English emerging as Sweden’s language of laughs

English-language comedy has established a firm foothold in Sweden, writes Ben Kersley, with even local comedians increasingly trying their hand at being funny in a tongue they speak with enviable fluency.

English emerging as Sweden's language of laughs
Al Pitcher

Comedy has exploded recently in Sweden with clubs springing up all over the place and no end of people willing to try out a three minute rookie spot. There is an old guard of Swedish comedians, but most new comics draw their influence from the stream of English speaking comedy so easily available on the Internet, cinema and TV and also from the abundance of live English language comedy.

This Friday and Saturday, Al Pitcher, the award winning Kiwi stand up comedian is performing his ‘Al Pitcher Picture Show’ in Stockholm. Not so odd considering Al has performed his show to audiences all over of the world. What’s different about this gig, is that Stockholm has recently become Al Pitcher’s home turf.

Living in Sweden hasn’t affected his global touring schedule with gigs planned in Scotland, Slovakia and Australia in the coming months. In fact, he has just completed a whistle stop tour of India. But Al is convinced that this is the place to be with the comedy scene in Sweden bubbling away and ready to reach boiling point.

“I think we have a great future of comedy to come here in Sweden, and I’m delighted that I’m here in Stockholm, living in it.”

Stockholm, and to a lesser extent, Sweden’s other major cities, are now firmly on the touring schedules of a number of world class acts.

The Göta Lejon plays host to RAW comedy, which almost always has a headliner from the UK, Ireland, Canada or the US. There are also major tours taking place: At the moment, American superstar Pablo Francisco is on a 16 date tour covering the entire length of Sweden. And Eddie Izzard will perform to full arenas this December in Sweden’s three biggest cities.

Of course, all of these acts perform in English, and as any Anglophone who has ever opened their mouth in Sweden will confirm, this does not faze the Swedish audiences one bit. In fact, if anyone is thrown off their stride by the Swedish ability to pick up English idiom, slang and nuance it’s the comedians. Al Pitcher, for one, thinks it’s incredible:

“I think they are unique, I have been blown away by them, Swedes use English words my whole family have never heard of”.

But then again, he is an Antipodean.

The comic traffic is not only one way. There are an increasing number of Swedes who are performing in English and indeed making their mark on the comedy world outside Sweden. At the forefront of these are Henrik Elmér and Magnus Betnér.

Henrik Elmér, a regular on the Swedish scene for the last 10 years has been performing in English for several years and has performed at the Edinburgh Festival with his show ‘The Sweirdish World of Henrik Elmér’ and is next performing in the UK in October at venues in Manchester and London. He is also on the lookout for a UK distributor to his film ‘The Meaning Of Hugo’ due to be released here in Sweden later this year.

Magnus Betnér, a household name in Sweden who has headlined on the club scene in London, recently spent three months in New York playing the rookie slot at some of the dingiest clubs in the Big Apple. Although he doesn’t have any further plans to break America, he is planning to spend one week a month on the UK circuit during 2010.

Also of note is Ahmed Berhan, a tall gangly Stockholmer of East African origin, who is redefining the British view of what a stereotypical Swede looks like. Ahmed is making a name for himself in mainstream British venues as well as at black venues in London and Birmingham. Even in English his act is like a whirlwind stream of consciousness pouring out of him and bombarding the audience with his skewed observations on his skewed life.

Al Pitcher who has seen a number of Swedes perform in English is duly impressed by both performers and audiences; he describes it as the Swedish ability to change language channels.

The enviable ability of Scandinavians to speak such impeccable English means that performers don’t have to change the rhythm, tone or style of their acts to be understood. And with no subtlety lost in the language, the shows can become tailored to the local audience and are never just a tired version of a worn out show.

The English speaking shows that come to Sweden are fresh and none more so than Al Pitcher’s who bases his show around digital pictures he takes of the city on the day of the performance. His freewheeling, improvised take on the mundane and everyday allows us to reconsider the things that we usually just ignore.

Al enjoys the fact that his public is made up of Swedes and non Swedes as the range of backgrounds add depth to his audience banter. And as Swedes take him to their hearts, they are beginning to realise how lucky we are to have a comedian of his calibre who is proud to call himself a Stockholmer, regardless of what language he performs in.

‘The Al Pitcher Picture Show’ is playing at The Playhouse Teater (Sibyllegatan 29) on 18th and 19th September at 20.00. Tickets are available from

Ben Kersley ( is a writer and performer. He blogs for The Local about being Sweden’s only Swinglish stand up comedian.

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‘It’s a dream to know Swedes will watch me in their pants’

You know those habits that Swedes think are totally normal but foreigners just don't get? One New Zealand stand-up comic has made a living out of them. And Swedes love Al Pitcher's style so much he's about to get his own TV show.

'It's a dream to know Swedes will watch me in their pants'
Al Pitcher. Photo: Lifeline
Al Pitcher's carved a niche for himself as the biggest English-language stand-up star in Sweden and his latest stage show, 'How Swede am I?' promises to pull together his best jokes about life in the frozen north. It's also set to be filmed by Swedish television for the first time. The Local caught up with the Kiwi ahead of his final rehearsals in Stockholm.
What's the focus of the show?
Well a) I am funny, which is important. Some comedians pretend like they are not but I like people laughing, as obvious as that sounds.
And b) I have got that outsider's approach. I have seen stuff that completely baffles me but is normal for Swedes and I kind of put a big cracked mirror up against the Swedes.
This is the 'best of” show. I have done three tours in Sweden in four years and now it looks like SVT (Sweden's public broadcaster) wants to show it, so that's why we're putting it all together and filming it. It will be kind of a dream to know that someone in Sweden will be sat at home watching me in my underpants.
The programme is called 'How Swede am I'? What Swedish habits have you picked up since you moved here?
When was living in London before Sweden I got really angry with people pushing me out of the way. Now I just put my head down and I walk away and I think that's a Swedish trait. Internally I still moan to myself and I think I'm still gonna be a really good moaning old man who stares out the window at people, but at the moment I am quite chilled.
Also: my coffee intake. I don't know what it is but I think it must have gone up like 87 percent or something! It just seems to be the only thing to do here you know?

Al Pitcher pulling his best grumpy old man face. Photo: Lifeline
What's the absolute strangest thing about living in Sweden?
The one that I mention in the show is the whole thing of blue bags on shoes. I find it incredible when you go to a kindergarten or a gym and you have to put blue bags over your shoes and no one really knows why! It can't be that hygenic to put them on – you know there's no dirt on my shoes!
But the thing is that if you leave with the blue bags still on your shoes, no one stops you, no one says anything, no confrontation. They just let you walk out with these Smurf things stuck to you. I have got like five or six minutes away and then I have looked down and been like 'ha!'
For me it's like having my fly undone. I think you could walk around Sweden with your fly undone and no one would say anything. Because people don't like confrontation, they just live in their own worlds.

Blue bags: Al Pitcher hates them. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT
So apart from being able to have your fly open, what is your favourite thing about Sweden?
The kids here have got such a good life and I am constantly telling my kids that I appreciate it here. My standard of life here is superb and I think that Swedes are very, very nice people. They have got a really warm way.
But it takes a while. It almost feels like they collect their friends up until about 25 years of age and that is it. It's very hard to break into that. It's like a Facebook group which is private and you can't get in. You almost need someone to recommend you, to go “hey, he's all right, you should talk to him you know!”.
How likely is it you'll return to New Zealand?
I won't now. I love Europe and for me it's kind of the capital, it feels the place to be. Growing up in New Zealand you feel so, so far away. It feels too far away for me now. So unless my mum and dad find a Hobbit underneath the house and we get to see a real live Hobbit, I won't be returning.
A lot of The Local's readers are also foreigners living abroad. How do you personally deal with knowing you're in Sweden for good?
I would love to have my sister and my mum and dad here and I think that part of it is quite sad. But my son is five now and he has seen New Zealand three times and soon we are going back for the fourth time. So we do go back a lot.

Al Pitcher goes home to see his family and to check they haven't discovered any Hobbits like these ones in Lord of the Rings. Photo: AP/Pierre Vinet/TT
What's your best tip for foreigners in Sweden?
Get used to people not letting others off the train before you get on! When a train turns up, you are probably used to letting people off. That is probably a common thing where you come from. Here, that will not happen! Do not get frustrated. Do not lose your shit. Let them just push on and push you out of the way. That is the Swedish way.
The English-language comedy scene is growing in Sweden. Who are the other names to watch that are following in your footsteps?
There's a British guy called James Mckie and there's a guy from New York called Yemi Afilobi.
I get a lot of people coming up to me saying how much they enjoy being able to laugh at their experiences. People that have moved here going “god that's so true!” and they've got their own stories, their own almost-comedy routines and they say “it's so good to watch some comedy like this”. Some of them even tell me I should be a bit harder on the Swedes, a bit meaner. But I try and do it in a nice way … Let's have fun in the room and just make a night of it!
Al Pitcher's new TV show is being filmed at Hotel Rival in Stockholm on April 15th and 16th. Click here for Tickets