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When John Mulaney’s self-titled Fox sitcom came and went in 2014-15, it looked like the stand-up favorite had maybe bumped up against the edge of his considerable talent. That was before Documentary Now! and Oh, Hello on Broadway, before his multiple wildly successful stints hosting Saturday Night Live and before his delightfully odd turn as Thoreau on Dickinson. Mulaney may have demonstrated, in that moment, that he wasn’t a sitcom star, but his versatility has since been amply proven.
For 70 minutes of the odd and charming mixture of what Mulaney does best, check out his new Netflix special John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, a note-perfect pastiche of ’70s and ’80s children’s programming, “a show for kids, by adults, with kids present.”
AIR DATE Dec 24, 2019
Or, as Mulaney explains at the top of the show to the group of wildly talented children who are his co-stars: “Honestly, if this doesn’t turn out great, I think we should all be like, ‘Oh, it was ironic.’ And then people’s be like, ‘Oh, that’s hilarious.’ But if it turns out to be very good, be like, ‘Oh, thank you, we worked really hard,’ and act fake humble and then you win either way.”
Fortunately for all involved, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch turns out to be very good, so much so that a perfect present for this Christmas Eve one-off would be an order of additional specials, perhaps a full series.
Written by Mulaney and longtime SNL collaborator Marika Sawyer, the special was inspired by Sesame Street, The Electric Company, The Great Space Coaster and probably a dozen smaller youth-programming showcases. It uses a faux outdoors “Sackett Street Garden” set as its home base, a place for Mulaney, playing himself, to chat with the kids, share stories, perform the occasional Mr. Wizard-style scientific experiment and vamp between segments.
And the segments? Well, they’re whatever Mulaney and Sawyer want them to be. There’s an animated recounting of the fake-and-fabulous illustrated book Sascha’s Dad Does Drag; a spectacular sketch with Mulaney as a marketing rep for Sony Pictures Animation doing a focus group with kids; and the latest installment in a fictionally long-running bit called “Paper Mache Time,” featuring guest star David Byrne.
Serving as the special’s spine are interviews with the tiny members of the cast, who share their deepest fears and insecurities with a candor that feels natural, unforced and funny — so very natural that if the phobias involving death, home invasion and clowns are scripted, it’s an astonishing match of writing and performance. Lessons are taught, empowerment is imparted, furry-suited mascots are mourned.
Mostly, though, the show is built around the musical numbers by Mulaney, Sawyer and Eli Bolin, focusing on topics as varied as what it’s like when your widowed grandmother starts dating again; the deeply existential question of whether or not flowers exist at night; and the challenges of going out when the only thing you’ll eat is macaroni and butter.
Mulaney’s well-documented adoration of Broadway is evident in show-stopping guest appearances by the likes of Annaleigh Ashford and the great Andre De Shields, who sings and dances his way through a Hadestown-esque ditty about the importance of algebra. Other guest stars include Richard Kind, leading an effectively strange conversation dubbed “Girl Talk With Richard Kind,” and an episode-ending guest whose identity I’ve seen spoiled on Twitter, but really ought to be experienced with fresh eyes to be appreciated in its full majesty.
The songs are complex and catchy, producing earworms in an assortment of genres, guaranteed to leave you either humming full tunes or just repeating the phrase “Let’s all see what’s on kids’ minds / The guest star’s name is Richard Kind” from the opening song over and over and over again. Each musical performance is given a distinctive visual style by director Rhys Thomas, another regular Mulaney collaborator in a crew clearly working on one common, quirky wavelength.
The guest stars are all sublime and Mulaney is an excellent host, both convincingly empathetic and encouraging yet wryly detached throughout, but the special clearly wouldn’t work without the talented kids, who sing and dance with a pint-sized precocity that burns with the heat of a dozen Baby Yodas.
While Netflix deliberates ordering more episodes, networks should be rushing to try to mine the varied talents of Lexi Perkel, Alexander Bello and Zell Steele Morrow, the comic timing of Ava Briglia and the heartwarming awkwardness of Jacob Laval and Cordelia Comando. It wouldn’t surprise me to see half these juvenile stars populating ABC family sitcoms by next fall.
So come on, Netflix. Lock these kids down. Lock John Mulaney down. John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is too appealing a format to be done after only one holiday special. Don’t send Mulaney back to Fox.
Cast: John Mulaney, plus guest stars including Andre De Shields, Natasha Lyonne, Annaleigh Ashford, Shereen Pimentel, Richard Kind
Written by: John Mulaney and Marika Sawyer
Director: Rhys Thomas
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)
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