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

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.

'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

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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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”