By all accounts, John Mulaney lived a charmed youth, but it was also one the comedian characterizes in terms of terror and anxiety. New In Town finds him pondering all the time he wasted fretting about quicksand; Kid Gorgeous got its second-most-storied bit from the Chicago cop who annually reminded Mulaney and his schoolmates of their inevitable kidnappings and/or murders. He gives the impression that he couldn’t wait to grow up and put it all behind him; in a 2014 Speakeasy interview with Paul F. Tompkins, he paints a picture of precociousness with this adolescent memory: A solo matinee of the 1995 dramedy Home For The Holidays, followed by reading the newspaper at a diner. “I felt like a fully formed adult at that age,” he says.
Then there’s this line from The Comeback Kid, Mulaney-on-the-childhood-condition in a nutshell: “I am very small, and I have no money, so you can imagine the kind of stress that I am under.” Mulaney’s latest project for Netflix cracks that nutshell wide open. As declared in an Esquire profile and an All That Jazz riff of a teaser trailer, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is a children’s variety special, a throwback to the look and feel of Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact and other handcrafted, anything-goes programming the star enjoyed when he was young. There’s singing, dancing, animation, costumed creatures, interactive segments, and a supporting cast who were either just learning to talk or not yet born when Mulaney was still feeding lines to Stefon. While plugging into a potent strain of existential humor, The Sack Lunch Bunch remains earnest in its execution and reverent toward its inspirations. It’s bound to be jarring for viewers whose primary exposure to this sort of TV is through years of parody and mockery.
But while the Sack Lunch is an unconventional package, its ingredients are pure Mulaney. The guest stars reflect his taste in art-rock, musical theater, and character actors: David Byrne, Annaleigh Ashford, André De Shields, and Richard Kind all pop in for a song, sketch, or talking-head confessional. The script—by Mulaney and his Saturday Night Live partner-in-crime Markia Sawyer—is peppered with showbiz ephemera and New York City minutiae. And every so often, the onscreen talent breaks character to share the worries that keep them up at night. It’s spectacular.
Like a 12-year-old thumbing through the paper in a corner booth, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch lives in the space between childhood and adulthood. It’s a realm where school-age moviegoers readily identify the voice of Mandy Patinkin—and are eager to say so in a focus-group setting. The most superficial read on The Sack Lunch Bunch: “Educational” comedy whose syllabus is all back issues of People and the New York Post. But if that were the only mode Mulaney and Sawyer (plus Documentary Now! director Rhys Thomas and “Co-op” composer Eli Bolin) were working in, the special wouldn’t be worth remarking on. There’s a captivating curiosity at the core of The Sack Lunch Bunch, a search for answers about inattentive adults, picky eating, and whether or not flowers exist at night. (The song about that last subject should come as a free download with every purchase of a Fisher-Price Well For Boys.) Giving voice and theatricality to these questions is key to The Sack Lunch Bunch’s comedy. The punchline, and the epiphany, is that some answers never come, no matter your age.
The ringleader of the titular bunch at least gets to pretend he has some of the answers. “Recently I watched children’s TV and I didn’t like it at all,” Mulaney says at the top of the special. “But I liked it when I was a kid, which means it was better back then.” Mulaney plays reluctant, knowing emcee, but his reactions to the Bunch’s antics give him away: He’s having a ball orchestrating this madcap, multimedia extravaganza.
The overriding sentiment is one of staggering honesty. In talking-head interviews scattered throughout the special, the cast and guest stars discuss their greatest fears directly to camera, making eye contact through the screen to Errol Morris-like effect. (Makes sense: Mulaney and Thomas previously teamed up to simultaneously lampoon and pay homage to The Thin Blue Line.) There’s no sugarcoating, and the joke is never that The Sack Lunch Bunch is trying to shield viewers from harsh reality—harsh reality, and the thoughts and emotions that spring from it, is the centerpiece around which the jokes are arranged. In some instances, the joke is that the adults are going overboard with these reality checks, as in the biographical number about Shields’ one-eyed algebra tutor or Mulaney’s revelation that there’s an “in memoriam” photo mocked up for every member of the cast. Such zeal makes for a solid laugh, but it’s also the source of The Sack Lunch Bunch’s few defects: The energy can be a bit much, and almost all of the musical numbers could stand to lose a verse.
The kids gets candid in their talking heads, but they’re also professionals: There are veterans of actual Sesame Workshop productions in the cast, and a number of Broadway ringers—so there’s a lot of polish in the singing and dancing. For a project that could very well be a one-off, there’s a thoughtful, ensemble approach to the casting: If a member of the Sack Lunch Bunch doesn’t get a showstopper like “I Saw A White Lady Standing On The Street Just Sobbing, And I Think About It Once A Week,” they assert their personalities in an interview segment or as the eccentric sketch-comedy foil to the adults. Jacob Laval (greatest fear: death by drowning) gets one of the special’s biggest laughs when he cuts Byrne short during a papier mâché demonstration; Tyler Bourke (greatest fear: dying in his sleep) helps mix things up with a suspenseful playlet where he and Mulaney toy with each other’s heads between chess moves and selections from the Vertigo score.
It’s easy to satirize children’s television: Point out its hypocrisies, make the puppets cum, imply that the host’s smile camouflages a damaged mind. It’s much harder to do what The Sack Lunch Bunch has done, taking the antsy subtext of the better kids’ TV satires—your Wonder Showzens, your Moral Orels—and marrying it to the sincerity and openness that make old clips of Big Bird and Fred Rogers re-circulate in the wake of a major tragedy. There are no prescriptive rejoinders to the confessionals; in fact, one of the Bunch’s best anecdotes stems from a disastrous therapeutic attempt to cure coulrophobia. The only platitudes on offer come from De Shields—who names no fears, because he doesn’t believe in fear—but he delivers them with such conviction that they don’t sound like platitudes.
In other words, The Sack Lunch Bunch speaks to every member of its audience like a fully formed adult. It knows that there are kids out there who will check out Witness For The Prosecution at Richard Kind’s recommendation, just as there’s a celebrated, Academy Award-winning former Talking Heads frontman with a deep-seated thing about volcanoes. It’s a tricky conceptual tightrope, and Mulaney and crew don’t just tiptoe across it—they’re doing soft-shoe and cartwheeling and frantically running in place. It’s fearless comedy about fear, and recognizably in the voice of the guy watching over the whole thing with a satisfied grin on his face.