“Nobody is laughing,” Yakov Smirnoff says. “Nobody is happy.”
Smirnoff is a comedian, so the lack of laughter is an understandably distressing state of affairs.
Smirnoff, best known for his “in Soviet Russia...” shtick, has suddenly become part of the cultural debate over mandatory face masks, which health officials say are one of the best ways to stop transmission of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Smirnoff attended a town hall in Branson, Mo., where the Soviet-born comedian has been living and performing for many years. The subject of the meeting was face masks, namely whether all residents of Branson (population: 11,500) 13 or older had to wear protective face coverings when in a public space.
Smirnoff spoke out against it, to Twitter’s endless delight.
A favorite of Ronald Reagan, Smirnoff was a kind of proto-Borat who was recently dubbed “the king of Cold War comedy” by the Guardian. “What a country,” went his trademark phrase, expressing his happy incredulity at the United States. He was the perfect emissary from what Reagan called the “evil empire.”
Then the Berlin Wall fell and the culture moved on. Comedy became edgier. Smirnoff eventually left Los Angeles for Branson, located in the Ozark Mountains, on the border with Arkansas. Once described by Bart Simpson as Las Vegas as imagined by his nerdy neighbor Ned Flanders, the town even has its own “strip,” which includes a Dolly Parton-themed dinner theater, a celebrity car museum, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater and several amusement parks.
“In Branson, people respect solid values,” Smirnoff told an interviewer in 1993, shortly after moving there. He set up a theater of his own. A giant billboard directed inbound tourists to where they could see a performance by a “famous Russian comedian,” a tongue-in-cheek self-description Smirnoff has long been fond of.
In speaking out against a mask mandate, Smirnoff believes he was defending Branson values — which is to say, what are to him American values.
“I don’t want to lose America,” he told Yahoo News.
Face coverings, public health officials say, can greatly reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But because some of those very same public health officials had advised against wearing masks early in the outbreak, and because suspicion of expertise runs high in American society, a segment of the population steadfastly refuses to don a face mask, seeing it as a sign of government oppression, misguided science or just an unwelcome addition to one’s appearance.
Smirnoff insists he is not in any of those camps. He says he wears a face shield, then promptly texts the author several photographs of him in such a covering. A few minutes later, his wife gets on the phone and begins to describe why shields are superior to masks. (In fact, health experts have said that shields can be a good addition to masks, but are an inferior option on their own.)
“I am not against masks,” Smirnoff says. “I am against people not having a choice to put the mask on.” He grew up in the Soviet Union, after all. And though that experience formed the basis of his humor, it has also made him suspicious of government diktat.
“They’re gagging you,” says Smirnoff, whose politics are closer to those of Reagan than Donald Trump.
He brings up Pavlik Morozov, a hero of Soviet culture: The 13-year-old Morozov denounced his father to the authorities and was in turn murdered, along with his brother, by enraged relatives. For the masters of the socialist surveillance state, Morozov was the perfect symbol of a dutiful citizen.
Mask shaming is certainly a thing, lending some credence to Smirnoff’s argument. He mentions Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent statement that “snitches get rewards” for reporting violations of that city’s mask ordinance.
“Do we want to be like China?” the 69-year-old wonders, referencing the communist nation’s onerous coronavirus lockdowns, which halted the spread of the disease but also featured the kinds of intrusions most Americans would not countenance. “I hope not.”
The native of Odessa (Ukraine, not Texas) maintains that mask ordinances are fundamentally un-American. He was convinced of that during a recent trip to Chicago, where he says he was “barked at” for not wearing a mask. It reminded him of being in a Soviet metro station, where one frequently encountered surly and critical behavior from one’s fellow residents of the fading socialist paradise.
“It’s ruining the country,” he says, despite the fact that most Americans support wearing masks. “I don’t want to lose America.”
Smirnoff tells Yahoo News that he showed up at Tuesday evening’s meeting in a face shield, only to be informed by a police officer that he needed to wear a face mask instead.
A few minutes later, he strode to the podium to deliver his message, which was that while masks may be useful in stopping the coronavirus — which has killed more than 150,000 Americans since February — people should nevertheless have a choice about whether they put one on. Otherwise, he asserted, the United States would turn into an authoritarian state, like the one he left in 1977.
He spoke for just a few minutes, standing at the podium, in which a homemade sign had been propped. “No mask mandate. Ask me if your masks work,” the sign said (it appeared to have been left there by a previous speaker). It was this image, more than anything that Smirnoff said, that went viral, contrasting sharply as it did with the beaming visage from Smirnoff’s standup routine.
Twitter had the inevitable field day, and the man who played the national security adviser in 1984’s little-remembered “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” was suddenly and rather improbably back in the news, though less for his own jokes than as a punch line for savvy millennials who knew just enough about him to know that Smirnoff was fair game for a little derision.
Smirnoff does have a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He also has a doctoral degree in leadership from Pepperdine University, part of his foray into what appears to be self-help. He is not an expert in epidemiology, nor does he make any claim to be one. At the same time, the internet has made every mask evangelist, as well as every mask denier, an expert in aerosolized viral particles.
“There’s a lot of things that are questionable,” Smirnoff says about the efficacy of masks. “Even the authorities don’t even know this for sure.” It’s not clear which authorities he is talking about, but most virologists are fairly certain face masks will slow transmission of the virus.
He is not against masks, he repeats to Yahoo News, against science, against public health. He is just against telling people what to do. “When you don’t have a choice, you feel restricted, you feel confined,” Smirnoff says. And yet pants, which are not infrequently constrictive or uncomfortable, have been tolerated by large portions of society. Face masks have not been so lucky, becoming the latest victim of the country’s endless culture war.
Reprising what he told the residents of Branson that night, Smirnoff tells Yahoo News that he wants to carve out an “island of hope” in an “ocean of fear.” He notes that there are a few cases in town; surrounding Taney County has had only three deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
His opposition at the Branson meeting apparently had little influence on the town’s aldermen, who voted to pass the mask ordinance.
Smirnoff says the worst of it came the following morning, when a friend whom he had helped set up in the entertainment industry texted to say that they were, in fact, no longer friends. As far as Smirnoff is concerned, that is the precise danger of mask ordinances.
Branson doesn’t need that, in Smirnoff’s estimation. “People come here to relax,” he says. They come for the Runaway Mountain roller coaster, the Dolly Parton show and, of course, Smirnoff’s jokes about “Soviet Russia.”
“I was just there to defend my little town,” he says.
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