Comedian Yakov Smirnoff was the 1980s embodiment of the American dream. After escaping the communist Soviet Union in 1977, Yakov arrived in the U.S. unable to speak English. But this didn't stop him from becoming a household name by the mid-1980s, when he was performing his standup comedy on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and countless other TV programs, including his very own show, named after his famous catch-phrase, “What a Country!” During his career, Smirnoff – who chose his last name after trying to think of a name that American audiences would be familiar with – performed for four U.S. Presidents and has been the main event for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. From comedy, he branched out to the big screen, where he starred in movies with Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Jack Nicholson, to name a few. However, the sudden downturn in his career at the close of the Cold War gave Smirnoff the opportunity to pursue other interests, namely formal education. He has since earned his PhD in psychology and served as a professor at Missouri State University. In 2016, Smirnoff tackled the mysteries of love with a national PBS special titled, “Happily Ever Laughter, the Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships."
After a successful career in the entertainment industry, Smirnoff enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania for graduate studies in psychology. Since his divorce in the 1990s, the comedian had been obsessively reading about the psychology of love. At Penn, he studied under Martin Seligman, the guru of “positive psychology." This school of thought emphasizes action over open-ended conversation, prescription over description. In other words, positive psychology is a decidedly American branch of psychology, which provides another illustration of Smirnoff's transition from the old world to the new world. As a graduate student at Penn, Smirnoff took a Seligman-designed survey called Virtues in Action (Via) that ranks a person’s practical attributes. The results were instructive. According to the Via survey, Smirnoff’s main virtue is “inventiveness,” followed by “persistence." Meanwhile, “humor” was ranked as his 11th virtue. More importantly, Smirnoff graduated from Penn in 2006 with a Master of Arts in psychology.
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Since graduating, Smirnoff has certainly not been forgotten by his alma mater. In 2010, "under the button," which bills itself as "Penn's only intentionally satirical publication,” ran a feature article titled, "In Soviet Russia, Penn Goes To You: Yakov Smirnoff." Looking forward, members of the Penn community are sure to be keeping tabs on what comes next from the multi-talented Smirnoff.