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.

Al Pitcher: using English to make Swedes laugh

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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‘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