'I've built a career around making jokes to Swedes about themselves'

Ellie Day
Ellie Day - [email protected]
'I've built a career around making jokes to Swedes about themselves'
Al Pitcher has found himself a comedian specialising in observations around Swedish society. Photo: Al Pitcher

MY SWEDISH CAREER: Humour is famously subjective. One person’s ‘hot comedy’ might leave someone else cold. And never is that more apparent than when you’re performing comedy shows across languages and cultures. But for British/Kiwi comedian Al Pitcher, that’s exactly where he’s carved his career; making jokes to Swedes about their own social quirks.


Having come to Sweden from England in 2010, Pitcher found his new home a fertile territory for comedy.

"As someone that’s moved to Sweden as an adult you see stuff that someone who’s grown up here doesn’t see. People who’ve always lived here accept certain things as normal because they’re used to them, but a lot of my comedy is around things like, ‘What are all these loppis [flea markets] about?’ Things that I’ve noticed, which to a Swede seem completely natural."

Pitcher’s comedy career started almost 900 miles away in England, a country that he describes as ‘the World Cup of comedy’. "You get great acts from all over the world playing there and you can book two or three gigs a night, so you’re thrown in at the deep end."

"In England it’s generally assumed that you should push an international joke that would work anywhere in the world. But now I write jokes specifically for Swedes. It’s like I have a little lane in the highway and I stay within it."

Pitcher's particular style of observational comedy plays out well in Sweden – though he has found that his audiences can often be surprised to see themselves represented in his humour. "Swedes have a self-deprecating sense of ‘Why would you bother with little old us? Why don’t you do a joke about the Germans?’ attitude. That mentality is constant. It’s very lagom."

His time in Sweden has made Pitcher something of a Swedish cultural expert outside of the country, with his humour sometimes spilling into anthropological territory. "I did a run of shows at Edinburgh festival in 2017 and I ended up explaining what ‘fy fan’ meant and what surströmming was. It basically turned into me lecturing the audience on Sweden, rather than performing a comedy show."

"I just hope that now there’s a load of people walking around Scotland, banging their thumbs and saying, ‘fy fan!’"

READ ALSO: The ten weirdest taboos you must never break in Sweden

Pitcher is no stranger to observing from the outside. Having lived in England until the age of seven before moving to New Zealand, he spent a childhood being considered ‘other’. "When I came back to the UK people used to call me Crocodile Dundee."

"I’ve always been in a place where I haven’t felt that I totally belonged. I know a lot of people have that feeling, so I wanted to write something that focused on that."

And he did; it’s this sense of not having access to the appropriate cultural codes that became the basis of his new STV series, Al Pitcher på paus. Written with British comedian Ben Kersley, the pair came to the project with a similar aim: creating something that Swedes and newcomers alike could recognize.

Ben Kersley - the co-writer behind SVT's Al Pitcher på paus. Photo: Ben Kersley

"We got together and wrote this idea of my character being a new father in Sweden and not wanting to be involved with anything other than looking after his child. He ends up getting himself into a lot of trouble, finding himself in different bizarre situations."

The eight-part series, made up of 15-minute episodes, features scenarios drawing attention to the peculiarities of Swedish life. "In one episode my character has to go and get a new passport, but the officials at the passport office won’t accept his old one as proof of identification, because it’s out of date. Of course, that’s why he needs a new one, so he ends up in a Kafka-esque nonsensical position," says Pitcher.

The series has been well-received, watched by an even balance of Swedes wishing to see themselves from the outside and those who’ve come to Sweden later in life. While the jokes land well among a native audience, there have been times in Pitcher’s career when his humour has not translated so well, leaving him on stage facing every comedian’s nightmare: a sea of furrowed brows.

"I’ve had a couple of jokes that have totally bombed in Sweden." he recalls. "There was one where I talk about how I’m like a magpie and I see shiny things and get distracted. I did this whole bit about magpies to total silence."

"Afterwards audience members came up to me and asked, ‘What’s this ‘mag pie’? Do you eat this pie? And what’s a mag?’ They’d all been imagining a pie that really liked sparkly objects. That was hard to explain."

MY SWEDISH CAREER: Read more interviews with foreign talent in Sweden here

It’s not just on stage that Pitcher has found awkward misunderstandings crop up. He recounts a recent conversation with a taxi driver in which he was asked if he would be the only passenger. "I replied, 'Yeah, just me and all of my mates.’ Then we sat there waiting for at least two minutes, before I explained that I had been trying to be funny."

"It’s awkward to have to explain that you were joking. Particularly for a comedian. It really takes the joy out of the situation."

And when speaking in Swedish, the Kiwi has found misunderstandings arise, too. "I see people at parties talking and I try to join in their conversations. I’ll say something like, ‘Yeah it’s really terrible, the war that’s going on there,’ and they reply, ‘We were talking about dog shampoo.’ You can get yourself into some real confusion."

Pitcher in a scene from Al Pitcher på paus. Photo: Al Pitcher

Pitcher does have a few stock Swedish phrases up his sleeve, ones he uses to pepper his day-to-day conversations. "Fy fan helps in most situations. And, of course, ‘Jaha’ is perfect for any eventuality – getting a bad Christmas present, or solving a murder. It’s always appropriate."

And now that Al Pitcher på paus is live as a web series on SVT Play – as well as showing on SVT 1 (after Das Boot, which, he comments, "is one of my life aspirations ticked off"), he’s busy working on new projects.

Currently he’s writing a new tour for 2020; a long process. "Stand-up is unique – it’s not like you’re a musician and you play your favourite songs whenever you tour. With stand-up you have to dream up brand-new ideas. It’s almost like having loads of party tricks, going to an event and people saying: ‘no you can’t use any of those, mate. Already seen them.’"

Despite these challenges, he’s also found the time to write and record a stand-up comedy special coming out on SVT later in 2019, entitled ‘Sverige Syndrome’.

It’s a golden moment in Al Pitcher’s career, but he has a clear vision of who he’d be if comedy hadn’t worked out. "If I weren’t a comedian I’d be in a pub shouting my stories at people. At anyone who’d listen. I’d be the resident pub lurker."

He stops to consider that thought for a moment. "I’d quite like that. Maybe that’s one for the future."

To watch Al Pitcher på paus on SVT Play, visit here.


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