‘John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch’ is the Silliest, Most Wholesome Hour on TV
John Mulaney’s new children’s variety special, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, has plenty of laughs at the expense of its host and the world around him, but the real profound stuff happens when the kids in the show talk about fear and death.
The only non-scripted bits of the special are the segments where the kids and celebrity guests speak directly to the camera about their biggest fears. They cover everything from clowns to asteroids to spiders to death by doppelganger. That might be a strange entry point into a wry, weird musical variety show with songs like “Do Flowers Exist at Night?” but it’s a surprisingly empathetic and wholesome direction to take.
In between all the gags and bizarre musings about the world, Mulaney presents us with lessons that would be at home in Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: You’re not alone in your worries, everyone’s dealing with their own problems, and the earlier you realize that, the better.
“I remember being afraid and having to just deal with it,” Mulaney told Variety. “And I wondered if that’s what [these kids] are going through, too.”
And in addition to that wisdom, viewers also get to see Jake Gyllenhaal wearing a xylophone suit while singing a calypso tune about music.
John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is “a children’s musical comedy special from a man with neither children nor musical ability.” At first, one thinks the special will mock children’s TV. Mulaney addresses this straightaway. One of the kids asks him, “Is this ironic, or do you like doing a children’s show?” It’s a fair question, especially since the special’s name sounds like an extension of Mulaney’s bit about old bank robber names (“If anyone asks, you tell ‘em it was Golden Joe and the Suggins Gang!”).
A Michael Jackson joke leads into a song called “Grandma’s Got a Boyfriend.” This then morphs into a candid discussion of death, where Mulaney is more squeamish on the subject than the kids are. It becomes clear that, like Galaxy Quest or Jane The Virgin, Mulaney is both parodying a genre while also making a great contribution. It’s not quite the Mister Rogers episode on the death of RFK, but Mulaney knows that kids are able to handle more than adults think they can, and he doesn’t patronize them.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. The jokes are very funny and very specific (there’s a Martin Scorsese/Federico Fellini gag) but are never condescending toward kids. And the set design is beautiful; one sketch revolving around a chess game features some of the best shot compositions you’ll see in anything this year.
Mulaney grounds the whole affair in his “Well isn’t that strange?” tone from his standup. At the outset he says that he doesn’t have kids nor want any of his own. But he understands that all children are weird and are just looking for ways to be themselves.
The aforementioned meditations on fear and death supplement that simple truth, and a variety of celebrity cameos from an absolutely unhinged (yet profound) Gyllenhaal, Richard Kind (leading a talk show called Girl Talk), David Byrne (singing a song about how parents should pay more attention to their kids), Natasha Lyonne, Annaleigh Ashford (the subject of a fun little ditty called I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once a Week)) and, in my favorite moment, Andre de Shields singing a very Hadestown-esque riff on why algebra is important.
Mulaney and Eli Bolin, who worked with him on Co-Op, the Documentary Now! Sondheim parody, wrote all these songs along with and Mulaney’s writing partner Marika Sawyer. The attention to detail with the variety of genre songs just heightens the jokes;. the soundtrack is available to stream now.
But after all of that fun, the special ends just as it began, with an examination of fear. After every celebrity guest and member of the Sack Lunch Bunch has told their fears, Mulaney asks each kid about the fear of death or fear of losing loved ones and how they cope.
“I give myself comfort about it by just realizing that they’re with me now and that I always have to make the best of it, because my family will always be there for me whether they’re here or not, they’ll be with me in my heart, you know?”
And just like that, John Mulaney has made something that is incredibly silly, yet deeply profound. Laugh at the absurdities of the world, because you’re not alone. No matter what you fear.