Photo courtesy of PBS
If you’re a child of the ‘80s, you most likely remember Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian immigrant stand-up comic who marveled at a life free from communism and bathed in consumerism uttering the catch phrase “And I thought, 'What a country!'” If you do remember him, you might be wondering why, some 25 years later, he is giving relationship advice. After almost 40 years in the business, Yakov studied the science behind comedy and set out to prove that laughter is the gauge of how happy you are in your relationship. Now he’s back onstage in a new PBS special called Yakov Smirnoff’s Happily Ever Laughter: The Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships.
In the late 1970s, Yakov Smirnoff developed his onstage persona around the same time as comics like Andrew Dice Clay, Howie Mandel and Garry Shandling in places like LA’s Comedy Store. His big break came when he was cast in the Robin Williams film Moscow on the Hudson. His career grew strong, culminating in his own TV show What a Country! and a turn hosting the White House Correspondence dinner.
But then an event that was a huge victory for democracy had a somewhat negative effect on Yakov’s shtick. In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union pulled the rug out from the foundation of his humor and his career fell into a decline. Still, Yakov Smirnoff kept going. He performed at his own theater in Branson, Missouri, from 1992 to 2015 and even had a stint on Broadway in 2003.
During this period, he realized he needed to shift the focus of his routine. On a personal level, the comedian went through a divorce and during this difficult time found a new source of inspiration not only for his comedy but for his life’s path. The comedian with a one-time persona of being a naïve immigrant, went back to school and got a Master’s degree in Positive Psychology from Penn College. He spent years studying what makes people happy and how that happiness can sustain a relationship and is now sharing that knowledge with the world through stand-up comedy and college lectures.
In a recent one-on-one interview, Yakov explained how he made the leap from stand-up comedy to neuroscience. “Every comedian in some way has that psychology built in. That’s how we read the audience. That’s how we make a connection to the audience.”
But, he continued, his degree is what sets him apart. “The education gave me knowledge and a different direction of recognizing something that’s fairly obvious… laughter is a gauge of happiness. When people are happy they laugh a lot. Most people have a preconceived idea that because we’re laughing we are happy. And I disagree with that. I believe once we’re happy, we laugh.” He added, “If you recognize that you have to be happy before you can create laughter, it changes everything.”
It was his painful divorce that left him wondering why his fairy tale did not end with happily ever after. He said, “My passion became to figure this out. It was my quest. I wanted to know the answer. So because it was my passion and also I enjoyed doing comedy, I combined those two things and that’s what you got is a hybrid you will seeing Happily Ever Laughter.”
He continued, “I believe there are millions of people who are very unhappy and they have no idea why... Our founding fathers left it wide open for us because they said you have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, there’s no document anywhere in Washington in some beautiful glass case that explains how to achieve happiness. Yes, they did write wonderful documents on how to create life and liberty but happiness is left wide open. So I feel like this is my quest to give people more and more knowledge through my humor and my sensitivity and my wisdom of how to bring more happiness and sustain it.”
So how does this all translate to relationships? Yakov described a new born baby who is content when his basic needs are met — food, clean diapers and sleep. He stated, “Happiness is when your needs are met… The same thing happens during the honeymoon stage of a relationship when both people are very focused on the other person’s needs. And that’s why there’s so much laughter and happiness during that honeymoon stage…. So we all experience that and we all like it but we don’t know how to sustain it.”
The comedian noted that our sense of humor never changes. But over time we stop meeting our partner’s needs and we start laughing less. So the trick is recognizing what the other person needs and giving it to them. But that is easier said than done because of a common misconception — that men and women need the same thing. He joked, “We’re equal but we’re not the same. Thank god for that.”
Yakov pointed out that in a study where people were asked to prioritize their five needs men picked one set of five and women picked a totally different sent of five. If we are constantly giving our partner what we think they need because it’s what we want, we are not giving them what they need. He quipped, “It’s like giving a steak to a vegetarian and saying, ‘But look how nice. It’s a great piece of steak. The best I have.’ And she’s going, ‘But I am a vegetarian.’”
He uses his parent’s relationship as an example recalling, “I remember a lot of laughter in my childhood. It was there as a sign or affirmation of them meeting each others' needs. But, when there was tension, there was no laughter… If people pay attention to laughter it can give them a very quick sample of saying, ‘We passed the test. Look at us, we’re laughing.’”
Yakov suggested that in those moments when you and your partner are happy and laughing, take note of where you are and what you’re doing. Are you fulfilling the other person’s needs? If so, “You can repeat that and do it over, and over and over again if you’re aware of what that is.”
Tune in to his new PBS special Yakov Smirnoff’s Happily Ever Laughter: The Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships airs August 25 on PBS nationwide.