A Conversation with Greg Poehler on "Welcome to Sweden"
Welcome To Sweden is a new television show starring Greg Poehler, about a successful American accountant named Bruce who gives up his former life to move to Sweden to join his girlfriend Emma, played by Josephine Bornebusch. Greg’s sister Amy Poehler along with Will Ferrell and Gene Simmons make appearances as Bruce’s celebrity clients and Swedish star Lena Olin plays Emma’s mother. It’s a “fish out of water” tale which shows the struggles people encounter when they move to an entirely new environment. With the challenges they face, will Bruce and Emma’s relationship survive the culture clash?
Minnesota native and ASI’s Kelly Bjorklund sat down with Greg in Stockholm to talk about life as an immigrant in Sweden, the making of his new show and the ties that bind us all despite cultural differences.
ASI: How did you decide to make the show?
GP: I started doing stand-up two years ago. I was a lawyer for 12 years before that so stand-up was kind of the first step in terms of the transformation. I had a friend who literally pushed me up on stage at a comedy club. He lied to the guy and told him I was some sort of famous American comedian that was on tour and he came back to me and said, ‘’OK, you’re on in 45 minutes!’’
ASI: And you had no material?
GP: Well, I kind of always have material, I think. I’ve always been waiting for someone to give me a microphone. So I had about 10 minutes and that went really well. I started doing stand up for a couple of months. I always had the idea for Welcome to Sweden really from the first day that I came to Sweden. I came directly off the plane to my wife’s family’s summer house and met all of her relatives. It was such a movie scene. So similar to my stand up, I always had this in my head, like the whole concept of the show and the first script, the whole first season. A year and a half ago, I sat in my attic and really cranked it out. It probably took me about two and half hours to write because it was kind of like writing from my journal. I was thinking that I would write it and sell it and have an American actor play the part. I had never acted before so I didn’t think that they would let me do it, basically.
ASI: What did you do after you wrote the script?
GP: I showed it to a comedian friend of mine who helped me develop the show and he was like, “Why don’t you do it? I thought you were doing it!” I thought, ‘’Alright’’ I had always wanted to do it and I definitely thought I could do it but again, I didn’t think anyone would let me do it. There was something about having at least one other person say ‘’I think you can do it.’’ That was kind of all I needed to try, at least.
I met with Felix Herngren and sold it to him; he’s producing it with me. Then I sent the script to my sister as well, mainly just to see if it was the right font, if it even looked like a script. I literally had to google ‘’How to write a script.’’I took the How I Met Your Mother script format which is online and cut and pasted it just so that structurally it looked how scripts are supposed to. I didn’t have any of the script software. Amy said she liked it and wanted to produce it so then it became like a whole different thing once she got involved, like a bigger animal.
ASI: Had your sister [comedian Amy Poehler] been to Sweden before?
GP: Yeah, she’s been here a few times. We got married here so she was here for that. She was the toastmaster at our wedding.
ASI: I bet she was good at that.
GP: That’s her biggest and most impressive role to date, I think, as toastmaster!
ASI: What do you think about Swedes’ ability to laugh at themselves?
GP: We’ll see! I don’t think Swedes are specific in this, I think every culture has difficulty laughing at themselves, especially if you portray them too stereotypically. That’s what we tried to avoid. There were a lot of times in the writing process when I would come up with some sort of stereotypical Sweden joke or they would have a stereotypical American fat joke and it was good to have the mix of Swedish and American writers because we all reacted so negatively to those stereotypical jokes and tried to eliminate all of them.
I think Sweden comes out looking really good in this. I think the Americans may have more of an issue. My character is not very stereotypically American but his family certainly is. We really tried not to make fun of anybody but to point out the cultural differences -- and that in and of itself is funny. You don’t really need to push the boundaries and go over the top with jokes; it’s a naturally funny setting with someone in a strange country and the cultural divides and differences. If anything, I think we really tried to pull back on any stereotypical humor or laughing at a certain culture but [tried instead] to make sure we were laughing with everyone.
ASI: What challenges did you face when moving to Sweden and how do you think the experience of being an immigrant is universal?
GP: I think often being an immigrant is a lonely experience and I don’t think that matters what country you’re in. Anytime you pack up and move somewhere by yourself essentially there’s going to be that transition period where you’re kind of like ‘’What did I do?”
I think that’s what our show is. The show is basically a love story; it’s definitely a romantic comedy about two people and their relationship and whether they can overcome all these different obstacles. People always talk about ‘’I would give up everything for this person’’ – you hear that all the time. But what happens when you really do? That’s what this show is about – Day One of that reality. Bruce gets here, hasn’t thought too much about what his Swedish life is going to be like, just kind of thinks it will be a fun thing and then it’s like what did I do?
ASI: I laughed at the clip when Lena Olin, your girlfriend’s mother on the show, is asking you about what you’ve done and what you plan to do because that was also my situation. I didn’t have a job when I moved here, I didn’t have one friend. I knew very, very basic Swedish and there I was just happy to show up at Arlanda Airport with my visa!
GP: Yes, exactly, I love that scene because it’s really the first time that he’s thought about it all. While she’s going through the checklist, he’s thinking ‘’I didn’t think about it this way…’’
I do think that part of the reason why we were able to sell our show to the US and other countries is because it has universal themes. Obviously the fish out of water theme is very relatable even if you’ve never lived somewhere else. Just by vacationing somewhere for a few days you can feel the cultural divide and out of place. Or just the whole concept of starting over and having to reinvent yourself – that’s a very universally relatable theme for anyone’s who is starting a new job or a new school or moving somewhere else.
On the relationship side, I think almost everyone has encountered or been involved in a relationship where the relationship itself is really great – you really love this person and if it was just the two of you in a vacuum it would be amazing – but for whatever reason there is something that makes it not quite right, whether it’s timing or somebody else is involved or age differential or distance in this case or a cultural divide. It’s something that a lot of people have had to deal with and overcome. And probably a lot of people have some regrets or second thoughts about the one that got away – in Sweden or wherever.
ASI: What are your favorite parts of Swedish culture?
GP: I have three kids and the Swedish life is so family-based and family-oriented; everything is geared around family. Not just the daycare and schools and all that stuff that is government run and paid for and functions really well but also there’s an emphasis on spending time with your family and long vacations. Even when I was working as a lawyer in New York, I worked every weekend in the six or seven years that I was working there and everyone else did as well. But here, even for lawyers, the weekends are sacred and family time – you can’t touch those. It’s ‘’See you on Monday!’’
From a family perspective that’s good but in other areas it can be frustrating, such as with food delivery. For example, you have to go out and get your own food which feels very primitive to me after living in New York for so long.
ASI: What has your experience as an immigrant taught you about yourself?
GP: I graduated from college and moved out to LA for a couple of years and that was actually the biggest move for me. I grew up in Boston, went to college in Boston, most of my friends were there and I just decided to drive across country with a friend with no job or anything. So it’s a skill I’ve had since then, this packing up and moving and reinventing myself.
This just feels like a natural progression. I moved to New York and was there for ten years and this is the Sweden chapter of my life. It’s becoming a long chapter because I have three kids here. The plan has always been for my wife and me to move back when my son was 18 but now we have two more kids so he’ll be 20-25.
ASI: You spend a lot of time in the US, right?
GP: We’re back often, about four times a year. I’m home enough where it doesn’t feel that I’m disconnected. I think this has been the ultimate test in terms of trying to thrive outside of your comfort zone.
ASI: What have you learned through this experience?
GP: Of course this whole experience -- what I’ve learned is that it’s never too late to do what you want to do. If you secretly want something, it doesn’t matter what stage in life you’re in, you should just do it even if it’s just a hobby.
When I started doing stand up, I didn’t expect it to go anywhere, I just really liked it and it made me feel self-fulfilled and proud of myself. I have the same feeling then as I do now in creating this huge international show that I should probably feel prouder about. It’s something that, if you had asked me two years ago, I would probably have downplayed my desire to do it because I thought it was too late and that I had missed that opportunity. I thought it was something that you had to do when you were younger. And you can’t just kind of in the middle of your life start doing these things…but turns out you can.
ASI: That’s got to feel pretty refreshing.
GP: Yes. There’s no time limitation on that type of stuff. So now I’ve got a bunch of stuff that I want to do.
ASI: What’s been the reaction to the show so far?
GP: So far, so great. There’s nothing better than that after working so hard on something that you think is great and you’ve shown to a few people. I’ve been obsessing about it for so long. Every single line of dialogue that’s in the show I’ve thought about for hours, probably two to three hours on each line. I created the show, I wrote it, I produced it, I was the show runner and the lead actor so if you don’t like the show that basically means you don’t like me. So any negative reviews will be really devastating but so far everything has been really positive.
We’ve tested it with a bunch of Swedes and Americans. A lot of the executives in both countries really like it. I think it’s a different type of show. I wanted to make a show that is different than anything I have ever seen which is a show that is sweet and real and also funny,but not trying to go for laughs all the time. And to create characters that you really care about and are emotionally invested in because you really need to be rooting for these characters and the only way to do that is to create a real environment so that it doesn’t seem so slapsticky.
I hope people like it. It has a totally different feel. I think if people stick with it, it is going to be very satisfying.It’s meant to be a full, one season arc of a story line about these two characters. Whether Bruce and Emma will make it and whether Bruce will stay in Sweden are the two main themes of the show.
ASI: I’ve found in my relationship that sometimes all you can do in a situation with cross cultural differences is just to laugh because sometimes it’s just so ridiculous. What do you hope that the show shows people about cross cultural relationships and how humor has a place in communicating?
GP: What I hope to do is to introduce Sweden to the US and create a show that showed off Stockholm and Sweden to the US and vice versa. I wanted to show Swedes who I am and that there are Americans who maybe don’t fit their image of what an American should be. If we’ve gotten a few complaints about the show from the Swedish test audience, five or six people have said that my character doesn’t seem very American, he seems kind of like us [Swedish]. I think that’s the goal of any cross cultural show – to show that we’re more similar than we think, country to country.
On the show I have a best friend from Iraq. He’s really an Iraqi citizen who lives in Sweden and he and I got along really well. It was a touching on-set friendship in the sense that I remember thinking that the two of us should be doing some commercials together about how people can get along. I think from a cultural standpoint, that’s the moral of the show. In the sense that there are jerks and there are good people and there are boring people everywhere in all countries. Doesn’t matter where you’re from that makes you one of these things. And if you don’t know what you are, you’re one of the boring people