“Sesame Street.” “Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood.” “Barney.” These kids television programs defined today’s adults. While the live-action format for children has largely been abandoned in favor of animation, the idea of seeing a mentor figure surrounded by kids in a whimsical setting still stirs up fond memories for many. John Mulaney seeks to do just that in his latest comedy special, “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch.”
The concept for the special is complex. Mulaney admits in a recent episode of Conan O’Brien’s podcast that it took him a long time to be able to explain his vision to a director and producers. “Sack Lunch Bunch” attempts to do a lot in the span of 70 minutes. There are dynamic musical numbers, comedy sketches and interviews. All the while, Mulaney and friends are trying their best to make both the adults and the children in the room laugh. In this way, the value of “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” does not lie in its comedy, but instead in the artistic attempt. The special itself seems to have an identity crisis throughout where it can’t quite meet Mulaney’s typical repertoire, but it also isn’t kid-friendly enough for families to actually subscribe.
As an avid John Mulaney fan, I was ecstatic that he was returning to Netflix with another comedy special. Plus, the fact that Mulaney, who describes himself as a “tall child,” would be working with actual children was intriguing. With a release date of Christmas Eve, I found myself in some ways more excited for “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” than for the holiday. Combining a talented comedian known for his dry wit and relatable anxieties with 15 children seemed like a potential masterpiece on Mulaney’s part.
everyone's talking about the jake gyllenhaal sequence from the mulaney sack lunch bunch thing but the real gem of that special is the song about the crying white ltady in au bon pain. at one point the little boy just sings the words "joan didion." ive watched it five times now pic.twitter.com/urEswVqRO4
— dom nero (@dominicknero) January 3, 2020
Over the past few years, John Mulaney has distinguished himself amongst the widening crowd of popular comedians as someone who is both mundane and hilarious. Oftentimes describing himself as a person “outside of time,” he sticks out in his tailored suits as he recounts stories from his childhood and his everyday life. Mulaney has created several comedy specials since his stint as a writer on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” released in 2018, received critical acclaim and won the Emmy for outstanding writing for a variety special. Through these comedy specials, Mulaney’s popularity has skyrocketed, particularly amongst young people.
“John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” is a parody of the kinds of children’s TV programming that Mulaney himself grew up with in the ‘80s. With an ensemble cast of children ages 8 to 13 and a sketch-comedy format, the very structure of the show is quintessentially a “Sesame Street” doppelganger. There is even a fluorescent dinosaur named Googy who seems to be a direct spoof of PBS’s beloved Barney. By cherry-picking aspects from various television series including “Saturday Night Live,” Mulaney creates an extravaganza of allusions. The sheer amount of references incorporated is both startling and impressive.
This combination of fond nostalgia and Mulaney’s well-established comedy should be a guaranteed win for Netflix. However, the confused and jumbled goals of the special make it difficult to pin down as either true family programming or as something meant for Mulaney’s fanbase. Fans are expecting discussion of his French bulldog Petunia or quips about how he seems like the least likely person to ever do cocaine — not songs about Grandma’s boyfriend.
The fact that John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch ISN’T a series with more episodes for me to watch and enjoy is a travesty. I want more of this amazing thing. If you guys haven’t checked out #SackLunchBunch, you’re truly missing out. pic.twitter.com/Te2rcchDfF
— Thomas Sanders (@ThomasSanders) January 5, 2020
A particular point of confusion was when, about 25 minutes in, Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch sit around and discuss the pretend disappearance of a cast member due to his schizophrenia. There’s nothing funny about another person’s mental health even if it’s pretend, especially if the audience is meant to be composed of children. This is the main reason why “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” fell flat for me — the concept is funnier than the actual product. It seems like too tall a task to please both adult and child humors.
If we were to look at the “Sack Lunch Bunch” through an artistic lens, the rhythmic tunes and the parodied sketches do their job in hinting at a bygone era of children’s TV. You can see where Mulaney has used his wit to place an adult-shaped stamp on inoffensive topics related to children such as buttered noodles and playing restaurant. Getting into a restaurant in New York City is, in fact, not so easy. But this kind of satire is not Mulaney’s typical laugh-until-your-stomach-hurts kind of comedy. It is merely chuckle-inducing.
In the artistic sense, “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” is a success, but less so from the practical laughs’ perspective. Despite its fragmented structure, the common thread of “Sack Lunch Bunch” is fear. Interspersed in between the kooky sketches are interviews with the children and guest stars. They are all asked what their greatest fears are. This is where the special regains both its mission and its charm in uniting us all in our mutual anxieties. Some cast members are afraid of clowns, while some are scared of simply not being good enough. This is a more cohesive message than throwing all your jokes and gags at a wall and seeing what sticks. The entire special felt like a very sticky wall.
My favorite parts of John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch were the cutaways where the kids would talk about their fears. I found this very relatable as I often find myself afraid.
— keegs loves public media too (@KeeghanWithAnH) January 2, 2020
Overall, “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” is successful in tackling a mixture of “Saturday Night Live” and “Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood,” but it’s just not comedically effective. The adult humor goes over the kids’ heads while the more juvenile jokes are too plain for Mulaney’s typical crowd. Granted, just because Mulaney has a certain style and format to which fans are accustomed does not mean that his creative pursuits should be confined. As a fan, I was thrilled to see him do something different and unexpected. The attempt to toe the line between family and adult media is admirable, but it just isn’t all there. So while “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch” is fun to observe and contemplate, it is simply not the most funny.