John Mulaney is on the set of his upcoming variety special John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch when he gets a tug on his sleeve. It’s one of the 15 child cast members he chose to perform skits and songs about the anxieties of childhood. Mulaney had been candid with the kids throughout the shoot: even though he’s loved his experience with them, the 37-year-old doesn’t want to have kids of his own — a fact he later confirms to EW on the phone. When his wife Annamarie arrived for her first visit on set (she has a small role as, quite literally, “somebody’s wife”), he got put on the spot immediately, giving him his own dose of anxiety: “Does your wife know you don’t want to have kids?” one of the girls asked him. The answer put simply was yes, but it takes a while for John to formulate why he’s fine with that answer in his conversation with EW (he even apologizes for being too long-winded). In our conversation with John, it became clear the children he would want in his life he already has: Jacob, Lexi, Tyler, Jake, Oriah, Isabella, Linder, Camille, Orson, Zell, Alex, Cordelia, Suri, Ava, and Jonah. Otherwise known as the Sack Lunch Bunch.
“One of my theories is that kids think that they’re older than they’ve ever been. They believe they’re adults,” Mulaney ruminates to EW. “I’d talk to them and they’d say ‘Why don’t you want kids?’ I’d say ‘They’re great, but I love what I do. And I love my wife and spending so much time with her and we have a really fortunate life. I get to travel, do stand-up, and our relationship is so wonderful. It’s just something I wouldn’t want to change.”
John penned his follow-up to Kid Gorgeous with co-writer Marika Sawyer, who around February or March played for Mulaney music from the Maurice Sendak children’s book Really Rosie featuring the Nutshell Kids. John realized that most children’s content was both made by adults and was strangely melancholy. During our conversation, he mentions the song “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly.” It’s entertainment for children that was a bit existentially anxious and bittersweet. Mulaney’s goal for Sack Lunch Bunch was to never talk down to the kids that were watching. The songs — written with Emmy-award winning composer Eli Bolin — and the sketches lay out some of the silly yet completely honest insecurities kids have, like not being paid attention to by parents or wondering why there are always women crying on the streets of New York.
“When I see people interact with kids, I was always like, ‘Why are you talking down to them? Why are you crouching on the floor talking in a high voice?’ I don’t recall needing that as a kid,” Mulaney says. “In the news there would be stories of ‘What should we tell our kids?’ and ‘What are our kids thinking?’ I just thought, you can ask them? You can make it an open conversation.”
John and Marika have wanted to work with kids for a comedy bit for a while. They once had an idea of making a “Lil Update” during their time on Saturday Night Live. Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers would throw to a desk with two kids. That never took off. Mulaney also toyed with the idea of writing a whole hour of stand-up and then have a 10-year-old boy memorize it and make that the special. That didn’t take off either.
Sack Lunch Bunch mixes the sketch-comedy pace of SNL (Mulaney even said they started writing for the children like they were SNL cast members) with the tenderness of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Sure, Mulaney would have a long way to go to be in the company of the adored Rogers if he was to continue down the path of children’s entertainment, but they both have this similarity: making children feel like their voice matters, that they’re not alone in a life’s journey that can be incredibly daunting.
Mulaney isn’t trying to be the next Mister Rogers (at least he didn’t admit so in our call), but Mulaney has a genuine giddy reaction when asked if he would return to the neighborhood of the Sack Lunch Bunch again soon. “I’d be a fool not to work with them again,” he says.
Before you watch the special due on Christmas Eve, read more of our conversation with Mulaney, where we talk about his experience holding a baby, creating the music for the special, and what it was like to have his wife Anna on set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve talked about how you wanted to make this a show for kids, by adults with kids present. That’s very much in the same vein as something your frequent collaborator Nick Kroll has done with Big Mouth. You and Nick both preface that you guys aren’t necessarily trying to educate. First and foremost, it’s about entertainment. Why do you think right now comedians are asking themselves what can they offer that’s not only entertaining for us, but also could be some kind of value for kids?
JOHN MULANEY: I’m 37. I have a lot of friends that have kids. They’re babies, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, they’re actual babies, like 0 to 3. [Laughs] A friend let me hold their baby and they said, “We’ve been waiting to see what it looked like when you held it.” I realized at that moment that I was not giving off [children singer] Raffi or Barney the dinosaur energy.
My dad talked to me like an adult, for better or worse. I don’t mean about adult subjects. He would be like “How are you? What grade are you in?” “How’s third grade?” He never got down and said “Hey, what’s your toy name?” I thought there was kind of respect for children and the amount of complex thought they can handle. What I personally wanted to do was just that. It’s now 2019. When I was 8 in 1990, my friends were afraid of tarantulas. What are kids afraid of now? A few kids said tarantulas. I don’t mean I’m some sociologist. It was interesting to see the universality in their anxiety to when you talk to adults about anxiety.
Were you trying to make something that kids and adults could both really appreciate without there being a generational gap?
Yeah, but there’s absolutely no way to guarantee that you can do that. And if you aim to please some large Venn diagram of audiences, you’ll also fail. I thought, what would I enjoy now, and what would I have liked if I were 10? What we wanted to avoid was “kid stuff, kid stuff, kid stuff, one joke for adults.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wasn’t interested in that bone thrown to the parents [you’ll see] in the middle of an animated movie. You know, my parents tended to listen to Peter, Paul and Mary and so did I. There was never some notion that we were being wholesome, that we were providing some space that was age-appropriate. I thought we should do what School House Rock and a lot of other programming did: the song is the song itself. It wasn’t like we’re not going to be dirty because I disapprove of it. There’s far more interesting avenues, some you could call dark, that you can take family entertainment down. It’s talk about existential dread that parents and children could watch together. It sounds like a joke tagline, but that kind of was the operating principle.
A big part of this variety special has to do with music. I know Eli Bolin helped write much of the music. How did you collaborate with him? You have songs that are so specific, like you have a kid who’s wondering if flowers are existing at night.
“Do Flowers Exist at Night?” was completely autobiographical. I to this day can’t think of them at night. I was laying in bed and was wondering, do flowers exist at night? I thought they must, but I was trying to picture a tulip at night and I couldn’t. I said, I’m going to look at the yard tomorrow night. But I would always forget, which the song details that. I always forget. And I still to this day can’t picture flowers at night.
So Eli Bolin wrote all of the music. Marika and I would write lyrics, often with him. We’d get the style and go from there. With “Do Flowers Exist at Night?” I wrote that on one subway ride. When I got out of the train I sent him a voice memo that it was to the tune of The Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky.” It was a lot more moodier, prog rock. So how it works is, I sing the lyrics to an already famous melody and he composes an entirely different song from that.
How much convincing did you need to get Anna to be on the special?
Sometimes the work/home barrier is pointlessly drawn. I thought, this was a very fun atmosphere. I wanted anyone who wanted to be interviewed to be on or I’d let people who wanted to have their family on set to do so. I really wanted Anna to do something in it. I was going through different songs. And then we were talking about this David Byrne one. I played it for her. I said, “Well there’s all these cutaways.” I said, “Who do you want to be?” And she said, “Some guy’s wife.” I’m like, Oh yeah. And I very much wanted to interview her about her fears. I know a lot of them, being married to her. I wanted Anna around. I know Marika and I created it, but it was an atmosphere I felt really lucky to be in. Everyone who came and did a cameo brought so much fun to it. The kids were just as effectively hilarious. And so, you have Anna come to set a lot of the days. I wanted that feel. It’s the best experience I’ve ever had.
John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch debuts Dec. 24 on Netflix.