On the new NBC comedy series Welcome to Sweden, New York resident Bruce Evans (Greg Poehler, who also serves as executive producer, head writer and showrunner) and Swedish import Emma Wiik (Josephine Bornebusch) seem to be the perfect couple. But when she makes the life-changing decision to move back to her native Stockholm to accept a prestigious job after being with Bruce for a year, she is surprised and thrilled that he agrees to move with her to begin a new life together. Only once there, he faces many unique challenges and culture clashes, not the least of which is winning over her eccentric and very Swedish family. The show also stars Lena Olin, Claes Månsson, Christopher Wagelin, Patrick Duffy and Illeana Douglas, with guest appearances by Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza, Will Ferrell and Gene Simmons.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, producer/writer/actor Greg Poehler talked about how exciting the success of the show was in Sweden, what it’s like to be so involved with pretty much every aspect of the show, getting the respect of the people that he was working with, why the subtitles work to their advantage, having a three-year plan for the show, putting together the Swedish cast, how his sister Amy Poehler got involved, just how close this is to his own life, the difference between doing stand-up in America and doing stand-up in Sweden, how they’re looking to take this format to other countries, and that he’s currently writing a cross-border feature film project. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
GREG POEHLER: The first night that it aired, I went on Twitter, right when the show ended, and there was so much positivity that it made me cry. We aired on Fridays there, and the ratings in Sweden on Fridays don’t come out until Monday, so without Twitter, we would have had no idea, if people were even watching it. It’s great to get such an immediate reaction, and such a positive reaction, too.
Were you consciously interested in telling this as an ongoing story?
POEHLER: I had no interest in writing a show that’s self-contained. I’d like to think that there’s at least some continuing storyline that’s worth the investment. I think you can watch the episodes stand-alone and appreciate them, but it’s really a 1 through 10 arc of a relationship.
What’s it like to be so involved with pretty much every aspect of this show?
POEHLER: The whole thing was just a whirlwind for me, but I didn’t know anything different. Now that it’s over, for Season 2, I want to do so much less. With Season 1, I was so appreciative of the opportunity and I knew that, if I screwed it up, I wouldn’t get another one. I felt like I had so much more at stake than everyone else. Everyone else on the show – the writers, directors, actors and producers – had a past and a future in the industry, regardless of how the show did. I was the only one who didn’t. If the show totally bombed, I would not get a second chance. So, I just cared more than everybody else, and I think people saw that. I think that justified, even though I had zero experience, why I was the showrunner and head writer.
Did that inexperience make this a hard show to sell?
POEHLER: No. People either had to trust me or not. I think it was a struggle, internally, to get the respect of some of the people that I was working with, who had been career-long players in the industry.
POEHLER: The subtitles almost work to our advantage. There’s not a lot of it until Episodes 9 and 10. I think it makes it even that much more unique and different. I don’t know if it’s going to work for the American public, but I think it will be an interesting experiment. Hats off to NBC for taking the chance on it because I don’t think it’s ever been done before, with subtitles to this extent. It’s interesting because Swedes subtitle everything, so they’re so used to it. When my wife watches a show with subtitles, she has a skill to be able to watch and read. Whereas I’m more of a read or watch. It’s definitely something that Americans are not used to, and there’s certainly that fear of it, on my part. There were some scenes we changed to English, just because I wanted to minimize the amount of Swedish. Although, in Episodes 9 and 10, when I’m back in the U.S., those shows become almost 50/50, and I actually think they worked really well. I think we were scared of subtitling a little bit too much. Those episodes felt a little more natural because the Swedes were speaking their own language. It will be interesting to see if people are okay with it. If so, it does open up the opportunity to bring over a lot more shows.
Did you immediately start thinking about the possibility of a second season?
POEHLER: Yeah, I had a loose three-year plan, from the beginning, in terms of the arc. And then, when we met with NBC, they wanted a longer plan ‘cause they want syndication. So, we had to quickly shift that to a seven-year plan. But for me, I think it’s a three-year story.
Have you stuck to the plan so far?
POEHLER: Yeah, we’re right on schedule. Season 1 was more about whether he would stay and whether the relationship would survive. Season 2 will be more of, with him staying, now what? He’ll have to integrate more. If you take my own life, the longer you stay in a country, you almost lose your former self and become this third-party person who is caught in between two worlds. That’s where I’m at now. I don’t really fit in here or there. I’m a little off, in both places. It’s an interesting exploration. You also start to see your own country in a little bit different light. The main story is still going to be about Bruce and Emma, and their relationship.
POEHLER: No, especially because Illeana Douglas is seven years older than I am. It’s funny, she wanted to go to Sweden ‘cause she had always wanted to go to Sweden. She did this web series for IKEA, called Easy to Assemble. We were talking with her about a smaller role that actually ended up getting cut. And then, as a last resort, I said, “I haven’t cast the mother yet, but is it offensive to you that I’m asking about that?” There’s something weird about being the person asking. I was like, “I know you’re only seven years old than me, but do you want to do it?” And she was totally cool with it. I actually wasn’t a big Dallas guy. I didn’t really watch Dallas, so I wasn’t as wowed by the idea of Patrick Duffy as Swedes were ‘cause he’s like the most famous guy in all of Sweden. We made a list of people that were most famous in Sweden, and it had Patrick Duffy, David Hasselhoff and Lorenzo Lamas.
How did you put together the Swedish cast for this?
POEHLER: We auditioned them, actually. The father, Claes Månsson, is a comedy legend in Sweden. He’s been around for a long time, doing a lot of great stuff. Josephine [Bornebusch], who plays Emma, is also one of the biggest actresses in comedy in Sweden. I actually didn’t want her, in the beginning, because she’s so well known from other roles, and one role in particular. So, I resisted her. But once I met her, it was so obvious that she was right for the role. The English aspect was tricky. We brought in some of Sweden’s best actors and actresses, but when you change the dynamic on them and ask them to act in English, they have to have a comfort level with the language, in order to deliver.
Had you been thinking about doing a show for awhile before doing this one?
POEHLER: I had thought about the idea since I moved there, so it was a six or seven year idea in my head. But, it seemed similar to becoming an astronaut. It didn’t seem like it could happen. And then, I finally decided to write the script and see what could happen from there. And everything happened. It’s a crazy story! When I wrote the script, I thought we would have an American actor play the part. And then, one of my friends was like, “You should do it.” And I was like, “All right. I thought so too, but now that you think so, I will.” There were two things that helped with that. I was in Sweden and it was such a personal story that there weren’t so many people that could try to write it, or take over as head writer, or be the showrunner. I was also the go-between the Americans and for my sister. It just made sense for me to be the point man. And I was working so much harder than everybody else, and caring so much more. Also, the fact that Amy [Poehler] is my sister gave me some sort of benefit of the doubt among people who were like, “Well, he can’t be that bad. Let’s hope that he at least has some of the talent that she does.” Nobody really even auditioned me. I was auditioning the other people. My first acting ever was auditioning women for the role of Emma. It was so unfair to those women. I had a lot of confidence in myself, despite never having done it before. It was something I was pretty sure I could do. I think you either can or you can’t, to a certain extent, as long as you’re playing something close to yourself. In my whole life, when I’ve watched TV and movies, I’ve almost always felt, “I could do that better,” and I thought everyone felt that way. But when I started talking to my friends about it, they were like, “No, I’ve never thought that once.” I was like, “Okay, maybe it’s just me.” So, I’m not surprised by the acting part, but I’m very proud of the other parts ‘cause those were a lot more difficult for me.
POEHLER: I wrote the script, and then we set it up for Swedish TV. I sent the script to her to look at, just to see if the font and the size was correct, ‘cause I wanted to make sure it looked like a script. And I would never have asked her to do it ‘cause that’s not something you do. Well, some people do, and they get a quick no. So, I wasn’t asking for her to be involved, at all. When she read the script and liked it and wanted to produce it, that’s something you say yes to. But there was also a small part of me that was like, “Now this is going to be viewed as her show that she got me a role in.” But whatever small negative insinuations come from that are far outweighed by the fact that she’s so good at what she does and she brings so much to the show. So, she got in pretty early, but after the Swedes had gotten the ball rolling. It became more of an international possibility when she got on board.
Was it weird to have her playing a version of herself while you weren’t playing a version of yourself?
POEHLER: That was good. It enabled me to make her look really bad. No. I like the fact that I wrote her as a horrible version of herself, who’s really mean. I think almost all of the American actors on the show don’t come off looking too good. Bruce is pretty close to me. He’s a little bit more naive and lame, and maybe a bit more American and unaware, but his heart is in the right place. I think we have a lot in common.
Did it take you as long to acclimate to living in Sweden, as it seems to for Bruce, or was it easier?
POEHLER: It was much easier for me. Anytime you’re an immigrant in a new country, it’s difficult, and it’s often a lonely existence, by nature. We didn’t want to shy away from that. We wanted to show it, warts and all. My wife’s family was very supportive and welcoming, and very unlike my TV girlfriend’s family, but there’s nothing really interesting about a show where a guy moves and everything is great, and he gets along great, right away.
Did you know the language any better than your character does?
POEHLER: Not at first. I knew nothing, actually. We lived together in New York before we moved, so there was no need for Swedish. My wife and I still have an English relationship. My Swedish is coming along, but just because of my kids, so that I can speak to their friends. It’s a shit show. I’m coaching my son’s basketball team, and it’s a disaster. It’s an uncontrolled atmosphere. I get no respect for those kids.
POEHLER: It’s very different. If the jokes are funny, that’s step one. But Swedish audiences are very laid-back and passive, and they’re not interactive, at all. With American audiences, people who are in the front row of a comedy club think that they’re a part of the show. They go there to interact. It’s a totally different experience. It’s fun, in both ways, but totally different. Even if you’re terrible, Swedes will politely clap. As a result, there are a lot of really terrible comics in Sweden because they don’t know how bad they are. Nobody is heckling them. And you don’t survive more than two gigs in the U.S., if you’re terrible. People let you know. My act is also almost completely different. In Sweden, I do a lot of Swedish-based humor that doesn’t really translate at all in the U.S.
Where was the worst stand-up experience you’ve had?
POEHLER: I’ve never had a bad American experience. I had one horrible Swedish experience. In Stockholm, Fred Armisen came to visit and I got too drunk with him, before I went up on stage. So, I told my first joke, and then I forgot my second joke, and all of my jokes flow from my second joke. I was just telling jokes that I was thinking of on the way over. It was a disaster. I started doing an Obama impression, and this was when he was doing Obama on SNL. It was my worst performance, by far. I came off stage and instead of him being honest, because everyone knew it was a totally terrible experience, he was like, “I thought that was great!,” trying to be supportive, which was worse than being told it was terrible. That was the benchmark for my worst.
Has the success of this show inspired you to want to try writing other shows, or even a movie?
POEHLER: Yeah, I’m writing a movie now. I feel like it’s opened up a creative door that I don’t want to close anytime soon. I know that, in this business, that door can close pretty quick, so I’m trying to do as much as possible, both in Sweden and here. I want to strike while the iron’s hot. I’m at a stage where I think there’s nothing I can’t do. Except I don’t think I can play mean or a bad guy. I have a very friendly face. I know that, for a fact, because people are always asking me for directions. They see me as the least-threatening guy on the street. It’s a character that I wrote, so I can’t complain about it, but Bruce is not very funny. It’s more of a straight-man character. So, I felt like I was resisting the urge, in a lot of scenes, to be funny. I’d actually like to do some more comedic roles, or maybe make him funny in Season 2.
Is the movie you’re writing something you’re looking to do in Sweden or in America?
POEHLER: Both. It’s a cross-border thing about a Swedish actress who moves to the U.S. I think there’s something interesting about that dynamic of someone who’s hugely famous in Sweden, and then has to do pilot season in the U.S. and is a total no one. That dynamic interests me. So, I’m writing something along those lines. There’s a lot of people coming to Amy and I now, with cross-border projects, which is really exciting. We own the format, too, so we’re also looking into some other countries. We want to spread the American love.
Welcome to Sweden airs on NBC on Thursdays.