John Mulaney’s brand of comedy draws a lot of its appeal from a certain nostalgia. He’s talked about the surreality of watching America’s Most Wanted as a child, Jerry Orbach’s eyeballs, Bill Clinton in the 90s, and the patience that came with operating a phone with a dial. The man sounds like a transatlantic announcer who got a job narrating the War of the Worlds radio drama of 1938. He’s very old-timey. And because his last few specials were standup shows, you’d think he’d remain conservative in genre and form.
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That’s probably why John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, his latest special on Netflix, seems like it came out of left field. It’s a musical comedy and children’s special, and probably the most experimental thing Mulaney’s ever done. Co-written with Marika Sawyer (Saturday Night Live) and composed by Eli Bolin (Sesame Street), Sack Lunch Bunch combines the friendly neighborhood empathy of Mister Rogers and Mulaney’s darkly tinged sense of memory to show us what most children’s shows won’t admit: childhood can be pretty dark.
The special is made up of various sketches and segments that tackle fear, anxiety, and alienation as things that children really, truly experience. But it’s styled like a children’s show. That is also for adults. How do I explain?
There’s this one segment involving a dinosaur-looking mascot named Googy. An audio recording of children, the Sack Lunch Bunch, prompts Googy to do things. “Hi Googy! Run far! No Googy, run further! Hey Googy, run near! No Googy, run faster! Now run around and around!” And then Googy DIES. Footage of Googy abruptly cuts to an “in memoriam” card of an unmasked Googy, revealing actor Ronnie DiMaria, who apparently died of an enlarged heart. And all the kids are like, what the hell?
That’s kind of what you can expect from the special—a tonally offbeat jab at children’s media that throws tension at your face when you least expect it. There’s the stirring musical number “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul,” about a kid (Jake Ryan Flynn) who just can’t wrap his head around his mother and aunts despising a man his grandmother married after his grandpa passed away. There’s “I Saw A White Lady Standing On the Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once A Week),” in which a kid (Alexander Bello), permanently psychologically rocked by the sight of a stranger at her emotional limit, wonders what would’ve happened if he just went up to her. “Why are you crying in a public place? / Perhaps a friend of yours was fake to your face / Or did you just come from Trader Joe's / And you paid too much for your avocados?" And then there’s that one number where Jake Gyllenhaal who, in his desperate attempts to make music out of things that aren’t instruments, descends into madness.
Another stroke of genius in this special is the behind-the-scenes interviews with its young cast about their greatest fears. One of the kid actors, Zell Steele Morrow, who sings in the stirring existential number “Do Flowers Exist At Night,” describes his fear of clowns as something that manifested around October 2016, when a lot of clown sightings were happening. It’s kind of funny how, back in the 80s, American kids were dealing with the lowkey trauma of seeing pictures of missing children on milk cartons—now you’ve got Gen Z dealing with a fear of clowns that just can’t be assuaged by Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer or what-have-you.
Everything in this special tackles points of tension and dread that all children feel, and the unusual memories that children aren’t fully equipped to process. Like, yeah, if you were nine and you just saw a random lady on a New York street wailing and weeping for seemingly no reason, that’s going to mess you up. John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch recognizes childrens’ capacity for memory retention, and holds the uncomfortable realities therein to make us laugh. It’s not often that you encounter a special with a warm heart and a dark sense of humor suited for all ages.
Photographs from Netflix