Right at the top of John Mulaney’s new Netflix special, the clean-cut comic addresses his audience directly, in order to explain what he’s doing. After all, this isn’t another stand-up set or Broadway play. It’s both. Kind of. It’s an inventive, exciting, and very funny homage to “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” “The Electric Company,” and more live-action kids’ shows of yesteryear. But it’s also very theatrical, with plenty of scenes taking place on stage and lots and lots of music. Really, “John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch” is an advocacy piece for thinking like a kid again — and Mulaney makes a damn convincing case.
“What you’re about to see is a children’s TV special, and I made it on purpose,” Mulaney says, flanked by a group of 8- to 13-year-old children known as The Sack Lunch Bunch. “It’s a show for kids, by adults, with kids present.” Mulaney goes on to promise his intentions are pure; he recently watched modern TV shows aimed at kids and “didn’t like [them] at all — but I liked it when I was a kid, which means it was better back then. So I made it like then.”
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And that’s pretty much what follows. Though Mulaney jokes to the kids that, if viewers don’t like the show, they should say the whole thing was ironic, this isn’t parody. It’s a 70-minute song-and-dance sketch show, built around the young performers and with plenty of satirical jabs, always aimed at adults. Some segments are just original songs featuring great choreography and one of the Sack Lunch Bunch providing vocals. Others are more elaborate sketches, usually with one or more of the kids at its strange center. There are confounding interstitials and celebrity guests, but what remains constant is Mulaney’s earnest interest in and respect for his Bunch of kids. They’re never the butt of the joke.
Mulaney consistently positions adults as the fools, replicating how they’re seen by kids and calling attention to ridiculous behavior through the perspective shift. There’s a solid sketch where Mulaney leads a focus group of kids who’ve just seen a new animated studio movie. All smiles and encouragement, Mulaney’s pollster takes down absurd, unjustified feedback. All the kids say it’s their favorite movie of all time, even when they’ll admit the last movie they saw was their former favorite. Some brag about how many times they got up to go to the bathroom, insisting that the movie was even better because they could enjoy it despite leaving the theater seven times.
But the point isn’t that the kids are dumb; it’s that Mulaney, and the studio he represents, are dumb for thinking these answers mean anything. The kids are just being kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that! They should like movies! Movies are a brand new experience for each of them!
In another sketch, Mulaney is the mustachioed parent whose kid needs tutoring. Dad’s preferred tutor (played by André De Shields of “Hadestown”) is a one-eyed man who brings his own “toiletries” to their first session, and then proceeds to sing a lengthy number explaining why his missing eye means algebra is a critical life skill. (Side note: Among the writing staff of Mulaney, Eli Bolin, and Marika Sawyer, whomever rhymed “algebra” with “abracadabra” deserves an Emmy.) Not to spoil the joke (and there’s no spoiling this ridiculous wonder of a song), but The Tutor’s missing eye has nothing to do with algebra — the kid sees that, but his dad and The Tutor do not. Again, the adults are made out to be dumb dumbs while the kid’s defensible position is upheld.
All that’s not to say Mulaney is anti-algebra, but that his special is devoted to the child’s perspective no matter what. Adult viewers should watch and learn a thing or two about how to better respect and interact with kids. Children should feel vindicated while enjoying the outlandish, fast-moving production. It’s quite a show, all in all, capped off by one of the best performances of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. (Not kidding: His conviction and good humor drives home the special’s tricky tone with magnificent showmanship.)
Drilling home this earnest attentiveness to how children see the world is an ongoing series of interviews with each kid about their biggest fear. Even before Mulaney introduces the show, Jacob pops up and explains why he’s afraid of an asteroid hitting the earth and other big picture problems, but “of all the ways to die, I don’t want to drown.” He repeats the wish immediately, as if he’s making a deal with someone who can save him from a watery grave: “I don’t want to drown, OK?”
Mulaney can’t make that promise, but he’s not going to dismiss Jacob either. He listens to each kid describe their fears and, even more, gets to the bottom of where those fears stem from. It could be very common, like drowning, or elaborate, like Ava (12), who has a fear of “home invasions.” When asked about when and how she came to fear such a specific event, Ava tells Mulaney it’s her mom’s fear. Soon, she admits all her fears are her mom’s fears, and suddenly how adults project themselves becomes all the more important. Project fear and fear will be projected back. Project curiosity, joy, and encouragement — as Mulaney does in this special — and the same will be instilled in return.
With the special set to debut December 24, I can’t think of a better way to end 2019 than with these ideals in mind. The future is right around the corner. Kids will inherit whatever we give them, so why not start 2020 with a little extra love? So pop on “John Mulaney and The Sack Lunch Bunch” as soon as possible, and set yourself up for a happy new year..
“John Mulaney and The Sack Lunch Bunch” premieres Tuesday, December 24 on Netflix.
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