The surreal, brilliant humour of the YouTube series Explaining The Pandemic To My Past Self has made the slow descent into madness over the past couple of years more bearable, thanks to creator Julie Nolke’s pitch-perfect comedic skills. She talks to Capsule about the struggle to find creativity during bad mental health days and why dark humour has the power to make us laugh but also stops us from feeling numb.
“Let me take you back in time,” grins Julie Nolke, Zooming in from her home in Toronto. She’s in the middle of describing how her unbelievably popular YouTube series, Explaining The Pandemic To My Past Self, first came to be. The series has amassed over 45 million views – the first one alone sitting at 21 million – and it involves Future Julie having a chat with Past Julie about the current events soon to arrive on Past Julie’s doorstep, giving vague (terrifying) hints at what’s to come.
What started off as a clever, one-time video has become “a really strange, perverted time capsule,” she says, of the now seven-part series that has spanned from March 2020 to July 2022 (so far).
What started off as a clever, one-time video has become “a really strange, perverted time capsule”
Back in January 2020, the real-life Julie had just got married and had broken her foot, which she was worried was going to affect her upcoming honeymoon. “Of course, March 2020 hit and everything changed overnight. Doesn’t it feel that way?” Julie says. “I can’t remember another time when the whole planet felt on the same page – this was affecting everyone; people were dying and there were so many unknowns.”
“I remember thinking, if only I could go back and tell the Julie that was planning her honeymoon and was worried about her broken foot, that like ‘Oh, Sweetie, not going to Japan is the least of your problems!’ I thought that premise was really interesting. I can’t say ‘funny’, but it was interesting.”
It also acted as a perfect entry point about how to discuss the chaotic time we were – and are still – living through. “I’m a comedian content creator and I always want to do topical stuff, but I wanted to be really careful on this subject matter, because people’s lives were being altered and people were also losing their lives. I wanted to be reverent and respectful – it seemed to be the way in – so that I could talk about the pandemic by saying, ‘Wow, look at how far we’ve come.’”
‘By telling something through comedy, it’s telling it in a new way where we’re not desensitised to it.’
By now, hopefully you have seen the series, but if you haven’t, here’s a list of some of the content covered in the story series (I would say ‘spoiler alert’, but it is, well, our reality).
The devastating Australian bush fires, sourdough starters, Tiger King, lockdowns, hoarding toilet paper, the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter global protests, Beirut exploding, Trump getting Covid, Trump protesting the election, Ruth Bader Ginsberg dying, Betty White dying, climate crisis fires turning the skies yellow AND red, the vaccine, the vaccine protests, The Queen’s Gambit, Jeff Bezos’ dick-shaped rocket, the Olympics, everyone having depression, the possible start of WWIII with the Ukraine invasion, Chris Rock getting punched by Will Smith, the fuel crisis and the overturn of Roe vs Wade. Look at this list of topics and you’ll understand a) why we all have emotional whiplash and b) why it was a tall ask to make comedy videos during the past two years.
But the pitch-perfect nature of Julie’s videos has not only made the slow descent into madness bearable, they have performed a crucial service: they have reminded us of our resilience and allowed us to keep caring. “By telling something through comedy, it’s telling it in a new way where we’re not desensitised to it. We have open hearts,” Julie says.
“When we talk about Roe vs Wade, or even the pandemic, I think it’s easy to shut down because it’s so overwhelming and we feel like we don’t have any more to give. Whereas if we do it in a comedic way, it goes down with a spoonful of sugar. And it stops us from feeling numb.”
When Julie filmed the first Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self video, she had absolutely no idea it would be a hit. In fact, she thought it was pretty so-so – by then, she was tired of the running joke she and her husband had about how they should have invested in Zoom. Julie forwarded the video onto a friend, wondering if she should even upload it.
Once she did post it on YouTube, she went for a workout because “I didn’t want to deal with people being like ‘Oh, Julie, your content is going down the drain…’” she laughs. It was only when she got a text from her sister-in-law, saying “Are you seeing what’s happening with your video?” that she realised she had hit a nerve. The video went viral and Julie now has 1.08m subscribers to her YouTube channel.
Julie said, despite the success, she had no intention of doing a second one until the murder of George Floyd united the world, again, in simultaneous Black Lives Matters protests. “I wasn’t really sure what to do – the whole ‘post a black square’ thing was so superficial. And I thought, ‘well, I’m going to use that device that worked really well before, hopefully people still like it, but this time we’re going to bring to light what’s happening in the States and around the world, and talk about that. And about how the pandemic isn’t relevant right now because people are dying for a different reason.’”
Because there was such momentum following the first video, it also meant Julie was able donate all the advertising money to different charities to help the cause of POC and indigenous peoples. It showed that the videos could not only be popular, but be helpful. In the two years that have passed since, both Julie’s Explaining the Pandemic To My Past Self series and her other videos have used that dark humour to bring attention to another important point: how badly so many people’s mental health has been affected by global events. Julie says the reason she was able to talk so openly about mental health struggles was because the pandemic had lessened the stigma but also, because she was going through them herself.
“I had a very rough time at one point,” she says. It was the strange combination of hitting the big time with her Pandemic series but also feeling the increased pressure to keep delivering content – and comedic content, at that – at a time when that creative inspiration was at an all-time low.
“I’ll give you an example,” she says. “There was one week where I had a full-on mental breakdown. I went to bed for a week and I remember telling my husband ‘I’ve got to make content’, and he was like, ‘I don’t think now is the time.’ But I ended up making a video just for the sake of getting out of bed. It wasn’t going to be particularly good, I didn’t care that much about it, but it was enough to get me out of bed.’ And I probably wouldn’t have made it, if I hadn’t been very, very depressed.”
The video ended up being I Hate Sweeping. “Now you have the inside scoop,” she laughs. “Little did anyone know that that was my first time out of bed in seven days, my eyes were so puffy from bawling the whole time, and right after, I went back to bed,” she pauses, then adds, deadpan: “So it’s less funny now.”
In terms of the pandemic reality now, Canada is well into ‘the new normal’; Julie has had Covid three times and while she and her husband still haven’t managed to go on their long-delayed honeymoon, they are hoping the trip to Japan will happen later on this year. “I was telling my friend, now is the time to spend money or travel, if you can. We have all been robbed of two years, so I hope we are better now at enjoying ourselves when we can. And learning to prioritise our friends and our family, because we are f—ked without them.”
Who knows about the future of Explaining The Pandemic To My Past Self? But Julie does say she hopes Monkey Pox doesn’t end us up taking us down the same route. “Is it bad that when I first heard about Monkey Pox, I was like, ‘I’m not doing this, I’m going to sit this one out,’” she laughs. “I just don’t think I have it in me to do another pandemic so soon.”