Bruce McCulloch Admires the ‘Ferocious’ Comedy of Julie Nolke

Photo: Julie Nolke/YouTube

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

Bruce McCulloch sees himself as the workhorse of The Kids in the Hall. In fact, he got the nickname Work Pig from the other Kids for being the most unrelenting comedic performer in a troupe full of them. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that he admires the work ethic of a YouTuber. The weekly release schedule, the DIY production — it all taps into McCulloch’s punk teens. But it’s not another punk boy pummeling his way through masculinity that’s caught his eyes; it’s girl-next-door-type Julie Nolke.

Nolke has been making YouTube videos since 2015 — albeit starting in the FoodTube space. Her work was getting good views and Canadian awards, and it exploded into global consciousness with her 2020 series, Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self. But McCulloch only came to watch Nolke’s online work after casting her in Canadian sketch show TallBoyz in 2019. “Someone on set said, ‘Oh, you hired her because of her YouTube stuff?’ And I said, ‘What YouTube stuff?’” he remembers. “So I looked at all her YouTube stuff, and it was so amazing to me.” McCulloch discussed Nolke’s “ferocious” attitude to comedy, the Kids in the Hall Amazon series, his one-man show Tales of Bravery and Stupidity, and how years of punk shows may have changed his tempo on a molecular level.

The first thing that struck me about Julie Nolke’s YouTube work is how well she can play against herself.
I know. That is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to her after seeing her stuff. How do you technically do that? It’s hard work. She makes everything herself. She writes it herself. She shoots it herself. She makes her own posters. I love that she’s a do-it-yourself person.

The technology may change, but the DIY spirit is forever.
It’s the amazing thing that punk music taught us. You don’t need to try to get a record deal — just bash it out. It has never gone away. I have other friends who have done YouTube stuff, and they make money. That’s their livelihood now, and they control their art.

In university, Julie took acting, and at the end of the year, they told her she wasn’t funny and that her lane was to play the girl next door or something like that. And she thought, Fuck you! She was trying forever — auditioning for years. She couldn’t even afford acting lessons. So she thought, If I’m going to do this, I have to figure out a way to make some money. She actually did a cooking channel first, then started writing these funny things and doing them.

Are there any of her videos that you particularly want to highlight?
Her pandemic series is really smart — reframing how we feel about our lives, as we’ve all been through a tragedy. I thought it was a real playful way that she was dealing with our collective grief. For me, my oeuvre, and my troupe, it’s that kind of humor that gets us through. That really hit me.

On a sheer comedy level, I loved how fearless she was with all the dirty toys that she got drunk and ordered. They were nastier and nastier as she went. She wasn’t afraid to look dirty. I don’t mean “dirty” (I’m sex-positive). Just that she’s ferocious.

The pandemic videos are interesting from a structural standpoint too. Somehow, her future self is always more jaded than in the last video. That she made the sketch repeatable is incredible.
One of the hardest things to get is a refillable thing that you can keep putting your ideas into.

How do you know when a sketch is repeatable?
That’s a tough one. I worked on Saturday Night Live, writing “The Liar” many times in a row. The troupe — we were very careful of repeating. If something works, the cynical part of ourselves or the competitive part of the other people goes, Well, the second one better be better than the first one. It can become like you’re competing with yourself.

You probably know that we just did another season.

[Laughs] Yes.
We had some characters that came up, and we wanted to do them. And we had some others that we just did not want to do. It’s about the point of view. Julie’s got a good point of view. That’s actually how she sees the world — as a sarcastic “we’ll get through,” not perfect person. That way, it’s always repeatable, always refillable for her. Scott Thompson has Buddy Cole, which is his point of view on culture, time, sex, and gender. All the things that are important to him — he can put that in. But on another level, we like to do Fran and Gordon, because we just like those people. Then some become kind of a jail. Once you make the point of Cabbage Head, you don’t want to do him nine times. It’s instinctive.

Do you think there is a uniquely Canadian sense of humor or type of comedy?
There is. Canadians are gentle people who are kind of sneering at Americans when they leave the room. But they never show it. We don’t like to be mean. We’re watchers; we’re not people who jump up and down going, “Look at me!” For that reason, there is a Canadian sense of humor that is closer to satire. Satire is a hard thing. Not everyone is included, because what you’re saying is more complicated. There’s a slightly satirical sense to much of the good Canadian comedy.

I’ve never thought about it that way before. But it does align with what Julie is doing. She’s muttering these sketches to herself in the back of the room.
For sure. She’s hilarious. The other day, she was looking at comments on YouTube and going, “Nah, they’re stupid.” Or “Oh yeah, maybe.” She’s thick-skinned.

Another thing I didn’t say I loved about her: She’s a workhorse. She makes one of these a week. I asked her, “Why don’t you take weeks off?” And she said, “It’s my creative meditation. It’s important. I have to flex that muscle; I have to do it every week.” That connected for me — and to the troupe. I think of us as like blues performers: It doesn’t matter how big we are (or small). We’re always going to try to play. It’s that work ethic; it’s fire for me. I love it.

What do you get from working that hard?
Well, it’s why I’m here. I want to communicate with the world. When I get a good idea, even when I’m not using it for something, it’s like a warm egg broke in my brain. I love the sheer act of creation. Not necessarily making a thing on set — that can be draining once you get there — but the idea phase. I have to keep following and pushing my ideas around.

I’m similar — in that when I have an idea I need to communicate, it almost itches until I get it out there.
It’s odd. Why does one get feverish about one thing and not something else? The dumb question people ask sometimes is “Where do you get your ideas?” I think them up; they’re from my brain. Who knows why we’re obsessed with things? There’s a piece in the show that I’ve been trying to write for 20 years that was a recipe card on my board called “I’m not crazy, I just lost my glasses.” People would go, “Oh what’s that one about?” And I’d say, “I don’t know yet.” Finally, this time around, I figured out what it was. I took forever to get it, but I got it.

Tell me more about the revival.
It’s OG. We all knew, instinctively, if we wanted to do something else, it was going to be the old show with Super 8 with Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet — the Kids’ house band. I wasn’t going to do the show if the Shadowy Men weren’t going to do it, because they’re the thing that makes us cool. They recorded new music for it.

We had done Death Comes to Town, which was a miniseries, about nine years ago. We’d toured around. But we hadn’t done any sketches, and we wanted to do that again.

How long do you think a sketch should be? Julie’s are pretty uniform in length, but The Kids in the Hall had episode-long pieces.
This is where I have a tension sometimes with the troupe. Because I’m mostly “shorter equals better” — even though I wrote “Love and Sausages.” My composer, Craig Northey (who does all my shows and does this series), says, “Your comedy moves at 140 beats per minute” — which is, I think, the speed of a Ramones song. I want sketches to move at the pace at which I move through the earth, which is fast. I eat fast. I run fast. I get things done. I don’t write very long. I decide fast. I want sketches to be fast too.

Do you think that you were drawn to punk because it has the same bpm as you? Or did punk form that tempo inside you?
I was formed by it. A Ramones song is a minute long. I do think that there is something about punk music. And that I was a competitive weight lifter when I was young. All that energy. All that testosterone, perhaps? All that anger? [Laughs.] Or sadness. Sadness turned into anger formed itself in a very jangly way. That was that pace.

Back to what Julie’s professors told her. It’s devastating to be told you have a girl-next-door face, because people don’t write funny things for the girl next door to say.
It’s a terrible thing to say. Kevin McDonald — his professors told him he should not be in school. I hate that it’s these old-school people who are in power. It could have wounded Julie, but she’s a fierce fighter, so she let it inspire her. How many people have been told that and half-listened, because it connects with their shame?

How thick-skinned would you say you are compared to Julie? You sound in awe of her resilience.
I’m pretty thick-skinned. I’ve written a lot of things that didn’t go — sold shows to networks, and they go, “We’re not doing that one.” And I go, “Oh, okay, I’ll go away now.” I have learned from my friends that one should fail a lot. I fail a lot. My son, for a while, called me Mr. One Season. Now that I’m 60, I sort of go, Wow, I sure did a lot of stuff that didn’t work. And I did a lot of stuff that worked. A lot of fun things.

As you were saying, it’s more about the process of following the idea.
Oh yeah. And it’s fun. I just want to have fun. I’m at that age where I’ve lost good friends, you know? They can’t do it anymore, so we have to. That was part of the fire to do the show.

Tell me more about the show in New York. How did it come together?
My favorite thing is doing shows for people. I did some shows just before the pandemic shutdown. All those great cities: Portland, Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, a few others. Then everything shut down, and I was like, “I wanna do it again.” I’ve always wanted to do a show in New York; it’s always one of the most fun places the troupe plays.

It’s about my worldview through music and comedy. I talk about how I’m the dark-purple slice of Kids in the Hall. I talk about some of the things we’ve spoken about — how humor gets you through. I’ve always been something of a closet humanist, and that is in this show.

What does it mean to you to be the “dark-purple slice”?
I think my alcoholic family formed me that way. We all compete over whose dad was drunker.

How did you come to that self-awareness?
It took until my 40s to stop and look at what I had accomplished. It opened up my humanity. Perhaps it was having children and a wonderful wife.

To be kind to work with is such an important thing — which we certainly weren’t when we were in our 20s. We didn’t think you had to be. Because the Replacements I don’t think were kind to work with. I’ve always had this secret love for the world, and this show is about letting my love for the world out of my body.

Is Julie kind to work with?
She’s great. Oh my God. She’s a person who’s never three days late. Always has an idea. But if you have an idea, she doesn’t mind it. She does it all herself. What I’ve learned is to have other great people around, so you can hand them things. They hand them back. They add to them. They cut them. That’s what I like, and that’s what I like about the troupe too. Other people can take things and help — and give them back to you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Bruce McCulloch on the ‘Ferocious’ Comedy of Julie Nolke