of Dr. Phil, keen on discussing hormones, the nature of love, how to run a business.

And an interview that began as a postmortem about an '80s one-trick comic (Yakov Smirnoff, Where is he now?) soon turns into an intellectual affaire de l'esprit with a genuinely likable, smart guy and his new calling.

In his Cold War heyday, the Odessa-born comedian costarred with Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson and was invited to perform at the White House.

"I was this nonthreatening funny guy who contrasted the image of the Brezhnevs and the Reagans of the world," he says.

He was even invited to write a Russian-related joke for President Reagan to use for his first meeting with Gorbachev.

Shedding his Soviet persona in the post-Berlin Wall era, in '93 Smirnoff built his own theater in that utopian ent-industry boneyard, Branson, Mo., the one-horse town turned showbiz mecca, which hosts shows by the likes of Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Bobby Vinton and Frankie Avalon.

The comedian, who shares custody of his two children, Natasha, 15, and Alexander, 13, with his ex-wife, lives close to his mother, a retired Russian-lit teacher who helps out at his theater. (His father died 18 months ago.)

Smirnoff, who plays 230 shows for 250,000 fans a year, says it's his Branson fans - solid, middle-America folk - who inspired his mission "to experience happiness and teach it with passion through comedy and sensitivity."

Fortuitously, Smirnoff came across a Time magazine story about Penn's Martin Seligman, founder of the anti-Freud field of positive psychology, which, according to his Authentic Happiness Web site (www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu), "focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions" to show "that it is possible to be happier . . . find more meaning . . . probably even laugh and smile more."

Fascinated by Seligman's work, Smirnoff contacted the famous scholar, who invited him to join the inaugural class in his newly designed positive-psychology graduate program. Student Smirnoff quickly became a true convert.

"I've seen the results of this approach in couples I've counseled," says Smirnoff, whose master's thesis is on love and laughter. "And it's such a simple approach, and it's related to laughter."

Guru Yakov is on a roll.

In his zone.

Like a latter-day Norman Vincent Peale, he explains how his positive- thinking formula can help in any area of life: Whether you're selling cars or proposing marriage, understand your social role in (dialogic) relation to the other person's role, and focus on the other's feelings.

Smirnoff, who's at work on a new humor-and-self-help book, Living Happily Ever Laughter, is passionate about "helping people understand how [a] simple philosophy can change lives - and relationships."

When it comes to marriage, laughter is the canary in the coal mine, he says. And its demise "telegraphs to you way in advance - way before you have problems with sex - that your marriage is in trouble."

Earnest, with Superman-strength sincerity, Smirnoff uses a positive-happy rap that sometimes feels off, grating. (The sheer excess of his cheerful attitude nearly triggers a grand mal seizure in the interviewer.)

Being around him is like encountering an Eastern European nightclub where the music and the fashions seem so dated. But you can't tell if you're smiling because you're charmed by it or mocking it.

To sarcasm-suffused citizens of the Age of Irony (whose sheik, Jerry Seinfeld, used to open for Smirnoff), the Russian comic is an outsider, a kooky curiosity. His material, which is funny enough, can come off as too earnest, too inoffensive.

("The reason gas prices are so high," one joke goes, "is because the oil is in Texas and Oklahoma and all the dipsticks are in Washington.")

Nowhere is the corny factor more apparent than in Smirnoff's Branson persona and his over-the-top aesthetic. Hokey Yakov takes over when it comes to the comic's artwork, which is on sale on his theater's Web site (www.yakov.com). The kitsch factor is through the roof in painting after painting of the stars and stripes and of Rockwellian families.

What is up with the garish kitsch you're hawking, master's degree dude?

Reacting to a thinly veiled accusation that he's pandering to the tastes - and wallets - of blue-haired day-trippers who pack Branson, Smirnoff says that what matters is the healing message he wants to spread, not the medium.

"I find the quest I'm on allows me to reach different levels of intelligence and sophistication," multifaceted Smirnoff says. "I can take those global ideas [about love and laughter] and boil them down to simplicity.

"And I believe that I can make a difference."

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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