Greg Poehler doesn’t play himself on Welcome to Sweden, but the series — which ran its first season to high ratings in Sweden and is now airing on NBC — is heavily based on his personal experiences. Poehler plays Bruce Evans, a celebrity accountant who relocates to Sweden after falling in love with Emma Wiik (Josephine Bornebusch). The series explores the cultural differences Bruce faces when he meets Emma’s parents, Viveka (Lena Olin) and Birger (Claes Månsson), and tries to adjust to Swedish culture.
Poehler, who moved to Sweden from New York in 2006, talked to BuzzFeed about his actual experiences as an American in a foreign country, and how they’ve informed his sitcom.
1. The language is REALLY hard to learn.
“It’s still hard,” Poehler admitted. “I speak Swedish at, like, a 7-year-old level. My 6-year-old son’s friends think I’m cool, and my 8-year-old son’s friends think I’m a moron, a total fucking moron. So 7 is the cutoff where I start to lose my audience.” Swedish is a very different sounding language, Poehler noted. It also doesn’t help that most Swedes speak English and would rather do that than try to converse in broken Swedish: “If I start speaking Swedish to someone and then they find out I’m American, they’re offended that we’re having this horribly difficult conversation when we could have just been speaking English.”
2. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone.
Sorry, no exceptions. “In the back of your head, you’re thinking, Well, how beautiful can they be? And it turns out, really fucking beautiful,” Poehler said. “It’s weird. It’s almost like a new planet of hot people.” According to Poehler, a Swedish 5 is an American 12.
3. And nudity is no big deal.
That’s why you’ll see it on Welcome to Sweden — er, the Swedish version, at least. “Nudity’s not a thing for them. I mean, it is a thing, but it’s a thing that’s constantly around,” Poehler said. His kids swim naked all summer and then have to deal with their own culture shock when they come to the U.S. and have to cover up. But Poehler believes the nudity is actually a good thing: “Even at a young age, you can just see how accepting they are of nudity and their bodies.”
4. Friendship is largely based around dinner parties.
As Poehler has learned, it can be difficult to make friends in Sweden, because most Swedes already have a strong group of friends that they’ve known for years. Good luck scoring a dinner party invite. “The party scene there is all about dinner parties,” Poehler explained. “So your friend selection is actually limited by how many seats you have around your dinner table. And unless somebody dies or gets divorced or moves away, you have no chance of getting invited to that table.” It’s an ongoing struggle: “I’m still trying to work my way through the dinner party scene.”
5. Light therapy is very necessary during the winter months.
Because it’s dark ALL THE TIME. “Everybody has these gigantic fluorescent lights that kind of hum. You just sit right next to it as it’s humming,” Poehler said. “I laughed at it for the first couple years, but now, if somebody turns my light off, I get pissed off.” Of course, things are tough in different ways during the summer, when it’s light out for most of the day — well past when most people are sleeping. “I have three kids so it’s really tough for them,” Poehler continued. “They never think it’s time for them to go to bed. You have to get these really dark, thick shades that shut out all the light.”
6. IKEA is a much bigger deal in the U.S.
Sad but true. Yes, IKEA exists in Sweden, but we rely on their affordable furniture way more than the Swedes do. “There’s a Swedish brand here [in the U.S.] that almost doesn’t exist there,” Poehler said.
7. And don’t bother looking for Swedish Fish.
The Swedes love candy, but Swedish Fish are just not Swedish. There is, however, plenty of actual seafood, if you’re into that sort of thing.
8. Also mostly nonexistent: celebrity culture.
“Swedes have a different view of celebrity, and I think it ties in with their socialistic mentality, which is like, nobody’s better than anybody else,” Poehler explained. He’s actually a much bigger name in Sweden: His series averaged 1.5 million viewers — which is a lot when you consider that Sweden is a country of about 9 million people. But while Poehler is recognized, he’s not mobbed when he goes out. “Mostly they just stare,” he said. “There’s a lot of staring happening. Which I assume is because of the show.”
9. They are not as universally delighted as we are by Amy Poehler.
Which is OK — more Amy for us. Parks and Recreation does air in Sweden, but on one of the smaller channels. For Greg Poehler, who is Amy’s brother, her lack of Swedish celebrity is actually “kind of nice.” As he explained it, “Unlike here, where every headline is, ‘Amy Poehler’s brother has a show,’ there it was just like, ‘Some random American has a show.’” Amy, who is an executive producer on Welcome to Sweden, guest-stars as an evil version of herself.
10. But Swedes do at least appreciate the most important musical group of all time: ABBA.
“ABBA couldn’t be bigger there,” Poehler said. He managed to snag ABBA member Björn Ulvaeus for a guest role on Welcome to Sweden in an episode filmed at ABBA: The Museum in Stockholm. Yeah, Poehler’s show has a cameo from Will Ferrell, but that is nothing compared to Björn.
11. Speaking of celebrities, there are more Skarsgårds that we haven’t even met yet.
Sweden’s most important cultural export aside from ABBA has to be handsome Skarsgård men. You’re probably familiar with Stellan Skarsgård, and his son Alexander Skarsgård, as seen on True Blood. But what about Gustaf, Bill, Valter…? “The Skarsgårds have come over here, but there’s still plenty left,” Poehler said. “[Stellan] had so many kids. So there’s, like, three or four that are still back in Sweden that we’re gonna corral.”
12. Swedes mostly watch the same TV programs, often as a family.
For those of us Americans who either binge-watch episodes on Netflix in bed, or spend Sunday catching up on our DVRs, this is pretty out-there. “In general, the Swedish viewing habits are much like it was in the U.S. 40, 50 years ago, where people are kind of all watching the same thing,” Poehler said. That helped Welcome to Sweden get such impressive ratings. “The top 10 shows tend to get that type of number.” And the “Friday night death slot” as it’s known in the U.S. is actually a good thing for Swedish shows: “Our show was on Friday nights, which here would be a terrible night, but there is like the biggest night.”
13. Swedes have a different perception of comedy. And, of course, unique cultural references.
Turns out Swedish comedy is mostly pretty dark. “I come to find out that my show, which is viewed in the U.S. as being very subtle and kind of underplayed, there is viewed as slapsticky sitcom,” Poehler said. “Their comedies, especially, tend to be really gritty, realistic, Louie-type shows, like some darkness to them as well.” To make Welcome to Sweden funny to both Swedish and American audiences, Poehler worked with three Swedish writers to ensure each joke was funny to everyone. Unfortunately, that meant cutting cultural references that just didn’t translate. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo works for both audiences — a joke about Rush Limbaugh, not so much.
14. In general, Swedes are fond of Americans.
“They have a really positive view of Americans and America, surprisingly. One of the last,” Poehler said. In fact, he was inspired to write Welcome to Sweden in part because of how interested Swedes were in American culture. “I realized that Swedes did have a fascination about the U.S. and would be interested in seeing Sweden through the eyes of an American, primarily because they don’t dub anything,” he continued. “All their TV, other than the two Swedish channels, is American TV. So they know a lot about it and are interested in it and, for the most part, look upon us favorably.”
15. And everybody loves Sweden.
I mean, how could you not? “I just happened to move to a place that works, that’s branded well,” Poehler joked. During his recent press tour to promote the show, a French journalist asked if he picked Sweden as a location for the series because it’s a universally beloved country. “And I was like, ‘No, I met a Swedish girl. It’s my life. I moved there. It wasn’t a conscious choice as to setting,’” Poehler recalled. As for its effect on people watching the show, he admitted, “I certainly think it helps. Welcome to Azerbaijan would probably not sell as well.”