It’s official! Barry’s new show, Brady Brunch, is underway at Yakov’s Branson Theater in Branson, Missouri! Of course, that’s Yakov as in actor, comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who I had a chance to chat with about his lengthy career, reinventing himself in Branson, and partnering with Barry to bring Brady Brunch to his stage!
You bring such a unique point of view to your act, which is I’m sure why you’re so successful. I’m curious if you ever played around with different personas back when you were starting out in the clubs or did you know right away that the best plan would be to just sort of be yourself?
Well my challenge was I didn’t speak English so I was being myself and my kind of a character kept changing by itself… by the more English I learned, the better I communicated my message and I never really had to do any impressions or, you know, things that would make me different because I was already different.
I have to imagine that some comedians have sort of a love hate relationship with catchphrases, but in most cases they’re sort of handed to you in a sitcom roll and you don’t necessarily have a choice about it. Yours is kind of a different situation and seems to have served you very well. Do you remember when you came up with “What a Country!”?
Yes. I was at The Comedy Store and I kept telling people some jokes and I kept saying “What a Country!” in the end, and I didn’t plan this to be funny and they kept laughing. So little by little, it became, they would come to me…the audience would come to me and say “What a Country!” and made me realize that they remembered that more than they remember jokes. So that was a big revelation for me that I might have stumbled on something that was powerful for them. So I kept saying that and then it became my signature piece.
As you can imagine, a lot of TV fans read Barry’s blog. Most will, of course, remember your great recurring role on one of the great comedies of all time, Night Court. Can you give us a quick sense of the atmosphere on that set and what someone like you, who was a relatively new actor at that point, learned from a cast like that?
Yes. Harry Anderson and I worked together at The Comedy Store and several clubs and so when he got his television show, he sugguested that I play a part and it was such a big hit first episode that we did that they invited me every year – a recurring character – so I was very lucky. It was interesting to watch, you know, the changes in that the cast was very talented and I also learned, you know, the more money they were making, the more, you know, it wasn’t as…first year was the best, because they were all excited about like will they be picked up or not. Once they became more of a standard on television, it was still great show, but it wasn’t as enthusiastic as they were in the beginning.
Right. It’s almost like a baseball player coming through the minor leagues and then you get to the big leagues and it’s sort of…you forget why you loved kind of being there? That kind of thing?
A little bit, but I was still very happy that I was part of it. But it was, you could see that they were getting a little bit more tired and I think every sitcom goes through that challenge, you know, that there’s some great things and then there’s some things that…they have to be there every day and you know, it becomes they’re more there than they’re at home and memorizing lines and rehearsing and all of that. It becomes a job versus an exciting opportunity.
But of course, being on a show like that, on what many consider the greatest TV lineup in the history of television, that Thursday night lineup, I mean that and a series of other things, your career takes off in the 80s. I’m curious, because of sensorship and what was going on politically, how aware, if at all, were people back home of your success?
Not much. I mean, until, you know, 90s, nobody really knew about, because it was pretty closed there. They didn’t have American television. They didn’t know about my success here. And then in 1990, Showtime network asked me to go to Russia to do special, which I did. It was called Yakov Smirnoff from Moscow, Idaho and it was fun to do and that was the first time I went back to Russia and then my success became more known there. But at the same time, the Soviet Union dismantled in 1991 and my career was changed big time because I was kind of a catalyst for change, but when the change happened, I made it number one on top ten list of Dave Letterman when he was doing the list of things that will change that now no longer soviet union is in place so…and I made number one as Yakov Smirnoff will be out of work. And it was funny for the whole country but then little by little it became reality because, you see, comedians serve great service when they relieve tension and that’s what I was doing for America. I was relieving tension that was so big between Russia and America. But when the tension went away, there was really not natural need for a comedian talking about cold war…even though I was moving on anyway to do some other things and so … that was one of those things that made me find Branson, Missouri…because in Branson, they didn’t really care that the Soviet Union dismantled and so they still… they thought I was funny and that’s what made my home for the last 19 years.
For people like me who’ve never been there, how do you describe Branson? Is it sort of a kinder, gentler Vegas?
Yeah. That’s a good one. Yes. I love the life here. There is no gambling. There is no bad language. There is no nudity, so yeah, you’re right. It’s like Orlando, but smaller and shows…we have over a hundred shows here, and there’s more seats, theater seats, than on Broadway and in Vegas combined. So it’s pretty amazing little place.
You’re clearly a patriotic guy. I mean it’s obviously been part of your act, but it also comes from a real place. Some people may have seen your artwork and your America’s Heart mural that you painted after 9/11. Branson seems from the outside to be a very patriotic place based on the acts that are there. Is that true?
Yes. Very much so. God and country is very… and family. And that’s what I think for Barry…I think it’s gonna be an amazing home because he is, I sense, the same way.
And the Brady Bunch is, I guess, sort of America’s kind of sitcom family…
Absolutely and that’s what resonates with people. They love him here. They just…they come out of their clothes. Well, that’s women. They love him. It’s like America’s heartthrob. He’s their guy they grew up with.
A lot of entertainers, when they get successful, hire business managers so that they don’t have to deal with the business side of things. You did the exact opposite. You bought the theater. Do you enjoy that side of it which now, of course, includes helping to shape other talent like Barry?
Yes. I do. It’s very creative, especially working with somebody like Barry who is fantastic in taking direction, in co-creating. He was able to dive in to some areas that he didn’t even know existed in him. And he is bringing that to the stage and it makes him very authentic, very unique and I think people will just eat that up…in addition to eating up brunch.
Obviously Barry is no stranger to a stage. But for you, seeing him from an outside perspective, were there certain aspects of his talent and career that you wanted to capture within that show?
I wanted to kind of pass on to him what I do and my main strength is humor, but bigger than that, it’s opening my heart in front of people. If you can make them laugh and make them cry, they will come back and come back and come back because they want to feel real things, real stuff…and that’s what I do in my show and that’s what Barry was able to do in his show.
And how much should people expect in terms of Brady content? How much music? I know Barry loves to do the music and you have a live band.
Yes. I think that it’s…it’s about I would say half and half. If I have to explain his show, it’s multimedia production show. So you have him singing, him telling stores, him showing clips from Brady Bunch. But most importantly sharing his relationship with his parents, with his son and I think that that’s where he gets them and will keep them there.
It seems like a nice size for a venue. Big enough to sort of get people excited when he’s doing a song, but intimate enough that you sort of have a personal experience. Whether it’s your show or Barry’s show, should people expect to get a chance to say hi and maybe take a picture with you?
Absolutely. He is there walking around, shaking hands, having brunch with them. He’s sitting there eating with them. And after the show, he will sign autographs and take pictures with people. So yeah, absolutely. People will definitely have an opportunity to be connected to him.
Alright, enough about Barry. Let’s talk brunch. What are we talking here? Your personal chef runs this thing right?
That’s right. That’s right. We’re serving major brunch here. They get keish. They get ham, sausage, croissant with eggs and cheese. They get blueberry muffin and strawberry shortcake served to you on a golden platter with linen napkins, real silverware and a fake candle. Plus they get a bottle of water when they walk in so they get really a great meal.
You guys are obviously working hard. Have you gotten a chance to spend any time socializing together and share some showbiz stories?
Yeah. Yeah. Well we live next to each other. We are going to Andy Williams’ show tomorrow together and Saturday we’re going to Michael Bolton’s concert.
I want to let you go cause I know you just came off stage, but any final words you’d like to share with Barry’s readers?
Come have brunch with us. You will laugh and cry and you’ll love the food, so we really have the full service package here.
Thanks Yakov. Appreciate it.
My pleasure. Thank you.