Yakov Naumovich Pokhis (Russian: Яков Наумович Похис; born 24 January 1951), better known as Yakov Smirnoff, is a Ukrainian-born American comedian, painter and psychology professor. He was popular in the 1980s for comedy performances in which he used irony and word play to contrast life under the Communist regime in his native Soviet Union with life in the United States, delivered in heavily accented English. Yakov has a theatre in Branson, MO, where he performs year-round. Yakov is also a professor at Missouri State University and Drury University where he teaches The Business of Laughter.
Smirnoff was born to a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. He was an art teacher in Odessa and continues to paint. He came to the U.S. in 1977 and became an American citizen on 4 July 1986. Smirnoff spent a portion of his early days in the United States working as a bartender at Grossingers Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York and living in the employee dormitory.
He was a roommate of comedian Andrew Dice Clay and has appeared in several motion pictures, including Buckaroo Banzai and The Money Pit. Among his numerous appearances on television, he was featured many times on the sitcom Night Court as "Yakov Korolenko". He also had a starring role in a 1986-87 television sitcom titled What a Country. In that show, he played a Russian cab driver studying for the U.S. citizenship test. In the late 1980s, Smirnoff was commissioned to provide educational bumper segments for Saturday morning cartoons, punctuated with a joke and Smirnoff's signature laugh. Since 1993, he has been a fixture in Branson, Missouri. He has continued to amass accomplishments including books, CDs, movies, T.V. appearances, a successful Broadway show, As Long As We Both Shall Laugh, and is currently working on a humorous self-help book.