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Didja hear the one about the comedian who defected?

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``I met a lot of tourists from different countries who were much happier than Soviet tourists were,'' he explains. ``They were open and would talk to you without worrying. Soviet people were constantly conscious about somebody watching them. Then I met a couple from Australia that spoke some Russian, and they told me they were going around the world. I said to myself that one day I'd be free enough to go around the world. It was weird, because all these people could have fun and then leave, and I was feeling like I was in a cage.''

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Once in America, Smirnoff got a job as a busboy at Grossinger's, the renowned resort in that legendary heartland of comedy, the Catskills. He was armed with little more than an outlandish idea: to become a comedian in his new homeland.

``People would look at me like, `You're crazy. You don't know anything about this country. And you'll be going against big names.' And my roommate said, `Come on, there are so many comedians out there.' But then he stopped and said, `But there was never a Russian comedian.'

``I thought to myself, `No Russian comedian! Oh, good!' And that was the beginning.''

Watching the comics work at Grossinger's was ``like a crash course in America,'' Smirnoff says. ``Comedians are always hitting the topical notes that are on everybody's minds. At first I was watching them without understanding what they were doing, but the timing sounded very similar to what I used to do, and I started to understand a few words here and there. I put together some jokes, asking my friends lots of questions.''

The first time out on stage he knew little more English than the jokes he'd memorized, but it was enough to start with. Later came what Smirnoff calls ``a series of small clubs, and a lot of rejection, the kind every comedian goes through.''

But there were bright spots, like the New York club Catch A Rising Star. And when he moved to Los Angeles and performed at the Comedy Store, Smirnoff's media career began.

``More and more producers started discovering me,'' he says, ``and things started going my way.'' Roles in films like ``Moscow on the Hudson'' and ``Heartburn'' and guest spots on prime-time network comedies followed.

Does Smirnoff think there is really such a thing as a national style of comedy, something peculiar to one culture?

``I think comedy is very universal,'' he says, ``but in this country you have lost the storytelling that used to happen from door to door and from person to person. Today people don't tell many jokes to each other, because you can turn on the TV and see the freshest material about topical humor. In Russia, they still do it, because they don't see that much of it on television....''

But according to Smirnoff, at least one American still has the storytelling touch: President Reagan. Smirnoff says he discovered this when he found himself playing Can You Top This at a private party attended by the President last January.

``The moment he caught my eye, it was me and him back and forth with the jokes,'' Smirnoff recalls. ``There were some senators and ambassadors and stuff, and they were saying, `Mr. President, tell him this one, tell him that one.' I had to respond to every joke they would come up with. The President is a wonderful storyteller and loves to tell jokes the way people used to. I had to work real hard to keep up with him. That's the old style of entertainment.''

Later, Smirnoff says, he was invited to do his act for the President and a large gathering at another function. Not bad for a little Russian boy who used to play ``Hide and Stay Hidden'' on the streets of Odessa.