When it comes to comedy, all eyes are on John Mulaney. Mulaney caught the public’s attention with his 2012 stand-up set “John Mulaney: New in Town,” and since then, each new talk show appearance and Netflix special has only cemented his status as an internet icon. Now, just more than a year after “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” was released on Netflix, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer is back with “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch,” a show that, to everyone’s benefit, seems entirely based on the premise that its creator is famous enough to do whatever he wants.
And apparently, what Mulaney wants is to create a children’s television program/sketch comedy show/musical extravaganza with an existential twist. In his opening monologue, delivered on a set ripped straight out of “Sesame Street,” Mulaney explains that he decided to make an old-school children’s show because the modern ones just aren’t the same. Enter the Sack Lunch Bunch, a fun group of kids ready to have a few laughs and learn some valuable lessons along the way.
Mulaney describes this odd production as a show “for kids, by adults” — but the first part of that tagline may be more of a joke than an actual statement of purpose. With wacky transitions and a Barney-esque mascot, the show is drenched in childhood nostalgia while the humor behind it seems to be tilted toward an older audience. Likewise, the show’s significant list of guest stars is filled with names — such as Richard Kind, David Byrne and André De Shields — that would delight an adult viewer but ring no bells for the average child.
As is to be expected of such an all-star lineup, each guest is delightful in their own way. De Shields, most recently of “Hadestown” fame, shows off his incredible voice as an eccentric algebra tutor while scene-stealer Jake Gyllenhaal spends nearly 10 whole minutes running around the set and screaming in what can only be described as pure musical mayhem.
Still, the most refreshing part of “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” is that its central focus always comes back to the kids: Mulaney’s name may be first in the title, but it’s the Sack Lunch Bunch that takes center stage. Young though they may be, the talent of these child actors and singers is amazing to watch. Standouts include the solo performances in “Plain Plate of Noodles,” the picky eater anthem of the year, and “I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once a Week),” an ode to white women crying in public places.
Interspersed between the sketches and original numbers are short interview clips of the Sack Lunch Bunch and their guest stars discussing, of all things, their biggest fears. Unsurprisingly, many of their fears have to do with death. It may seem odd to bring up existential questions in an alleged kids’ program, but if there’s one theme that runs consistently throughout the whole show, it’s that children are smart, children are perceptive and children have lots of things to say.
The Sack Lunch Bunch are not cute accessories to some big shot’s comedic vision, nor are they the butt of one long joke in which the punchline is, “Look! Aren’t kids weird?” Instead, they are the life and soul of the production. Any viewer can tell that Mulaney has genuine respect for the television programs he imitates and the young actors he’s working with, taking the time to really listen to each of their stories and explore their world.
This level of thought and care is what makes “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” so intriguing. It’s a sketch comedy show disguised as a children’s television program, and under that, an honest reflection on youth and mortality disguised as a sketch show. It may not be Mulaney’s funniest special, but it certainly has the most heart.
Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].