PASADENA, Calif. — Everything was hunky-dory in Greg Poehler's life. He was a lawyer, married to a lawyer and the father of three kids. Then two years ago he tried something he'd always wanted to do. He tried standup comedy.
That was the end of the life he'd known for 12 years. If the name sounds familiar, it should. He's the brother of Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation). But instead of pursuing comedy like his older sister, he earned a law degree, fell in love with a Swedish lawyer, married her and moved to Sweden.
"I started doing standup comedy in Sweden and that was kind of the first step," he says.
"That went really, really well. It was something I'd always wanted to do. A few months later I sat in my attic and wrote the script for Welcome to Sweden, which is based on my life. It was something I'd been thinking about for a long time. I wrote it in one day on a snowy Saturday in Stockholm. I said I wanted it to be sold to the U.S. and to Sweden and have a bunch of cameos (in it) and I will play the lead role."
All that may sound like a pipe dream. But it all came true, and no one is more surprised than Poehler.
"It's amazing! It's a really bizarre kind of fairy tale," he says.
The comedy, Welcome to Sweden, hits American airwaves Thursday on NBC. It's already aired in Sweden and has been a tumultuous hit. Out of 9 million Swedes, 3 million have been watching the show.
Laughing, Poehler says, "I hope NBC is not expecting that; it's Super Bowl numbers."
It all began when he met his future wife at work.
"The first night we met she said, 'Would you ever consider moving to Sweden?' And I was like, 'Yeah.' I just wanted to have sex with her. I would've said anything at that point. And she held me to that. We lived together after that for five years in New York so it was always part of the plan to move to Sweden. I put it off as long as I could."
But when their first son was born, it was time for a reckoning.
"From New York City to Stockholm is such a huge difference in terms of family friendliness," he says. "That was the main reason behind the move. But it was always part of the plan. People say, 'I would give up everything to be with this person.' What happens when you do? That's really what this show is about."
The series begins the day he left his former life behind. When he transferred to Sweden he had no job, no friends, no business connections.
"I had my son. There was something about that move that I think a lot of people can identify with. There are certain times in your life when you have to re-invent yourself and who you were before doesn't really matter anymore."
But the adjustment wasn't easy. In fact, Welcome to Sweden is about the subtle cultural differences and the way people mishandle them.
"It's still hard for me," he says. "Swedes have an interesting kind of dynamics socially. They seem to have a group of friends from a very young age, and it's kind of hard to break in to that social circle. It's very unlike the U.S.
"In the U.S. a lot of my friends in New York I met one night and I was invited to their party the next day. In Sweden it takes about five years to get invited. And they have dinner parties so it's limited to how many seats they have around their table. So somebody has to die or get divorced basically for you to break into the friend circle," he jokes.
"I think we tried to show that on the show that regardless of the country, the adjustment of the immigrant is oftentimes a lonely one. I think it's impossible to hit the ground running and adapt and assimilate right from the start. It takes a while."
When he first wrote the script in that chilly attic, he actually Googled "how to write a script."
He sent it to his sister just to check that the formatting was correct. But she fell in love with it and offered to serve as executive producer on the show (and also pull in some of her comedy friends for cameos).
Poehler, 39, says he's learned a valuable lesson from the experience.
"The moral of my story is it's never too late. If there's something you've always wanted to do and think you'd secretly be good at … even becoming a doctor — people have a passion for and feel they've missed it. It's something you're supposed to do when you're younger. But I'm proof it's never too late."