Several times in recent weeks, I’ve mentioned my pet peeve of comics telling true stories of funny things that happened to them without adding anything, especially punchlines. Snob that I am, I have no shortage of pet peeves, but since this one has been top of mind so much lately, I thought I’d get into it this week. Funny things happen randomly to everyone all the time and while relatively few would be willing to get on a stage and tell the story to drunk strangers, it doesn’t take much ability to just say what happened.

I think a reason it’s on my mind so often is that the opportunity to be completely and brutally honest on stage, to say things others wish they could but would never dare, is probably what I love most about standup. At the same time, when I hear a comic tell a true story and tell it well, I can’t help but remember that it’s likely not absolutely true. It could be a complete fabrication or, let’s say, truish.

Here are a few examples of true things that happened to me versus how I tell them on stage. Asking you to read as I break down the mechanics of my joke writing makes me feel peak pretension but hey, it’s my blog. No one’s making you read this stupid thing.

True story: I was once hired on a three-month contract to manage one project. It was a test for the company and a test of myself; if the project was successful and I was successful managing it, there was a chance it would lead to full-time employment. It was and I was and it did. Six months later, I passed my probation period, but while my business language was English-only, my boss told me to only speak Swedish in the office or she’d fire me, because she was a sociopath and I loved her for it.

One year into the job, having spoken English in the office for nine months and Swedish for only three, a co-worker I’d barely spoken to bumped into me and said, “Oj! I mean, whoops!” I’ve had a lot of absurd interactions with Swedes, but someone translating oj to whoops takes the cake. It wasn’t ironic, it was her honest, heartful reaction.

Here’s how I tell the story onstage: “I once worked in an office in Stockholm for four years and never spoke a word of English… for FOUR years. One day, during year FOUR, a woman I’d worked with, for FOUR years, bumped into me by accident and she said, and I quote, ‘Oj! I mean, whoops!’ How bad do you think I am at life, that I would not have understood ‘oj’?”

It’s a true story and it’s bullshit. If the setup was, “I once worked in an office for a year and spoke English for the first nine months and then only Swedish except I barely spoke to anyone and then a co-worker bumped into me…” the joke wouldn’t land. People would likely recognize it was a silly thing for her to say and smile in response, but I don’t do standup to get smiles.

True story: I live in Sweden, I’m married to a Swede, and yet I rarely speak Swedish at home. Mostly it’s laziness, but it’s also frustrating to struggle at times to find the right words and I really don’t feel like myself when I speak Swedish. It’s a luxury and a curse to live in a country where I don’t have to speak the language if I don’t want to. On the bright side, I’ve met expats who have lived here far longer than me with far less command of Swedish.

There’s an American comic named Yemi who had a Swedish girlfriend and visited Sweden several times before taking the plunge and moving here. One night, maybe a year later, my wife and I were at a club he was hosting and she went off to talk to him, came back and said, “I just spoke with him for five minutes and we only spoke Swedish the entire time! He’s so good! At home, he and his girlfriend only speak Swedish! What’s your problem?” She was joking, or maybe half-joking, but I probably just grumbled something about him not being as lazy as I am.

I ran into him and his girlfriend at another club a week later and told them what my wife had said to me, including her query as to what problem I have. “I guess you have a better girlfriend than me,” I joked to him, eliciting a giggle from his girlfriend. I knew then that I had material.

Here’s the first version I told onstage: “I’m married to a Swede. At home, she speaks Swedish, I speak English, I’ve gotten away with it for a long time. But maybe not anymore. There’s a comic named Yemi, he’s also from the US, he also moved here for love, he’s lived here for less than a year and already speaks Swedish better than I do and makes me look bad. My wife met him in a club a few weeks ago, came up to me and said, ‘I just spoke with him for five minutes and he spoke Swedish the entire time! He’s so goooood, he’s really practicing hard, at home with his girlfriend they only speak Swedish! What’s your problem?’”

“‘I don’t know… maybe he has a better girlfriend than I do.’ And she got so mad! I told her, ‘I’m not saying you’re a bad girlfriend, I just mean that his is better! It’s like, his girlfriend is a ten, and you… are a six or a seven! You’re still above average!’ And she was still mad! Women, huh?”

I knew going into it that, while it was a good story, I needed to spice it up a bit, especially to make it seem that I’d had a brilliant, immediate response rather than only after weeks of thought. But after telling it onstage, I realized that the intro was too convoluted. In future versions I just said it was a new guy in her office rather than naming a comic the crowd had never heard of (which is no slight on Yemi).

I do love that joke, especially “Women, huh?” at the end, but I haven’t performed it in quite some time. It was part of my set during the Team Amerika tour, when myself and my colleagues did standup for tens of Swedes throughout the country, and it quickly developed that my alleged friends were mimicking “He’s so goooood!” while I was on stage. Last week, a club owner said, “Women, huh?” to me. I suppose it’s good to be remembered.