Al Pitcher: using English to make Swedes laugh

Al Pitcher: using English to make Swedes laugh
Sweden’s best male stand-up comedian is a Kiwi from London, and the last two and a half years of Al Pitcher's exile in Sweden have been the best in his career, contributor Jacob Sundberg discovers.

A Swede, a Londoner and a New Zealander – it could be the start of a joke, but it’s just Al Pitcher, the cultural Kinderegg and most recent recipient of the Male Comedian of the Year award in Sweden.

“If I would be telling my career adviser that I’d like to go and do comedy in Sweden and maybe get an award for it…I mean it’s just mind blowing,” he says after a recent performance at the Norra Brunn Comedy Club in Stockholm.

Along with his Swedish wife Anita, Pitcher left London for Stockholm two and a half years ago, parting from a career of good reviews for a brand new audience.

“When I came here I made a point of not being a diva or being a dick. Not that I am, at all. But I just started right from the bottom, doing really rookie stuff like open mic nights”.

Performing entirely in English, Pitcher has that advantage of genuinely seeing things from a different perspective – a quality most native comedians have to work diligently at achieving.

“In a way I’ve got that license to do the joke about the blue bags that you put on your shoes (in hospitals). I’ve got that license, because I’m genuinely wondering. But a Swedish act can’t go up there and say ‘what are these things?’,” Pitcher explains.

In August, he was named Sweden’s male comedian of the year for 2011, marking an important milestone in his career.

“When I got here I used to fear people were thinking I was just going ‘oh look at that chair, that’s a weird chair’. But I feel like I’ve got respect from the industry here. Winning this prize has taken away that underdog part of me.” he says.

Born in England, Pitcher was bullied for his heavy Yorkshire accent while growing up in New Zealand.

By the time Pitcher moved back to England in his twenties, his accent had changed and he had his fair share of Crocodile Dundee-comments. But a hard life of language hasn’t deterred him from living in Sweden.

“We’ve had time around the house when everyone only speaks Swedish and it feels like I’m in this mental asylum. I’m not very good with languages anyway. I go to Spain and I’m like ‘bonjour’,” he quips.

On stage the language barrier might in fact be an asset.

It’s almost impossible to underestimate the Anglo-American influence on the Swedish comedy scene, and there have always been English speaking comedians touring Sweden.

What Pitcher has uniquely managed to do, however, is to recast himself as a Swedish comedian – without speaking Swedish at all.

Given that the Scandinavian music scene is almost entirely Anglophone, the idea of English as a stage language is not a strange concept. But Pitcher is the first “Swede” to take English into the comedy scene.

“I can be at a club in England, watching the person and I’m understanding what he’s saying and I’m like, ‘shit they’re doing that, they’re doing this, I can’t do that’. But here, they just get up and do it in Swedish and I don’t understand it,” he says.

“So that concern isn’t a worry. Here you just focus and that’s all you do. There’s a real warmth to these audiences, they’ve really taken to me. It’s been the best part of my career”.

He hasn’t given up on his British audience though, regularly going back for gigs. Later on this year he’ll be performing an hour a night throughout the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. First, however, he’s doing a major tour in Sweden – the “Fika tour”.

The Swedish obsession with “fika” (coffee break) is a recurring theme in Pitcher’s comedy – a phenomenon that possibly epitomizes his own sense of cultural otherness. Yet his approach to the peculiarities of the Swedes is affectionate, always celebrating rather than disparaging typically Swedish trends.

It might be this reciprocal appreciation that landed him the award – a kind comedian in the country of the inhibited.

Improvisational by nature, Pitcher says it’s important to give hecklers their fair share of attention, even letting them win occasionally.

“Heckle is the funniest thing ever. I was talking about this before the show tonight, that it’s important to have that moment, that one-off event, that feeling that this is only happening tonight,” he explains.

“Someone said to me that I’ve had a nice influence on comedy here, because a lot more people talk to the audience now. That’s a massive compliment”.

Pitcher’s career may have been a success story, but there have been times when he’s had some terrifying stage experiences.

He recalls his worst one, a corporate gig in Bedford. After being completely torn apart by the audience, he had to do the “walk of shame” through the crowd.

“I liken it to when they take a rapist or a murderer into court. People were coming out of the chairs going ‘you were shit mate’. I got back to my train and I was shaking,” he recalls.

“It was brutal. I can lose friendships over bad gigs. It’s like sex, you reach out your hand afterwards and say ‘was that any good, did you enjoy that?’ But I think you should learn from the bad ones”.

He’s gone a long way from Bedford and in light of the massive support he receives in Sweden, it’s hard to imagine hearing ‘debacle’ and ‘Al Pitcher’ in the same sentence.

“I’m more relaxed here. I think my wife has noticed that I’m happier here. Here I can do my own thing,” he says.

But for all the success in Sweden, Pitcher hasn’t fully left Britain either.

“The UK for me is kind of like, it bit me and I didn’t bite back. I’ve got a few things to settle there. I did well but I want to do better,” he says.

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