YAKOV Smirnoff scored something of a coup himself Aug. 18, the night the Communist Party hard-liners overthrew the Soviet government. The Soviet-born comedian was the first to break the news to some 1,500 people.
He learned about the Soviet coup on CNN, just minutes before he was to perform for an audience at the Las Vegas Hilton. Before beginning his act, he announced that Mikhail Gorbachev had been ousted from power.
The problem was, everyone thought he was joking. So he told some real jokes.
"If I were [Gorbachev], I would defect," he said. "He's very popular. He should probably give a talk show here with Jesse Jackson. It would be called 'Ceasefire' instead of 'Crossfire,' and they would hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya.'"
"I was telling jokes as much as I was trying to tell them this is not a joke," Smirnoff said from San Diego, where he was performing a benefit for the American Cancer Society.
Recent events in the Soviet Union have not only given the 40-year-old comedian oodles of material -- "I got more material in the last week than I had written in a while" -- but lots of exposure. Within days of the coup, he was being interviewed on CNN -- "Coup News Network," joked Smirnoff -- and fielding calls from network morning shows.
"It's like I set it up," he said. "People are calling from all over the place because they feel that I started the coup. Hey, I was on vacation like everyone else!"
Smirnoff's wife, Linda, is from Oregon, and the two were vacationing there with their 10-month-old daughter just before his show in Vegas.
Though the coup has been something of a shot in the arm for Smirnoff's career, he doesn't want to exploit his Soviet ties. Last week's events were emotionally draining. He has many relatives in Moscow and Odessa.
Watching television, "there was a major split in my mind," said Smirnoff, who on July 4 celebrated his fifth year as an American citizen. "As an American, I was happy for democracy. As a Russian, I felt very scared for the people . . . I knew how those guys don't kid around -- their predecessors killed millions of people. Tiananmen Square could have been a tea party compared to that."
Recently, Smirnoff has been scaling down his appearances to 20 weeks per year to work on a sitcom for next season.