Comedian John Mulaney has conquered stand-up comedy, staged a hit Broadway production, and sent up Sondheim in a special musical episode earlier this year of Documentary Now. Why not let him put all of his talents together into a throwback tribute to children’s TV shows that seemed tailored for adults as much as for kids?
JOHN MULANEY & THE SACK LUNCH BUNCH: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Here’s how Mulaney describes the concept offscreen: “I’m John Mulaney and I am a 37 year old man. The Sack Lunch Bunch is a group of children ages 8-13 who are more talented than me. In this special, we are joined by celebrity guests like David Byrne, Tony Award Winner Andre De Shields, Natasha Lyonne, Annaleigh Ashford, Richard Kind, and Jake Gyllenhaal from the movie Zodiac. The result is a collage of Broadway caliber showstoppers, comedy sketches for all ages, meditations on the unknown from children and adults, and a papier mache volcano. It’s funny, musical, joyous, anxious, and surprisingly profound.”
Mulaney co-wrote this special with Marika Sawyer, with whom he previously teamed up on sketches for Saturday Night Live. Eli Bolin worked with the duo on the songs, having previously worked on the “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” episode of Documentary Now. Rhys Thomas, who worked with Mulaney at both SNL and Documentary Now, as well as Mulaney’s The Comeback Kid special on Netflix, directs.
So it’s a team that’s all on the same page here. What page is that, again?
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: Anything kids watched in the late 1970s into the 1980s might have influenced Mulaney’s special. Take Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, but make the kids fashionably real and animated in personality only. Throw in some Electric Company for good measure. Add liberal musical scoops of Free to Be… You and Me and heat to a rapid boil, then bring it back to a simmer.
Memorable Jokes: “What you’re about to see is a children’s TV special, and I made it on purpose,” Mulaney explains. After the downfall of Bill Cosby, we need a new beloved comedian to reclaim the art form. “It’s a show for kids, by adults, with kids present. Recently I watched children’s TV and I didn’t like it at all. But I liked it when I was a kid, which means it was better back then. So I made it like then.”
Some gags are truly throwaways, such as a game asking viewers to spot the difference between two photos, or rearrange the mayors of New York City into chronological order.
But there are plenty of extended sketches, too.
An early one, a book report by Jonah on “Sascha’s Dad Does Drag,” subverts your expectations, both in terms of the book’s plotting, as well as Jonah’s reaction to it.
Mulaney later presides over a focus group for an animated movie he produced, Bamboo 2: Bamboozled, and I could watch these kids describe their new favorite movie for much longer, but what I really want is someone to give me the crossover sketch putting these kids in the same focus group with Ruben Rabasa from I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. I’ll keep checking the Internet until this mission has been accomplished, OK, thank you, good bye, God bless you.
We get montages of the Sack Lunch Bunch kids describing their biggest fears.
And, since I’ve been telling you how much of this is a musical, there are grand song-and-dance numbers and music videos. They range from the sweet (“Grandma’s Got A Boyfriend” and “Do Flowers Exist At Night?”) to the short and sweet (one kids sings about his love for macaroni and butter, while another imagines soothing a crying woman) to the star-studded (André De Shields fills us in on the dangers of not learning algebra; David Byrne lends a helping hand to a girl who can’t get the adults to pay attention to her; and Jake Gyllenhaal tries to find music in the sounds that surround us).
I don’t know quite what to say about Googy, except not to expect him to replace Baby Yoda in your hearts and minds.
Even more unfortunate, perhaps: A sadly-timed fun fact about the volatility of volcanoes.
Our Take: The opening shots set a decidedly dark tone. We first see a quote onscreen: “Do you know who tells the truth? Drunks and children.” It’s not a reference to high art or literature, but rather to one of the “Real Housewives.” Then we see a young, bespectacled child, Jacob, confessing to the camera his fears of drowning.
Don’t worry. The subversiveness is balanced with ample amounts of silliness. Before the camera zooms in on Mulaney with his bunch sitting in a gazebo at the makeshift “Sackett Street Garden,” one of the kids whispers to our host: “John, suck in your gut.” Before Mulaney can properly introduce himself and the show’s conceit to us, that same Jacob asks to be excused to the bathroom.
He’s in total control, and yet completely out of his element.
As if 37-year-old Mulaney is reverting back to his own tween years, and experiencing New York City anew with the knowledge he’d accumulated in the meantime.
Our Call: STREAM IT. I’m not the target audience here. But then again, Mulaney shouldn’t hit that target, either. Neither of us have kids or a demonstrated expertise in music. And yet, here he is delivering the goods to an audience of people like me. So I leave it back to the kids. They ask Mulaney if this is all just an exercise in irony, or whether it’s supposed to be great entertainment. Mulaney’s answer? He’s happy either way. His life lesson for the kids doubles as self-fulfilling prophecy: “You can go very far in life if you pretend to know what you’re doing!”
— Decider (@decider) December 24, 2019
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.