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Greg Poehler on Welcome to Sweden, Dirty Lobsters, and His Big Sister Amy

Photo: Charley Gallay/NBCUniversal

While his older sister has spent the better part of this century making a living in comedy through Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation, and movies, Greg Poehler toiled as an intellectual property lawyer. But in a series of events that inspired the semi-autobiographical comedy Welcome to Swedenalready a hit TV show in that country and premiering Stateside Thursday night on NBC — Amy’s little brother met a Swedish woman in New York, fell in love, and moved overseas with her in 2006. By 2012, Poehler had finally decided to pursue comedy full time, and in the half-hour show, he plays accountant-to-the-stars Bruce Evans, a man struggling to adapt to life in Scandinavia. Despite the premise, the real-life Greg seems happy and fully acclimated to Stockholm, where he still lives with his wife, Charlotta, and their three children. He sprung for an international call to tell Vulture about growing up Poehler, dirty lobsters, and a Welcome to Sweden joke you won’t see in the American edit.

What’s the most vivid memory you have of performing with your sister as kids? Was it a high school musical, something informal in your parents’ living room, or something else entirely?
She was always the one actually doing all the formal stuff. Literally, my only acting experience prior to this was, I played Dopey in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a first-grade play, and then I took, like, 32 years off.

Sure! I mean, how can you top that?
[Laughs.] I got rave reviews. From my parents, at least. With Amy, it was just the two of us as siblings, so, on long car trips, I can remember my parents in the front, and us in the back, playing various characters and telling jokes to each other. I’d say we had some of our best work in the back seat of those cars. But it’s good to finally get paid for it, because we were doing all that stuff for free back then.

Were you, like Amy, part of the Boston College improv comedy group My Mother’s Fleabag?
No, it’s actually a really funny story: I was going to try out for that, [after] Amy had [graduated], in my sophomore year. During the summer, I went to visit Amy in Chicago, when she moved out there to do Second City, and I went to a bunch of shows that she was in, and I was totally blown away by the quality of the improvisers there. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It really intimidated me, to the point where I didn’t even try out when I got back [to college]. And then I’d come to find out that the people I saw that weekend were like Tina Fey, who was in Amy’s group, then there was like Steve Carell and Dave Koechner and Stephen Colbert and Rachel Dratch. Like, all those people were on the main stage there. I didn’t realize I was watching comedy royalty. And at the time, I was like, These people are just waiters, so, what chance do I have, if they can’t make it? So, it was really horrible. I wish I’d seen lesser talent. [Laughs.] It would have helped my [comedy] career. For me, that was like the fork-in-the-road moment. I was 19, and I decided not to get into that, and went in a whole separate direction. I kind of always looked back on that as the one regret, really.

Obviously, it worked out for you. But that’s like deciding, I’m going to go play Little League, and then watching the Yankees, and thinking, Oh, no! I can’t do this!
[Laughs.] That’s good.

What was your major at BC?

That’s, like, the opposite of theater.
That’s the thing: I went into a totally different direction.

Did anything about your career in law prepare you for transitioning into comedy?
I was a litigator, so the ability to kind of think on your feet is certainly helpful when you’re filming. But for me, [it’s more] the writing aspect. When you’re a litigator, you write so much, so many briefs, over and over again, that you’re kind of really focused on one document and have draft after draft, and really pay attention to every single word. Every word has to be supported and documented, and it’s a really different type of writing. And I think that really helped me in writing the show, because I’m so used to really intensely focusing on the document. I think, if anything, when I was head writer for this show, I was kind of driving people crazy in terms of my micromanaging of everything. [Laughs.] I was like, “This is not supported! There’s dialogue here. There’s no citation on this.” So, yeah, I think that definitely helps. I’m so used to kind of focusing on something, making sure that by the time it’s done, it’s something that’s been pored over, again and again.

Is there a reason you were drawn to stand-up, as opposed to improv or sketch comedy?
It’s something that I’ve known I can do, or at least that I thought I could do. For me, it was just something that I’d always been really interested in. When we were kids, Amy was definitely more staying up late and watching SNL, and I was more like listening to Bill Cosby’s Himself, over and over again. So, I’ve always kind of had an affinity for stand-up. Amy and I have pretty similar comedic sensibilities, but we definitely differ in that regard. I think she’s the best improviser I’ve ever seen, actually, because I’ve seen a lot of her, and I don’t think — I don’t know, because I’ve never actually tried it — but I don’t think I have that skill, to that extent at least. I’d like to think that I’m maybe better when I’m just alone onstage. So, yeah, it’s always been something that I thought I could do. It was always on my bucket list, really. For 15 years, it [had] been something: One of these days, I’m going to get up there and do that. And because of that, I was always been thinking of at least ten minutes [of material] in my head, in case anyone ever handed me and a microphone, so, I was ready. That’s literally what happened here. I had, like, an hour of advance notice the first time I was up onstage.

Wow. Was it a dare? What happened there?
It was a friend of mine who said, “Hey, I know this guy at this club.” So, we went there, and he went to ask him if we could go up. I thought he was talking about, you know, the following weekend or something. And then he comes back and he was like, “Okay, you’re on in an hour.” And I was like, “Fuck.” [Laughs.] But I was ready.

What is the first Swedish word you ever learned, and what was the context in which you learned it?
I met my wife in New York, so, we lived together there for five years, so my Swedish was kind of a gradual learning process. My first Swedish word — I asked her what the funniest word in Swedish was. She said it was this word called snuskhummer. It literally translates into “dirty lobster,” and it means kind of like dirty old men who pinch girls’ asses — the claws of the lobster, like, handsy. It translates into English as “dirty old man.” Amazing word.

Your Welcome to Sweden guest stars include Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza, and Gene Simmons. Are your American guest stars huge in Sweden, or by comparison are they unknowns, making their appearances funny for a different reason?
Will Ferrell is definitely known, because he has a Swedish wife [Viveca Paulin]. So, that was kind of a big get here. Amy and Aubrey, not so much, so, they’re just kind of — they’re playing themselves on the show, but I think that, for most Swedes, they were just kind of, like, characters in the show. [Laughs.] Gene Simmons is also a big get. KISS is big here. Patrick Duffy is the biggest one of all. The reason why he was our first choice [to play] my father is he’s still pretty much the most famous actor in Sweden. In the ’80s, they only had, like, one channel here, and Dallas was on it, like, 80 percent of the time. He’s still as big as it gets. When he was walking around here, people were totally freaking out. … It was great for him, too. He lives on a ranch in Oregon, and I think he was kind of soaking up the adoration here as well. We were, a couple of times, in the city, and he kind of wanted to walk around and get recognized. [Laughs.] That was a throwback, a bit, for him.

The SNL and Parks and Recreation cameos are easy to figure out, but how and why did Gene Simmons get involved with Welcome to Sweden?
He was just on tour, with a Stockholm stop. We had some connections through eOne, the company that’s distributing this show, and Carrie Stein, who’s one of our executive producers, had a connection to him and just asked if we want to use him. Everybody else — Amy, Aubrey, Will, Malin Akerman, Patrick, and Illeana [Douglas] — were kind of pre-thought. We wrote them in; we had them in mind; we had specific roles for them. [For] Gene Simmons, people called us and said, “Do you want Gene Simmons in the show?” That was the one we had to kind of work backwards and write a scene just for Gene Simmons, which was so fun.

Every problem should be that problem.
Exactly. It was such a fun day at work. It was like, I gotta come up with a Gene Simmons scene where he’s playing a badass version of himself.

Well, Amy has Newt Gingrich showing up, and, on the fly, they write him into Parks and Recreation, and you get Gene Simmons. I think that’s a draw.
I think so, too.

At NBC’s Summer Press Day, a reporter noted that “doggy bags” don’t translate as a concept in Sweden. Have there been any jokes scripted for Welcome to Sweden that got cut owing to being lost in translation?
No. The only things that got cut were [edgy] language-related. There’s one [cut] that’s particularly sad for me. … In the first episode, there’s a moment where [my wife’s] father says to me — I say, “I’m not that good with boats.” And he says, “Oh, that’s okay; I’m a retarded sea captain.” Instead of “retired,” he says “retarded.” And that got cut just because “retarded” is now a buzz word for network TV. It was weird, because we fought that and we appealed it. He’s saying it to himself. No one’s calling him it. So, I thought we could get some kind of exception there. That’s the only joke that I really miss that’s not in the English version. We used that a couple of times during the year; he keeps referring to himself as a “retarded sea captain” over and over again. But, no, otherwise, it’s just the language we cleaned up, and some of the nudity as well.

You said Keanu Reeves would be playing your part if Welcome to Sweden were shot in the United States. How would The Matrix be a different movie if you starred in it instead?
I don’t know how different it would be. Does Keanu Reeves act very much in that movie? [Laughs.] I think it would be basically exactly the same. But I just watched Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, with my kids, for the first time in, like, 30 years, or whenever that movie came out, and that movie still holds up. I mean, it’s just as good now as it was then. It was good for my kids to have a little bit of a history lesson.

What’s the best advice Amy has given you in the weeks leading up to the stateside premiere of Welcome to Sweden?
I don’t know if she’s said this specifically to me in the last few weeks, but, just in general, her advice has just been just to enjoy the ride as much as you can. It’s a really — and I’m kind of learning this for the past month — it’s a really ugly business in many ways. It’s just a lot of negativity, and anytime you make something, there’s going to be people criticizing it or criticizing you. And it’s easy to focus on that and not look at the big picture. But it’s quite an accomplishment, I think, for a show that I wrote in my attic without any real expectations, for this to be on NBC; it’s just mind-blowing. Of course, you can get completely obsessed and infatuated with ratings and whether or not we’re going to stay on the air, and whether we’ll have a season two in the U.S., and all that stuff, but you kind of have to take a step back and just enjoy it now. If this is it, then you should try to enjoy it even more. If you only get one roller-coaster ride, you don’t want to be thinking about the second one when you’re on it.

You did David Hasselhoff’s Swedish talk show in March. On it, you said he was in the running to play your father on Welcome to Sweden, but the role went to Patrick Duffy, prompting Hasselhoff to say to his watch, “KITT, Run over Patrick Duffy.” Do you worry that you have Hassled the Hoff?
I do worry about that. He seemed very upset about the fact that he didn’t get that role. So, yeah, maybe we can try to fit him in and try to appease him and the situation. Maybe he could play an uncle or a cousin or a distant relative.

Do you ever see yourself moving back to the United States?
It’s funny. I have agents in Hollywood now, and every time I’ve been there, everybody’s like, “Soooo, when are you moving here?” It’s really strange to talk to people in Hollywood and tell them that I live here [in Sweden]. People just can’t wrap their brains around it. They’re like, “How long did you live there?” I’m like, “No, I live there now, man! I still live there.” “Okay, are you planning on moving here?” People just can’t get it. I feel like the longer I hold out — I feel like as soon I move to L.A., I just become one of a million. But I feel like, at least for the time being, this is kind of like my edge that’s going for me: I’m the weird dude who lives in Sweden, auditioning for roles. My family is here and is very happy here, so, at this point, I have no plans on moving. But never say never, I guess. I mean, I’ve realized through this whole process that life can change, literally overnight, so, at this time next week, I could be living in Malibu.

Greg Poehler on Welcome to Sweden