There's a Mark Maron podcast interview with Yakov Smirnoff available online. (download it before it goes behind the paywall.) It's quite entertaining, not in a "ha-ha" way, but more in a "Wow, I didn't know that" kind of way.
Smirnoff was a standup comic in Odessa, Ukraine, during the cold war when the Soviet Union had tight control of everything. That's a main component of communism, by the way. Add in a case of paranoia, and they came up with the Department of Jokes. That's according to Mr. Smirnoff. He said the same thing in this 1985 interview published in the Chicago Tribune. If was in the newspaper, it must be true, right?
Anyway, a comedian had to submit his jokes to the Department of Jokes which had up or down approval over them. Once a routine was approved, a comedian used it for a year before going through the process again. Joke writers learned quickly what kind of jokes would pass, and jokes about animals were considered fairly safe. The one joke that got him summoned was this one:
A tiny male ant married a female elephant. But the elephant died on their wedding night.
At the funeral the ant's friends consoled him, and he cried, "Married just one day, and I'll spend the rest of my life digging the grave!"
The committee thought the lifetime of digging a grave was a reference to communism. But he explained that there was no reference, it was just an ant and an elephant. And the joke passed.
Quite a time the residents of Ukraine must have had back then. Smirnoff said his family shared a one bathroom, one kitchen house with nine other families. There was one radio with speakers in each family's quarters. It received the government station, and listeners could turn it on or off, up or down. But all they got was the government propaganda. As an approved comedian, he got work on a cruise ship, and after seeing how well fed the foreigners were he became skeptical of the Soviet propaganda. Eventually, his family got out through Jimmy Carter's Wheat-for-People agreement.
Things are still a little bit rocky for Ukrainians, but at least they don't have a Department of Jokes.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., comedians don't have free rein,either. Political correctness has claimed a few careers. And one has to wonder whether Jay Leno got the ax because of jokes about Obama. But as long as comedians ridicule the right people -- Republicans, George W. Bush, conservatives -- they'll be all right. Conservative comedians can tell jokes about animals.
So where is Yakov Smirnoff now? He's doing shows in Branson, Missouri, where old jokes get a second life.
Editor's addendum: Did you hear the one about the voting bloc that fell in love with Barack Obama? On their honeymoon Obama buried them under Obamacare. They'll spend the rest of their lives digging out from under it! - Robo-ed. | What a country!! - Sleepless.