This is the story of how I almost became a comedy writer for Yakov Smirnoff.
If you were alive in the 1980s, then already your mind is riddled with questions. “How can ‘comedy’ and ‘Yakov Smirnoff’ appear in the same sentence?” you ask. “Is that even grammatically possible?”
If you were very young in the ’80s, then you may not remember that Yakov Smirnoff was a Ukrainian comedian whose whole shtick was that America was such a different place from the Soviet Union. In those days, you see, we had what was known as a “Cold War,” which meant that America and Russia (which was called the Soviet Union back then) hated each other, but neither of us was ever actually going to do anything about it because we knew that any military conflict would escalate into nuclear war, which would result in the death of every person on earth.
Yes, all the Russians would be dead. BUT SO WOULD WE! That’s what our leaders had to keep reminding themselves. They would be juuuust about to launch a nuclear strike over something the Soviets had done to irritate us, and then they would remember: Oh, wait. This will kill us, too. Crap!
Anyway, the reason we hated the Soviet Union was that they had communism, and everybody was poor and nobody had freedom to do anything, and it was cold all the time. The reason the Soviet Union hated us was that we were arrogant imperialists who thought we were so great with our Levi’s and our MTV and our Madonna.
So Yakov Smirnoff came to America and launched a career based on jokes about how different the two countries were. For example: “In America, you watch the TV. In Russia, the TV watches you!” He also got a lot of mileage out of simple-minded misunderstandings of American culture. “What a country!” he would say, constantly. Upon getting a job as a bartender working the graveyard shift: “A bar in a cemetery! What a country! Last call? During Happy Hour the place must be dead!”
Or this one: “There are no Taco Bells in Russia. They didn’t like the slogan, ‘Run for the border.'” (Because the Soviets didn’t want anyone to leave, you see. Ahem. Is this thing on?)
Smirnoff’s brief popularity in the United States is one of the dark periods in our nation’s history, next to the 8-track cassette phenomenon, and slavery. We are ashamed it happened, and we have tried to make sure it does not happen again.
To some extent, we have succeeded. After all, you haven’t heard anything from Yakov Smirnoff in years, right? I know I hadn’t — not until an old friend of mine called from Branson, Mo., and asked if I wanted to write a sketch for Yakov’s stage show.
Branson is the Las Vegas of the Midwest, with wholesome, nerdy stage shows that the whole family can pretend to enjoy. And apparently Yakov (everyone just calls him Yakov) has been doing a live show in Branson for years, and it’s one of the city’s most popular attractions. My friend told me that the show consists of Yakov’s stand-up material, a few comedy sketches, and some performances by Russian dancers and other entertainers. I asked, “Is he still doing the ‘What a country!’ stuff from 20 years ago?” My friend said that Yakov realized the old material wouldn’t play anymore, so he branched out a little. Now he does comedy that’s a little more modern and sophisticated. He’s doing — wait for it — jokes about the differences between men and women.
Yes! At long last, a comedian is addressing an issue that has been taboo for too long. Why have the jesters of the past been so hesitant to make jokes about how women and men are different? Why is this subject considered “off-limits” for mainstream comics? They joke about everything else under the sun. But the way women like to talk about their feelings while men like to talk about football, that goes ignored.
How my friend was involved with Yakov’s show, I’m not sure exactly. But he said they were about to revamp it and wanted some new sketches, and he thought I was just the man for the job. I said, diplomatically, “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be a good fit. A sketch I wrote would probably be funny, and thus out of place in a Yakov Smirnoff show.”
My friend persisted. “I already have the premise for one of them,” he said. “You would just have to write it.”
Coming up with the idea is always the hardest part of writing comedy, so if they already had a premise in mind, that certainly would make it easier.
“What’s the premise?” I said.
“Well, it’s on a pirate ship, and at some point someone needs to walk the plank, and there should be a sword fight.”
I sighed. That’s not a premise; that’s a setting. (“In Russia, comedy sketches don’t need premise!”) A premise would be “all the pirates are afraid of the water” or “the pirate ship is closed down by OSHA for having too many workers’ hazards.” Telling me it’s set on a pirate ship and there needs to be plank-walking and sword-fighting is more or less the same as telling me nothing.
Undaunted by my quickly waning interest in this project, my friend told me the kinds of things that Branson audiences love about Yakov’s show. He also sent me videos of the sketches that were currently being used, one that was a spoof of “Romeo and Juliet,” and one where Yakov goes to heaven and is quizzed by St. Peter about his relationships with women. Some of the things I learned about Branson audiences’ tastes were as follows.
– Men dressed up as women, especially if the men are large and bearded: hilarity.
– Obvious jokes about the Battle of the Sexes: tears of laughter squirt from the eyes of every patron.
– Broad, lame puns, like when Yakov is running to get onstage and someone tells him to hurry up and he replies, “I’m Russian! I’m Russian!”: the theater’s seats are instantly soaked with corn-fed, Midwestern urine.
I was now convinced that there was no way I could write a sketch that would be “funny” enough (i.e., not funny enough) to actually make it into Yakov’s show. I could probably write a funny sketch involving pirates, sure. But I was certain that my idea of funny and Yakov’s idea of funny were two very different things.
Alternatively, I could write something that I knew was terrible but that would fit in with the lameness of the show. It was hard to motivate myself to do that, though. Isn’t there enough bad art and bad comedy in the world already without me making more — and, even worse, making it bad on purpose?
My friend persisted. He had confidence in my ability to write something Yakov-worthy. I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult. I told him that since I was so sure Yakov wouldn’t actually use my sketch, I wanted to be paid whether he used it or not. He agreed to those terms, and we had a deal!
Below is the sketch I wrote. It has a premise for a couple minutes, and then it does some wacky Yakov-friendly things, and then it has a goofy punchline. I never got any notes on what, specifically, caused Yakov to reject it. All I know is that I only spent 20 minutes on it, and I got paid a hundred bucks for doing it. It’s a weird way to make a living. What a country!
And now, please enjoy:
THE PIRATE SKETCH
By Eric D. Snider
(Pirate ship. There’s a handful of pirates, with one named SCURVY as their leader. They have two hostages, a young woman named DAPHNE — played by a large man in drag, of course, and exceedingly ugly — and her father, a bumbling old guy named DAD. DAPHNE and DAD are tied up.)
DAPHNE: Please let us go! We haven’t done anything to you!
DAD: Please let my daughter go! Take me, but leave her alone!
SCURVY: Silence, the lot of ya! I’m conferrin’ with me best mate here. (Turns to another pirate, JOHNSON. They’re looking at a map or something.) Now, then, you say the best route to their treasure is this way?
JOHNSON: Aye, captain. That be the most direct route.
SCURVY: Are ye certain?
JOHNSON: Aye, captain! I MapQuested it!
SCURVY: Well, did ye try Google Maps? Sometimes there be a difference.
JOHNSON: Arr, that be a fact. I’ll give ‘er another look. (He moves to the back of the stage, out of sight.)
SCURVY: All right, now! Old man! We’re goin’ to get rid of the two of you, and then we’re goin’ to come for your booty!
DAD: (appalled) I beg your pardon, sir!
SCURVY: I mean, for your treasure, ya dope! (DAD is relieved.) And then for your booty! I’m kidding! Just kidding. (pause) I’m not kidding. (DAD horrified again.) Kidding! (DAD relieved.) Not kidding! Har har har har! (All pirates laugh.)
DAD: You’re a creepy pirate.
SCURVY: Yarr, I get that a lot. Now enough of your chatterin’, it’s time for the plank!
DAPHNE: No, please! Don’t make us walk the plank! I’ll do anything! (cuddles up to him, seductively) ANYTHING….
SCURVY: (horrified; she’s real ugly, you’ll recall; he turns away) Yar, ye’ve done plenty already. (to whatever pirate is nearby) Yarr, are ye sure ye didn’t bring a manatee on board by mistake? (to all) Anyway, what do ya say, boys? Do we make ’em walk the plank?!!
(All pirates cheer their approval, except for one, PERCY. He looks and talks like a regular pirate. There is nothing different about him whatsoever.)
PERCY: Yarr, I’m not too sure about that, me hearty.
SCURVY: And why is that, ya scurvy deck-swabber?
PERCY: Well, captain, as I sit here reflectin’, it just don’t seem to be ethical.
SCURVY: Ethical, ya say?!
PERCY: Aye, sir. Ya see, when I was studyin’ philosophy at Cornell University, many’s the time me hearties and I would be up late, drinkin’ whisky and singin’ dirty songs and discussin’ the works of Plato, and John Locke, and Friedrich Nietzsche. And it don’t seem right to be killin’ folks what have done nothin’ wrong to us.
SCURVY: Oh, it don’t seem right, do it?!
PERCY: Aye, captain. ‘Tis just my opinion, of course.
SCURVY: When were you at Cornell University studyin’ philosophy?!
PERCY: Ah, I graduated five years ago, Magna cum Yarr.
SCURVY: (getting in his face, angry) Well, I’ll tell ye what I think of you and your “Cornell University philosophy”….
PERCY: (standing up in his face, ready for a fight) Aye, sir?
SCURVY: I think that when I was at Princeton, studyin’ molecular biology, our debate team frequently wiped the walls with ye scurvy Cornell dogs!
PERCY: Is that a fact?!
SCURVY: Aye, it is, and ye know it!
PERCY: I know no such thing, ya rotten peg-legged goat, ya!
SCURVY: ‘Tis a fact! I can get out me newspaper clippin’s to prove it!
PERCY: I should like to see them clippin’s, sir, as I recall many’s the time we sent you Princeton sandcrabs back to Jersey sobbin’ like wee girls!
SCURVY: (brandishing his sword) Oh, did ye want a taste of me sword, then?!
PERCY: (brandishing his) Aye, is it a piece o’ me ye be wantin’?!
(They swordfight. It is spectacular. Yada yada yada. Finally it reaches its climax, and then they both just sort of stop.)
SCURVY: What were we fightin’ about?
PERCY: Yarr. I don’t know.
SCURVY: Do y’ suppose they threw in a swordfight just for the entertainment value?
PERCY: Aye, I wouldn’t put it past ’em.
(JOHNSON comes rushing forward)
JOHNSON: Captain! Captain! Don’t make ’em walk the plank just yet!
SCURVY: Not to worry, me hearty. We were just havin’ ourselves an unnecessary swordfight!
PERCY: (suddenly remembering) Cornell versus Princeton! That’s what it was about!
SCURVY: Ah, yes, that’s right. Now what is it, Johnson?
JOHNSON: Ye can do whatever ye want with the old man, but his daughter —
(All eyes go to DAPHNE, who tries to look beautiful and charming)
JOHNSON: — his daughter is worth 10,000 gold pieces if we bring her in alive!
SCURVY: What? What are ye talkin’ about?!
JOHNSON: She’s wanted in Spain for grand larceny and theft of property! She’s a wanted criminal!
DAD: Ah, see, I told you, Daphne, that someone would want you someday!
SCURVY: (in disbelief) You? You’re a no-good thievin’ criminal?
DAPHNE: I was young and I needed the money.
SCURVY: You were ugly and you needed the plastic surgery!
DAPHNE: Take us both back to Spain! Just let us go!
SCURVY: Not a chance, you dog-faced porpoise! You, we hang onto. But YOU (to DAD), for you, old man, it’s planks for the memories!
(Pirates cheer as DAD is led to the plank.)
PERCY: Yarr, sir, I must protest again. Walkin’ the plank is always your answer for everything!
SCURVY: It is not!
PERCY: Aye, but it is! You’ve sent 10 souls off the plank this month alone! It’s like an addiction!
SCURVY: Yarr, you’re right. I’m hooked! (holds up his hook hand to reinforce the obvious joke) Now, you! Old man! On the plank!
DAPHNE: No, please! Spare his life! Won’t anyone help?!
(From out of nowhere, YAKOV comes swinging onstage on a rope)
YAKOV: I’ll save you!
(He misses, though, and keeps swinging, then comes swinging back the other way and misses again.)
YAKOV: They always said I was a swinger!
(Finally stops swinging and leaps onto the pirate ship, letting go of the rope.)
YAKOV: Did I hear a damsel in distress?
DAD: No, it’s me! They’re going to make me walk the plank!
YAKOV: (disappointed) Well, I’m sure you could use the exercise…
DAD: Won’t you save me, kind sir?
YAKOV: Well, I was kind of expecting there to be a damsel in need of help…
DAD: My daughter’s over there!
YAKOV: (delighted) Ah! Well, then! (looks over at where DAPHNE is. DAPHNE makes flirtatious face again, posing, flipping her hair) Where is she?
DAD: She’s right there!
(YAKOV looks more closely, leaning forward, squinting. DAPHNE raises her hand.)
DAPHNE: Yoo-hoo! Over here!
(YAKOV leaps back in horror, turns back to DAD)
YAKOV: (to DAD) So, what were you saying about you needing to be rescued?
SCURVY: Not so fast there! Why are you in such a hurry?
YAKOV: Well, I am Russian….
SCURVY: (angrily) Yar! Do ye know what we do to people who make puns around here?!
SCURVY: We give ’em a glass of brandy and call ’em our brothers! (All pirates cheer, bring YAKOV a glass, welcome him, give him an honorary eyepatch)
YAKOV: Wow! Such hospitality! Usually a glass of brandy this nice would cost me an arm and a leg! (gestures toward the nearest pirate’s hook hand and peg leg)
(All pirates laugh merrily)
JOHNSON: Would you like a cigarette?
YAKOV: No, thanks. I’m trying to quit. That’s why I wear the patch!
(More merry laughter)
YAKOV: So what’s going on here, anyway?
SCURVY: We’re going to get rid of this old guy, and then take his daughter back to Spain for a huge reward! She’s a wanted criminal!
YAKOV: Who wants her? The humane society?
SCURVY: She’s wanted for theft… yeah, what kind of theft did you do, anyway?
DAPHNE: I illegally downloaded some movies from the Internet, then I sold DVDs of them.
SCURVY: Wait… So that means…
DAPHNE: I’m a pirate, too!
(All pirates cheer and celebrate, untie her, give her an eyepatch, etc.)
(More stuff happens.)
One of the interesting things I learned about Yakov Smirnoff is that at some point in the last several years, he went to college and got a master's degree in "applied positive psychology," whatever that is. Apparently he tries to mix it into his show, this philosophy of feelin' good and bein' happy. It's almost enough to make me go to Branson and watch the show, just to see how he does it. Also, I'd be curious to see what their pirate sketch looks like, and if it's better than mine. For all I know it IS mine, and they figured I'd never find out they were using it.
Something else odd about Yakov's show, which I learned from his website: His Branson shows are at 9:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. What?! Uh, I don't know how it is in Russia, but in America, shows start at 7:30 p.m. OR LATER!! Yakov's 9:30 a.m. system is not entirely unheard of in Branson, but that doesn't make it right.
If you listen to the SnideCast, you'll find that I did indeed record the sketch, too, with all the different voices performed by me! That is why the characters all sound a lot like each other. But I did go to the extra trouble of including some sound effects of a ship sailing on the open seas, for ambience. I spare no expense for you.