BRANSON, Mo. — A famed comedian is leading the charge to reawaken the famed Branson strip in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comedian Yakov Smirnoff will be one of the first entertainers to perform in front of a live audience this Friday at the Caravelle Theatre, the first of 100 planned shows. The vast majority of Branson’s other celebrities — comedians, singers, magicians and musical groups — won’t take the stage until June.

“Honestly, I have been trying to find if any other headliner comedian is opening in the country or world at this time, and I haven’t found one that is doing any kind of show,” Smirnoff said, “so I think it’s exciting to be the first … to do a headline comedy show and tailor it very much toward what everybody has been dealing with over the last two-and-a-half months.”

Smirnoff’s new 2020 show — “Laughter Rx FDA Approved” — reflects current national headlines. Comedy, he said, is paramount after a tragedy like the coronavirus, which has killed 290,000-plus people worldwide.

“We realized this (show) would be good to make people laugh in this crazy time,” said Smirnoff, who will don surgical scrubs and wear a mask during his opening monologue. “We wanted to make it fun to relieve (people’s) stress. I’m actually having a lot of fun creating this (show), because it makes it a lot more interesting than just doing the show; this gives me a total understanding and creativity boost that’s exciting to me.”

Smirnoff should know a thing or two about how comedy can ease stress. While Americans have been forced to weather a freedom-limiting quarantine for less than two months, Smirnoff grew up in Ukraine in the Soviet Union and had to live with daily restrictions.

“So people who they trusted could tell jokes — ‘Have you heard the new one about (Soviet Premier Leonid) Brezhnev or (Nikita) Khrushchev?’ — it was a huge release of tension.” If the jokes were told to the wrong person, he said, “you could have really gotten into big trouble.”

Here in America, Smirnoff has the freedom to mock the old Soviet system, and he plans to do just that when guests to his shows are screened before entering the theater. When guests are standing 6 feet apart and getting their temperatures taken, a “KGB officer-dressed person,” the comedian said, will be asking guests COVID-19-related questions while wearing an official Soviet uniform.

The comedic shenanigans “is going to be a release of stress and tension,” he said. “At this moment it’s all a learning curve for everyone, to see where and what do we need to adjust. We’re going to do our best, but I’m sure there are going to be things that we’ll learn in the process.”

Inside, the theater will only be at 25 percent capacity during each show, with guests seated 6 feet apart from one another.

“Believe me, it’s the first time in my 50-year career that I will see the audience seated away from each other,” said Smirnoff, who immigrated to the United States in 1977. “For laughter to happen, people need to be close to each other. So this will be an interesting experience to recognize that they’re not going to be close to each other.

“But I believe when you have a good sense of humor and you can be sensitive to what people are going through, because it is a tragedy worldwide, you can give people a chance to relax and not be so serious the whole time.”

The shows will take place at 2 p.m., with the exception of six 10 a.m. shows in November and December. For show and ticket information, call 417-336-3838 or go to www.yakov.com.

Other shows

Below is a rundown of some of the more popular Branson shows that will soon be opening, with opening dates taken from individual websites.

• Amazing Acrobats U.S. Touring Troupe: Monday, June 1.

• Branson's Famous Baldknobbers: Friday, June 5.

• Reza, Edge of Illusion: Friday, June 5.

• Clay Cooper's Country Express: Friday, June 5.

• Dolly Parton's Stampede: Friday, June 5.

• The Haygoods: Saturday, June 6.

• Noah, the Musical: Tuesday, June 16.

• Comedy Jamboree at Grand Country Music Hall: Wednesday, June 10.

• Presleys' Country Jubilee: Monday, June 15.

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