Greg Poehler turns immigrant life into comedy

AP Television WriterJuly 9, 2014 

— Seated at a dinner table surrounded by his girlfriend's relatives on his first day in Sweden, Greg Poehler couldn't help thinking that his experience in culture shock might make a good television show or movie someday.

Flash-forward 14 years and that instinct proved true. The couple married, moved to Stockholm six years after that initial visit and have three children. Amy Poehler's younger brother, 39, is now the writer, producer and star of NBC's summer comedy "Welcome to Sweden," premiering Thursday (9 p.m. EDT).

The understated romantic comedy changes some details: Greg was a lawyer and his character, Bruce, manages money for stars like Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell; Bruce's in-laws are nuts and Greg's are normal. But many of the details, like the struggle with a language barrier, are straight from Poehler's life.

"When I was writing the show, I realized that my own life was a little bit too well-adjusted and happy for us to do a true story," he said. "No one wants to watch a show where a guy moves somewhere and everything goes great, the family is very supportive. It's good for your life. It's not good for a sitcom."

His goal was a show with equal appeal for both markets, one that would feel like an American show to Swedes and like a quirky Swedish show to Americans.

The first part worked. Poehler made the show primarily in Stockholm with Swedish actors for Swedish television, and the 10-episode season was considered a hit when it aired starting in March. NBC had expressed interest in the idea prior to the series being made, but didn't agree to schedule it until after the full season successfully aired in Sweden. No matter what happens this summer on NBC, success in Sweden ensures a second season will be made.

The premiere features Poehler's sister as a self-absorbed star who fires Bruce as he tells her he's quitting his job to move to Sweden.

Greg Poehler had considered following Amy into show business until, as a 19-year-old, he visited for a weekend as she performed with a comedy troupe in Chicago. He was blown away by how good everyone was and figured he could never reach that level. Considering Amy's colleagues that weekend included Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, perhaps he was a little hard on himself.

He took another path, marrying a fellow New York lawyer with Swedish roots. An unscratched itch led him to try performing at a Stockholm comedy club two years ago. It went well, leading him to write the show.

Poehler acknowledges the benefits of having a successful sibling; he figures even Swedish TV producers gave him the benefit of the doubt knowing the bloodlines (Amy is an executive producer, and called on friends like Ferrell for cameos).

At the same time, it adds pressure. "Welcome to Sweden" relies more on character development than steady wisecracks, and more often than not his character is a straight man to others.

"I cringe a little bit when I hear people say, 'he's not as funny as his sister' in this role," he said. "I gave her all the funny lines, as a good younger brother should."

Asked when he finally felt at home in Sweden, Poehler said he hasn't yet. Even with support, there are challenges to fully assimilating into another culture, as immigrants of all generations know. Poehler said he didn't want to shy away from this in the series.

He eventually expects to return to the United States, where his parents still live.

"The plan was always to move back once the kids went to college," said Poehler, who has sons aged 9 and 6, and a 1-year-old daughter. "Now we just had our third kid, so that keeps getting pushed back."

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David Bauder can be reached at dbauder@ap.org or on Twitter@bauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.

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