When John Kennedy was killed, Vaughn Meader died. He was the comic who made a living impersonating the President, and who abruptly went out of business on Nov. 22, 1963.
A similar fate awaited editorial cartoonists who specialized in caricaturing Richard Nixon. When Tricky Dick vanished into obscurity, with his jowly face and shifty eyes, the cartoonists were buried with him.
Which leads to the question of the day: Whatever became of Yakov Smirnoff?
I refer not to some challenging new form of flavored vodka but to the Russian-born comic who stole away to America and made his living making fun of Communism.
Jokes like "Russians don't surf. In the Soviet Union, 'Hang 10' has a completely different meaning" left them rolling in the aisles at The Comedy Store and made Smirnoff a household name.
But when the Cold War ended and Communism fell down around the ankles of its devotees, Smirnoff found himself without a viable pawn for his jokes. Even the Soviet Union was gone.
Suddenly it wasn't funny anymore to pick on a system whose people were grubbing for cabbage roots in the snow. Yakov Smirnoff had become the Chernobyl of American comedy. It was a disaster of monumental proportions. His schtick was gone.
But the guy who had come to America with only $100 in his pocket and had risen to become (gasp) Ronald Reagan's favorite comic was no quitter.
So he shucked off the dismay of peace, shut himself up in the workroom of his Pacific Palisades home and after seven days and seven nights, emerged gaunt and bearded to announce he had discovered . . . in-law jokes!
Instead of going the way of pomade and chlorophyll bubble gum, Smirnoff is making a comeback of sorts by retooling his humor around a subject that never goes out of style in America--The Family.
I mention this today because I love comeback stories and because my back hurts and Cinelli says God will help me if I'm positive.
Smirnoff, 42, went into a kind of state of shock when people began asking, "What'll you do now?" Even his wife wondered, "Will we be OK?" It occurred to him that he wasn't perceived so much as an entertainer as he was a symbol of the Soviet Union.
"I am a comedian," he told anyone who'd listen. "Why should people have difficulty imagining me without the Cold War?"
But having difficulty they were. The man who had appeared in movies and who once had his own television special now found that booking agents wanted to cancel his appearances.
The truth is, the best humor is rooted in adversity and for a while Smirnoff had the perfect kind of adversity going for him: A totalitarian government that threatened the possible destruction of all life on the planet through nuclear conflagration.
It doesn't seem as funny now, I guess, but it did back then.
When that threat disappeared, so did the adversity Smirnoff had counted on to anchor his jokes.
Fortunately, however, he is a married man, and marriage creates a kind of adversity of its own. Especially when a Russian liberal marries into a family of American conservatives.
That's what Smirnoff did, although, of course, not simply to create new material for his stand-up comedy. It just happened to work out that way.
Now he's trying to develop jokes based on in-laws, parents, wife, kids and whatever else sells in the marketplace.
I watched one afternoon as he studied a videotape of a previous night's performance. He works on jokes in the day and tries them out at night.
In one, he quotes his big, burly, conservative father-in-law as saying, "Yak, enjoy your kids now because to them you're God. In a few years they'll think you're a geek." Yakov asks why, and the father-in-law says, "Because I'm going to tell them."
That's not nearly as funny as Yakov in the old U.S.S.R. asking his own dad to tell him the facts of life, and his father replying, "You're going to have to stand in line for food."
But, hey, the guy is still working things out, trying to make the transition from bewildered Russian coming to America to bewildered man coming into marriage. Peace has been tough on him.
"Everything changes," Smirnoff says. "I went back to Russia six months ago. The government official who used to censor my material is a comedy writer now. He sold me a joke for $25. That's free enterprise for you."
The joke is two Russians are talking. No. 1 says, "If you had two horses would you give me one?" No. 2 says sure. No. 1 says, "If you had two cars would you give me one?" Sure. "If you had two chickens would you give me one?" No. 2 says no. "Why not?" "Because I \o7 have \f7 two chickens."