Yakov Smirnoff’s elixir of love

Yakov Smirnoff has been in the comedy business for more than 30 years. He knows how to make people laugh. 

Now, he’s trying to show everyone just how important laughter is when it comes to relationships. 

Smirnoff, who spent the past two decades showcasing his act at his theater in Branson, Mo., has returned to Los Angeles. Through Sept. 21, he’ll be at the Acme Comedy Theatre in Hollywood performing his one-man show, “Happily Ever Laughter,” a mix of stand-up about his personal life and career, as well as a humorous seminar for couples. 

It may seem odd that the comedian, who is best known for his “In Soviet Russia” jokes, would be doing a show about relationships. But he explains that, as somebody who makes people laugh, he felt it was his duty to help couples laugh more together. 

“In a relationship, people experience a lot of laughter. They bond over it. It’s a sign that a relationship is good. People don’t know how to sustain the laughter later on in their relationships,” he said. “As a comedian, I create it on a regular basis. I thought, ‘Wow, I can figure this out.’ And that’s why I’m doing this.” 

Smirnoff saw the awe-inspiring power of laughter when, in the 1980s, he wrote jokes for a speech that President Ronald Reagan gave to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He said that because Gorbachev and fellow Russian politicians laughed along with Reagan, the Cold War came to an end. 

 “Laughter was a byproduct of Gorbachev and Reagan’s relationship,” Smirnoff said. “I know laughter is how we change the world.”

“Happily Ever Laughter” made its Broadway debut 10 years ago. Since then, Smirnoff has taken the show all over the country and tweaked it along the way. 

He’s got credentials that help: a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and experience teaching courses on relationships at Missouri State University and Drury University, both in Springfield, Mo.

The show begins with a video about “America’s Mural,” a 9/11 tribute mural that Smirnoff anonymously painted (and fronted $100,000 for) after the Twin Towers fell. He talks about his life in the Soviet Union, where he lived in a nine-family communal apartment and shared a room with his parents until he was 26 years old. He said that when his parents were being funny together, they were also showing how much they cared for one another. 

“When I heard their laughter, I put two and two together. I knew I was in the presence of love. Intuitively, I felt love and laughter were inseparable companions.”

Smirnoff and his parents immigrated to New York City with very little money and no knowledge of the English language. He worked in a restaurant and then started pursuing comedy, which led to roles in “Moscow on the Hudson” with Robin Williams, “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks, and “Heartburn” with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Eventually, he was asked to perform at the White House for Reagan, which led to the speech-writing gig. During that time, he fell in love, got married and had two children — a son and a daughter.  

About halfway through his show, Smirnoff travels from the middle to the side of the stage and shows video clips of fighting and happy couples. He demonstrates that when couples don’t have fun, they suffer. 

This is what happened in his own relationship when, after 12 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced. Although Smirnoff is currently in a relationship, he said that he is attempting to comprehend what happened with his previous one. 

“Part of this work is to figure this out because I couldn’t sustain the laughter in my relationship,” he said. “That’s probably what pushed me to try and understand it.” 

Following the mini-seminar, Smirnoff closes out his show with more stand-up, and touches upon the love he has experienced in his life. He sensed it when his first landlady in New York City gave his family an apartment for $50 instead of $240 and covered the rest, and he observed it after 9/11. Whenever he’s with his kids, he feels the love, and he saw it when he met a couple from Thousand Oaks who have been laughing together throughout their 80-year marriage.  

Through his show, he said he can witness laughter bringing couples together right before his eyes. 

“When I do a show, I watch people walk in and they are distracted and disconnected,” he said. “They are there to get joy from a comedy show. As the show progresses I watch their body language. Twenty to 30 minutes into the show, they’re starting to lean toward one another. Then they hold hands. As the show ends they leave smiling, giggling and walking together to their cars.”

Smirnoff said that since he knows how to make people laugh, he has the obligation to make a difference in the world. 

“I felt I was given this quest to figure this out because I’m a comedian, and I have this talent. However, I also have this brain, [as well as] the desire to figure out the parts, dissect it, and say, ‘Here’s how it works. Here’s how happiness works.’ I want to contribute to the pursuit of happiness. You can pursue it. I want to help people to know now.”

The ACME Comedy Hollywood Theater is located at 135 N. La Brea Avenue.  Performances will be August 24, 28 & 31 and September 7, 14 and 21 at 8:00PM.  Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and can be purchased online at www.yakov.com or by phone at (877) 779-2568.

Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau: Slur on blacks was a ‘joke’

Rabbi David Lau, the newly elected chief rabbi of Israel, said a remark he made about blacks that was widely condemned as racist was a “joke.”

Lau told haredi Orthodox students at a yeshiva in the Israeli town of Modiin Illit last week to stop hanging out at convenience stores to watch basketball on television.

“Why do you care about whether the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Greece?” he said, using a derogatory Israeli term for blacks.

The remarks were first reported by a phone news service for haredim, Hakol Haharedi, and subsequently picked up by major Israeli newspapers.

In an interview Thursday on Israel Radio, Lau responded to the criticism by saying that Israelis “excel at taking a humorous remark and turning it into a headline.” He added, “The one and only headline is: You are yeshiva students so sit and study Torah.”

Lau was elected last month to a 10-year term as Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi. After the reports this week about his comment, he canceled a planned vacation abroad.

Iranian, Venezuelan leaders rebuff U.S., joke about having nuclear bomb

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez lavished each other with praise on Monday, mocked U.S. disapproval and joked about having an atomic bomb at their disposal.

“Despite those arrogant people who do not wish us to be together, we will unite forever,” the Iranian president told socialist leader Chavez at the start of a visit to four left-leaning Latin American nations.

Despite their geographical distance, the fiery anti-U.S. ideologues have forged increasingly close ties between their fellow OPEC nations in recent years, although concrete projects have often lagged behind the rhetoric.

Ahmadinejad was in Venezuela at the start of a tour intended to shore up support as expanded Western economic sanctions kick in over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

“The imperialist madness has been unleashed in a way that has not been seen for a long time,” Chavez said in a ceremony to welcome Ahmadinejad at his presidential palace in Caracas.

Both men hugged, beamed, held hands and showered each other with praise.

As he often does, the theatrical and provocative Chavez stuck his finger right into the global political sore spot, joking that a bomb was ready under a grassy knoll in front of his Miraflores palace steps.

“That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out,” he said, the two men laughing together.

“The imperialist spokesmen say … Ahmadinejad and I are going into the Miraflores basement now to set our sights on Washington and launch cannons and missiles … It’s laughable.”

U.S. officials from President Barack Obama down have expressed disquiet over Venezuela’s close ties with Iran. They fear Chavez will weaken the international diplomatic front against Iran and could give Tehran an economic lifeline.

The United States and its allies believe Iran’s nuclear policy is aimed at producing a weapon. Iran says it is only for peaceful power generation.

As well as Venezuela, Ahmadinejad plans to visit Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador—a visit that Washington has said shows its “desperation” for friends.


Those nations’ governments share Chavez’s broad global views, but do not have Venezuela’s economic clout and are unable to offer Iran any significant assistance.

Regional economic powerhouse Brazil, which gave the Iranian leader a warm welcome when he visited during the previous government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was notably absent from his agenda this time.

Analysts are watching closely to see if Chavez will back Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil shipping lane, or how much he could undermine the sanctions by providing fuel or cash to Tehran.

Ahmadinejad, who is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign policy, has said little about the rising tensions with the West, including the sentencing to death of an Iranian-American man for spying for the CIA.

The Venezuelan and Iranian leaders mostly limited their comments on Monday to mutual adulation and anti-U.S. snipes.

“President Chavez is the champion in the war on imperialism,” Ahmadinejad said.

“The only bombs we’re preparing are bombs against poverty, hunger and misery,” added Chavez, saying 14,000 new homes had been built recently in Venezuela by Iranian constructors.

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray

Why the National Security Adviser’s Jewish Joke Was Fine [VIDEO]

From NYMag.com:

Last week, National Security Adviser James Jones opened up his speech to the Washington Institute with a joke. Sometimes, this strategy works. Sometimes, it fails. It really all depends on the delivery, the setting, and the joke itself. Well, this was a joke about Jews. In a general sense, Jews and money:

Certainly, if a Jewish person had told the same joke, nobody would have given it a second thought. That’s just how these things work. Jones is not Jewish, though, ergo, some people are insulted. The Schmooze, the awesomely titled blog of the Jewish Daily Forward, reported that, despite the widespread laughter in the audience, not everyone in attendance was pleased.

  After the speech, two participants suggested, in private conversations with the Forward, that Jones’ joke might have been inappropriate. After all, making jokes about greedy Jewish merchants can be seen at times as insensitive.

Read the full article at NYMag.com.

VIDEO: A Good Joke

A classic joke in a new short video by Nick Fox-Gieg of www.fox-gieg.com

Enter Elijah, designated drinker

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In a video on his elijahdrinks.com Web site, Jaffe demonstrates his invention to a friend. Because he wanted a genuine reaction, he had a set-up that sitcom writers seldom encounter: “I had to do it in one take.” (Thus Jaffe mentions in the video that it sells for $29.95, when it’s actually priced at $34.95 plus shipping on the

The (almost) hardest-working man in classical music

With such legendary workaholic conductors as James Levine and Valery Gergiev going strong, Jeffrey Kahane can’t quite be termed the hardest-working man in classical music. But as he begins his 11th season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and his third as music director of the Colorado Symphony, Kahane is giving his colleagues a run for their money. So much so that this past spring he had to cancel several weeks of concerts for health reasons.

“I was severely overworked,” a rested and recovered Kahane, 51, says now. “I had some high blood pressure, and I kind of ignored it, which I shouldn’t have done. And in the middle of last season, it got worse, and my doctor told me to cut back my workload immediately. I canceled six weeks of concerts, which was very difficult for me. I had never done anything like that before. I’d always taken pride in not canceling dates.”

Kahane, who is also an accomplished concert pianist, attributes his exhaustion less to myriad commitments than to the taxing programs he had scheduled last season, especially several LACO dates dedicated to Mozart — the tail end of a project in which he was to play and conduct over two seasons nearly all of the composer’s piano concertos.

“Just doing the Mozart would have been plenty,” said the pianist-conductor, “so doing it all was overly ambitious.” The series was to have concluded this past spring, when Kahane was convalescing. It will now end in February, with a special performance of four concertos added to this season’s LACO schedule.

Not that LACO’s new season, which begins Sept. 29 and runs through May 18, is exactly relaxed for Kahane. In late February, the orchestra is scheduled to embark on its first European tour in more than 20 years, performing in such music capitals as Paris, Berlin and Vienna during two weeks of concerts that also take it to Italy and Spain.

The tour also unites the orchestra with two compelling, and very different, soloists: noted Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, who will sing Mozart and Rossini arias, and composer Uri Caine, who will perform “Mosaics,” a piano concerto he wrote for LACO that had its debut at the Jazz Bakery this past May.

Caine’s music incorporates both jazz and classical elements, and he will serve as LACO’s composer-in-residence through the end of this season. The season before last, he wrote a double-piano concerto inspired by Mozart for LACO, Kahane and himself.

And the premieres keep coming at LACO. There will be another before this season concludes, a piano concerto written by the rising young composer Kevin Puts. What makes the work novel, according to Kahane, is that it marks the first time he’ll be directing a new work from the keyboard — an approach he takes regularly when performing piano concertos by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

“Originally, Kevin was writing the concerto for himself,” Kahane recalled. “But he came to one of LACO’s Mozart concerts and said, ‘Jeff, I’ve changed my mind. I want to write a concerto for you.'”

Kahane first met Puts while teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., as the budding composer was earning a doctorate there. He has previously conducted Puts’ Marimba Concerto as well as his Third Symphony, a piece inspired by the pop singer Bjork’s album “Verpertine.” Beyond the piano concerto, Kahane has commissioned a clarinet concerto from Puts, this time for the Colorado Symphony.

LACO’s season also includes a bit of cross-cultural music making, with the West Coast premiere of a Reza Vali’s “Toward That Endless Plain” on Nov. 3 and 4. The piece is a concerto for nay, a Middle Eastern flute, and conventional Western orchestra. Khosrow Soltani, a native of Tehran who trained as a bassoonist in Vienna, will perform the solo part.

Though this season features more familiar names — pianist André Watts, guitarist Christopher Parkening — LACO concerts often bring future stars to the attention of audiences. Thus the orchestra’s subscribers heard violinist Hilary Hahn, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianists Jonathan Biss and Lang Lang before their fame.

“I have the great good fortune to have an ear to the ground and a great many wonderful colleagues,” Kahane said of his network of music-world sources, mostly fellow musicians with whom the conductor has formed strong bonds. “Even my management sends me CDs of young artists. And though it doesn’t happen often, it does happen that I hear something extraordinary from a young artist. I have a track record I’m proud of in that regard, in finding artists who are just about to make it big. But there’s also a certain amount of good luck.”

Luck alone, though, seems to have had little to do with Kahane’s success. His conducting career followed his making a name for himself as a soloist and chamber musician, activities he continues to this day. He is enormously well liked by the musicians he works with, unusual in a field where respect is far more common than affection.

His personal life also seems firmly grounded. He and his wife, Martha, a clinical psychologist, keep houses in Denver and Santa Rosa and have raised two children, Gabriel, 26, and Annie, 19.

Annie attends Northwestern University, where she’s a sophomore majoring in performance studies, a multidisciplinary subject that combines elements of dance and theater into something Kahane calls “truly cutting edge.”

Gabe inherited the music gene and is a gifted pianist and composer living in Brooklyn, where his most recent project is a musical about the life of Mohammad. “When I first heard about it,” Kahane said, “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding! But it’s actually an incredibly beautiful and powerful piece.”

Naturally, Kahane kvells over his promising kids, but that doesn’t preclude him from leavening paternal pride with humor.

For the Kids

In the Wrong

In the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, we learn a lot about the Levites, who were the priests in the Tabernacle; we also learn about the different sacrifices for different types of sins. If you committed a sin on purpose, you brought one kind of sacrifice; if you did it by accident, you brought a different kind. And if you committed a sin because you didn’t know it was a sin, you brought yet another type of sacrifice. When you’ve done something wrong, always ask yourself this question: Did I do this on purpose? You must always examine the truth of your questions. Be true to yourself and to other people around you.

To the Moon

Q: Why is the moon bald?

A: Because it has no ‘air!

Q: Why does the moon need change for a dollar?

A: Because it needs four quarters!

by Abby Gilad


Why do we wear costumes and masks on Purim? Well, it could be to remind us that Queen Esther hid her Jewish identity from King Ahasuerus. Because of that, she was able to save the Jewish people. It could be a way for us to turn the world upside down for a little while, in the same way that the world was turned upside down in Shushan: Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been built for Mordechai; the Jews were not killed, but were able to defend themselves; and a day of mourning was turned into day of joy.

The Joy of Purim

Purim takes place on the 14th day of Adar. So we say: Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimcha. “In the month of Adar, we are filled with joy.” So, here’s a joke:Q:What do you call a steak ordered by 10 Jews?A: Fillet minyan!

What You Leave Behind

Can you think of someone who used to live in your neighborhood or went to your school but moved away? How did you feel when they moved? Was the person who left someone who did nice things for people? Was he or she helpful?

Inventive? Was it fun to play with that person? Then you probably miss him or her a little bit. Now think: What if you moved away? What kind of impression would you leave behind? Would people miss you?

Answer that question to yourself — and be honest. It might be time to say: “I should be a little more helpful” or “Yeah, I’m a good kid.”

Riddle Me This!
Here’s a Riddle.
E-mail the answer

Charan is the name of the town that
Abraham left and Jacob returns to in order to find a wife. Mount Ararat is where Noah’s Ark landed. In which country can we find both of these biblical sites?

Hint: The answer has something to do with an upcoming holiday.

The Jewish
Joke Box

Moishe was
walking in the woods.
Suddenly, a bear appeared
and chased him. When the
bear cornered him, Moishe
thought his life is over until he
saw the bear take out a yarmulke
and put it on his head.
“Oh, good,” he thought,
“he’s a Jewish bear.
He won’t eat me.”
Then the bear said:
“Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.”
(The blessing before eating a meal.)

Submitted by:
Camille Fagan, 10
Oak Park

No Vacancy

Last week, before the premiere of my new show “While You Were Out,” I got my first big national magazine review.

I wasn’t expecting it. I had just had a tooth pulled and my mom was in town for the day to take care of me. I was just minding my own business, sprawled on the couch, taking painkillers like Pez, flipping through a magazine. There it was: my name with the two-word description, “incessantly vacant.” Incessantly vacant.

Me? Vacant? I got up, gripping the folded-over magazine, and commenced one of those slurry, self-important monologues not uncommon to guys hanging out in front of a halfway house with no teeth (fitting, since I was down a tooth myself).

“I’m a lot of things, Mom, but vacant? I didn’t put down ‘The Bell Jar’ until the end of junior high. I won first and second place in a poetry contest when I was 9 — and both poems were about the Holocaust! Vacant! There’s no vacancy here!”

It wasn’t clear whether this was a review of the host I replaced or of me, but it didn’t matter. As I must have said 30 times in four minutes, pacing and stumbling around with that stupid magazine in my sweaty grip, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”

What I felt at that moment was so painful, it was hard to believe I was on painkillers. Sure, I thought, no one reads this crap, other than all of my peers. It was a humiliating sucker punch. It was picking teams and I was last, right after the kid with an inhaler in his pocket. It was what we humans live to avoid — being shamed in a public forum.

I sat down, looked at my mom, and realized I should do her proud by acting with grace and dignity. Instead, I got on the Internet and got the journalist’s home phone number in Staten Island, N.Y. He was going to get a piece of my drug-altered mind. I wrote his number on a scrap of paper and my mom gently suggested I wait 24 hours before making the decision to call. If you shouldn’t operate a car on Vicodin, you probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel of your career.

The longer I thought about it, two things became clear. The first was that, once and for all, I would have to accept the idea that not everyone was going to like me. I really hate that. But if I was visiting a mental hospital and a patient yelled, “You’re Marie Osmond,” would I start singing “I’m a Little Bit Country”? No. I don’t agree with that narrator. Do I honestly think I’m vacant? I don’t, and my opinion of myself has to matter more than some guy in Staten Island who doesn’t even know me.

The bigger lesson is that most painful things in life are eventually funny. My friend said to me, “At least you’re consistent. He could have called you ‘periodically vacant.'” Within two days, the review was becoming a funny anecdote, and that’s no small thing. That’s everything.

In college, I had this blond-haired, blue-blooded boyfriend from Massachusetts. I went to stay with his family for Thanksgiving and I was so in love and so nervous that I actually wet the bed. Yes, wet the bed. It traumatized me so much I’m pretty sure it actually changed my DNA. Five years later, I wrote a show about it. People loved that story. They could relate.

I finally understand the trick. If you can compress the amount of time from shameful incident to funny story, you’re golden.

In the recent flap about the movie “Barbershop,” Jesse Jackson took offense at comments in the movie about several black icons. “You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke — it’s sacred territory,” he said. Once again, Jesse is wrong about us Jews. I swear I’ve looked at myself with a severe hair-do and no makeup and sighed, “Ugh, I look like Golda Meir.”

Humor is healing and we’ve always needed it. My dad made a joke at my grandfather’s funeral. We joked when my aunt killed herself. We still joke about that, not out of disrespect but out of necessity. Taking tragedy and death and humiliation seriously won’t stop them, so it seems the only course of action is to feel, process, grieve and, finally, lighten up if you can.

I never called that writer in Staten Island. I did call to cancel my subscription to the magazine (I may not be able to chew solid food, but I do have my pride). The phone operator asked, “Why are you canceling? I have to put a code in the computer.”

“Well, I try to understand your magazine, but I’m too … vacant.”