Over the last decade, John Mulaney has steadily risen from anonymous Saturday Night Live writer to one of the defining comedic voices of his generation. Initially best known for his collaboration with SNL’s Bill Hader in writing the delightfully silly series of Stefan sketches, his creative reach has expanded to include a diverse array of projections, including three successful Netflix stand up specials, the pitch perfect documentary parody series for IFC Documentary Now!, the earnestly emotional and totally filthy Netflix coming of age animated series Big Mouth, and evening a successful stint on Broadway as the costar of the two man show Oh, Hello with frequent collaborator Nick Kroll. Across all these projects, the one thing you can count on is Mulaney’s keenly observed sense of raw humanity bubbling under a barrage of impossibly funny jokes.
This streak continues with Mulaney’s new Netflix comedy special John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch. Ostensibly a spoof of kids shows from the ’70s, such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company, this new special finds Mulaney as the adult star of a kids program that features his irreverent wit and incisive understanding of the human condition. You might expect this, like Big Mouth, to be a special made about kids for adults and you certainly wouldn’t be incorrect. There are some jokes, such as a Fran Lebowitz subway sighting or Richard Kind cameo, that would certainly fly over kids’ heads, and I’m not sure how invested kids today are in the specials many special guest stars such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Natasha Lyonne, Annaleigh Ashford, and David Byrne. However, the titular Sack Lunch Bunch is mostly compromised of kids between 10 and 12, and children in that age demographic would be broadly well served by this material.
The special features short sketches and killer songs. Some of the humor is quite dark, such as a sketch about the untimely death of a Barney-esque mascot with an enlarged heart, but it never dives into the sexual humor of Big Mouth and the more esoteric humor of Oh, Hello is dialed way back, meaning older kids and kids at heart alike could get quite a bit from what the Sack Lunch Bunch is serving. Many of the songs tackle the confusing nature of adult life from a child’s perspective, such as a song where a boy tries to grapple with why a white woman would cry in a public place. Other songs tackle the neurotic anxieties of children, such as a lovely number about a boy who only wants to eat macaroni with a little bit of butter for every meal.
The special really establishes this tone early with its first song, about a young man (in a flashback to Mulaney’s own childhood) who just can’t understand his aunts’ animosity towards his grandmother’s boyfriend Paul. You see, Paul is, by all accounts, nothing more than a nice old man with whom the boy’s grandmother has chosen as her companion for her final days after her husband passed away. The boy quite enjoys Paul in a sweet and earnest manner, but his aunts all feel quite differently. This song perfectly captures both the way children can often engage with people unencumbered by personal baggage and the way the idiosyncrasies of adults can feel baffling when you are young. It’s also filled with humorous moments and the long spoken word capper at the end, where Mulaney details the many ways Paul nearly died while serving as companion to Mulaney’s grandmother before he ultimately died in a bizarre accident is a classic Mulaney touch.
Throughout the special, the cast and its many famous “guest stars” are interviewed in testimonials. Instead of being asked something typical of this type of kids show (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”) or something cynically ironic for the adults in the audience, Mulaney and Sack Lunch Bunch co-creator Marika Sawyer ask the kids and their adult costars about their fears. Some of these are quite funny, such as a story about a young girl’s journey attempting to tackle her fear of clowns, and some are genuinely moving, such as when guest André de Shields explains his philosophy that fear is a wasteful choice which he refuses to entertain.
Inevitably, they often seem to return again and again to the subject of death. This is striking to hear from children, but it’s equally striking to see how vulnerable the adults are willing to be as they discuss the subject as well. It is in these moments where the special finds it’s raison d’être, as all its disparate themes and gags come together to provide true insight into the ways in which our neuroses and fears are inherited from those we love and societal factors and how these fears isolate us despite being a core component of the human experience in which we all live. Mulaney and co. never get so sweet in driving this message home. They just present it matter of factly and allow the viewers to find that conclusion on their own in the contrast.
We are all just people, united by fear of loss or embarrassment or death, and we are doing the best we can to make our way through a confusing world we can’t help but laugh at. This is the ultimate message of the Sack Lunch Bunch, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.