Wanna laugh? This weekend, comedian Al Pitcher will perform in Malmö. Lundagård had a chat with him about his legacies from New Zealand, the Swedish fika and how to make a good joke.
How are you today?
I’m good, it’s pissing it down here in Stockholm. I feel like Russell Crowe in Noah.
Was that a good film?
Not really. He peaked at Gladiator. I wouldn’t say that to his face though.
Where in New Zealand are you from?
A place called Rotorua. I was actually born in England and lived there until I was five and then moved to NZ. I don’t know what it’s like for kids these days but it felt so far away back then. If you wanted the new issue of NME Magazine you had to wait four months because it was delivered by ship. I think the internet’s probably changed that but before that it felt like it was stuck in 1974.
Do you regret leaving?
I’ve got no regrets. I spent ten years in London and it kind of chewed me up and spat me out. I think that things are meant to happen – that’s a t-shirt waiting to happen – and it’s been absolutely mind blowing what’s happened to me in Sweden. I think British audiences are the hardest in the world. It’s because they’re spoilt for choice. I’ve actually been heckled on the way to the mic.
How do Swedish audiences compare?
I’ve had some mad gigs in Sweden, I’ve got this ability to get the weirdness out of an audience. I’m able to get people to come back, it’s why I re-sell. I don’t pick on anyone in the audience. I think there’s a stigma attached to comedy; it’s male driven, it’s a guy having a go at things.
For me, the audience is the biggest part – they create the best laughs. That’s what I’m aiming for when I talk to them. But you have to be careful not to talk too much to the audience at the beginning. If you’re only 15% of the way through and you’ve started too well, talking to the audience, you can only go so far. You’ve got jokes but they don’t want to here them because they just want more audience interaction. It doesn’t really slow as it does in Britain. There’s also more pride about where they live. In Britain, if you ask “what’s it like living here”, 99% of the time they’ll say “it’s shit.” Swedish people like where they live.
How does this tour compare to previous ones?
This is the first time I’ve sat down and written a show. I guess I am worried about mixing the written elements with the audience interaction. You don’t want someone to come to your show three days later and hear the same story. The best comedy is when you can hide when it’s comedy. That’s a profound statement. My aim for all my shows is to make people laugh hard. A lot of comedy is people moaning about their problems but do you really want to hear about their problems?
Previously, your comedy has been about the things you find funny about Sweden. Is this tour focused on the same thing?
If you give it the Swedish test then I wouldn’t be able to do 90% of this material anywhere else. But as you get older you give less of a shit about what people think. There’s stuff in there about technology, about my kids. There’s stories about things that have happened to me. Some mad things have happened to me, I don’t even go out searching for them.
I guess I’m just one of those people. I think the audiences here relate well because I don’t try to come out as the hero. It’s different from the American “hero” style. I did a comedy festival in Canada and there were guys out there whose stories ended with “and then I had a threesome with two chicks” and the audience were lapping it up. I think the audience here relates to going on a first date, slipping and spilling wine all over your date. People have actually done that.
How did you go about writing this show?
I don’t write a list of things that I find funny. When I was in NZ at Christmas my parents had a game with small cards which had questions on them like “what was your happiest memory at school?” I stole the cards and started writing answers to them. I think it’s a really good way to work. I told a few other comedians and they told me to get lost. You don’t really get gold out of the answers but they give you a starting point.
Are you surprised by the reaction in Sweden?
I didn’t really have a plan when I moved here, it all fell into place. I moved here for a love that is still flaming, was still earning from Britain and just doing open mics here. It was strange, I kept flying back to Britain to do shows and then was coming back here and starting all over again. That was the best part. In Britain it became a job. When that happens you start wondering whether you still love it. The audience applauds a lot here, and I try to get this sort of rolling laughter. That’s why there aren’t many serious bits in my shows.
I thought about giving up in Britain when I was doing comedy clubs. To enjoy it you want to progress and unless you go huge and sell out Arena dates after two months – which nobody does – you level out a bit. It becomes frustrating and you think “is this it?” Although it’s still a cool job, you don’t have to wake up at 7am, put on gloves and start digging.
It’s about finding a niche. In Britain I wasn’t the only NZ comedian. Here I have a niche in being able to joke about Sweden, it makes you more open to observational stuff.
Was there a moment when you thought “this is it?”
I’m not a businessman – it’s not like someone’s saying make people laugh or we’ll take your children. I’ve won the best male comedian in Sweden and that’s voted for by peers, which was a real pat on the back. I started selling out smaller shows like Umeå, which was mad. I wasn’t like Björn Gustafsson who had a TV series and then went crazy. For a time he was like Justin Bieber, with fans flocking all around him. I maybe had an old bloke staring at me on the train to who I’d have to say “put your trousers on.”
Have you had any awkward moments?
You can’t have a career in comedy unless you’ve died on your ass.
Was the nonsense in your shows always in you?
At school I was always a show off – not the class clown though. I spent a lot of time outside the classroom. We had these big rectangular windows and I spent a lot of time looking through them at my classmates learning. I went to one of those Catholic schools which caned you and it’s weird but back then I didn’t think there was anything barbaric in a sweaty priest taking joy in caning you. That’s the name of the next show. I guess the nonsense came from those days.
What are your plans for the future?
Live comedy shows mostly. There’s an immediacy to it, you know instantly whether people find your jokes funny. You don’t get that with TV or radio. Though if TV came along and gave me a series I’d do it. TV helps sells tickets but I still like stand-up comedy. There’s also – I’m talking about this before I’ve started my new tour – a bit of pressure writing a new tour. I may make the next tour a sort of greatest hits because I don’t want the quality to be watered down. The audience tells you if you’re shit.
Is there any language barrier in Sweden?
Not really, there’s been a few times when I’ve said the wrong word. I said “magpie” once and they thought it was a pie with mags in it. Which is understandable. Once I talked about when I was younger me and my friends were nicking a cow – as in stealing a cow – and they thought I had cut it and were like, “why would you cut a cow?”
How have you found learning the language?
I’m terrible at learning the language, the UN should shut me down. I tried SFI, did a week and thought “I’ve got this.” Next week I went and had no clue. They said there’s no formula, everything has a different rule. After that I had to write the show so haven’t been back. I feel a bit guilty about it, my teacher “Torva” was really nice and her husband liked my shows. I said I’d see her on Monday and didn’t turn up and haven’t seen her since. It plays on my mind, sometimes I think I should pop in to say hi. But I don’t.
What are you tips for integrating?
Just say Fika. It solves everything. Fika would solve wars. It’s basically an excuse not to work. A lot of decisions are made during Fika. They can be in a long meeting going anywhere, have a Fika and then agree on what to do. That’s my naïve and non-factual idea of it anyway. Swedes are like walnuts: hard on the outside and soft on the inside. I’ve found alcohol helps. You just have to remain positive, learn that there’s just a Swedish way. They have involving personalities and sometimes it can feel like you’re trying to break into a group but they’re great people.
Are there any differences performing in front of students?
Loadsa fun things happen with students, there’s a wider scope for what you can talk about. I also enjoy coming down to Skåne, they are more left field. It’s probably because they don’t think they’re part of Sweden. The problem with doing a lot of student gigs is that there isn’t much interaction until you break them down because they’re embarrassed. There’s also a problem coming out of student gigs because you get used to talking about certain topics that you’d never talk about otherwise. You only realise when the audience goes quiet. They don’t really heckle here; in Britain people will go to a show wanting to heckle, here they will just go quiet.
Have you had any weird shows?
The strangest place was NORDE MARTING. I did a tour called the “Fika Tour” and they set the room out as a cafe. I thought “I’m going to be playing in cafes for the rest of the tour.” In Helsingland a woman stood up and said “I’ll be back.” This was about two minutes into my show. She ended up coming back with a massive sausage. She was worried she would miss the end of the show so she waved down a taxi holding the sausage. I don’t know why she needed it. If you go to a smaller town they are proud that you’re there and they do give you gifts. I’m proud to say I’m probably the first comedian to be given a sausage at a show. I’ll probably be the last. Unless I go back and they all have sausages under the table.
Who are your comedy heroes?
My kids make me laugh, my wife, my mum. I still love Billy Connolly – I grew up watching his videos. It’s the storytelling you love. There are so many brilliant comedians out there that aren’t on TV or famous but are just brilliant. I don’t watch much comedy but Louis CK is the comedians’ comedian at the moment.
Do you see yourself staying in Sweden for a long time?
I’m ready to die in Sweden. I can’t see anywhere else that would make me as happy. New Zealand is too far away. Being twelve hours ahead is just too much.
Nääämen it’s Al Pitcher
- October 24th 7:30 pm at Tangopalatset in Malmö
- October 25th 7:30 pm at Tangopalatset in Malmö
- Tickets here.