John Mulaney has a knack for finding hilarity in the banal. He’s captivated audiences in recalling his childhood fear of quicksand and detailing a routine trip to the doctor. A September Esquire portrait of the comedian describes his humor as “finely observed silliness,” and nowhere is Mulaney’s signature style better displayed than in his newest Netflix special. John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch takes major risks, foraying into a new genre for Mulaney: children’s television. There’s a Broadway-style tune about one boy’s hankering for buttered noodles and another song about a girl’s battle for the attention of her mom’s friends. Mulaney keeps things clean and inoffensive while still managing to create a special that’s inventive, surprisingly poignant, and downright funny.
Mulaney and co-writer Marika Sawyer drew inspiration from classic children’s programming, including Sesame Street and The Electric Company. As Mulaney says, clad in a Mr. Rogers style sweater, he doesn’t enjoy children’s TV nowadays, so he “made it like then.” He introduces the special sitting among 15 actors under the age of 13, but not before one of the kids asks for a bathroom break. Only five minutes in, Mulaney sets a tone of wonderfully offbeat honesty and establishes a sincere rapport with the children of the Sack Lunch Bunch.
This is a testament to the fact that Mulaney never patronizes or condescends to his young target audience. It’s easy to imagine some of the jokes, like a child’s affection for a “plain plate of noodles,” as part of a stand-up routine. But there they would miss the mark, making fun of kids’ wacky inclinations. Instead, macaroni aficionado Orson is incredibly self-aware. “I hate to make a scene at a restaurant,” he sings, “but there’s only one meal that I ever want.” We’re not laughing at him but with him.
I tasked my 12-year-old brother — a cynical kid with a bitingly sarcastic sense of humor — with watching the special. Like most kids, he’s plagued with a short attention span, and he felt some segments, particularly those featuring celebrities he didn’t recognize, dragged on. I rightly predicted his favorite sketch: Jake Gyllenhaal’s deranged turn as Mr. Music, a mustached figure with an obscure accent on a delirious quest to make music from ordinary objects. His failed attempts include removing a spoon from a pudding cup and falling on a soft mattress (instead, he twists an ankle). His slapstick bit caters most to a young crowd, but perhaps the funniest part of it is when the camera cuts back to the clever kids of the Sack Lunch Bunch looking on with a humorous mix of apathy, impatience, and pity.
Another favorite scene of my brother (and me) features a blue dinosaur named Googy. Off-screen kids direct the costumed figure, “Run, Googy! Run!” until suddenly, with perfect comedic timing, the screen cuts to an “In Memoriam” for the man behind the mask. Then, Mulaney reveals to the Sack Lunch Bunch that he’s prepared a memorial page for each of the kids, prompting an awkward, morbid, yet hilarious discussion of death.
Clearly, The Sack Lunch Bunch doesn’t shy away from heavy themes. “I realize these kids have a lot on their minds that I want to explore,” says Mulaney early on. He dives into the light existential thoughts of children through songs including “Do Flowers Exist at Night?” but plunges deeper through interviews interwoven into the special. He prompts each cast member, kids and adults alike, to share their greatest fears. Clowns, snakes, and even fish tacos make the cut, but everyone discloses a fear of death. One child reveals her fear of drowning, another his fear of dying in his sleep.
It’s heavy stuff for kids, but Mulaney wields comedy as a weapon to combat the awkwardness and secrecy surrounding discussions of death. He handles the material with candidness and openness, reassuring all that they’re not alone in their fears. It’s the perfect lesson for children. John Mulaney has conquered sketch comedy, stand up, and now children’s television. I can’t wait to see what he does next.