“What’s your greatest fear?” It’s the big question that’s asked intermittently between performance segments of “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch,” which was released on Netflix this past Christmas Eve. For some, the question is simple. 11-year-old Oriah says it’s needles and pigeons. For 10-year-old Alex, it’s not taking enough risks. Others, like Broadway legend André De Shields, 73, have no fears. “I believe fear, like any prejudice or bias or predisposition, is taught, and therefore learned”.
The originally-standalone special that is “The Sack Lunch Bunch” is very much a modern parody of children’s education shows of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that influenced the millennial generation. Live-action shows like “Zoom” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” featured song and dance routines accompanied by recurring child stars and celebrity guest appearances. The appeal of these shows was largely garnered by their tangential segments that focused on kid lifestyle. The non-sequitur popups, which occurred throughout a variety show format, whether it was performing science experiments, teaching recipes or answering viewer fan mail, easily gave kids a sense of wonder. Over the years, these children’s shows became an important frame of reference for cultural nostalgia. Many millennials did not have access to the large array of children’s programming that exists on cable TV and streaming services today. As a result, tuning into a specific television show at a certain time each week provided an entire generation with the ability to collectively relate to moments in ‘90s and 2000s television culture.
As a millennial with a deliberate plan to never have children of his own, John Mulaney admitted that his own children’s special is reminiscent of those cultural predecessors: “It’s a show for kids, by adults, with kids present. Recently I watched children’s TV and I didn’t like it at all. But I liked it when I was a kid, which means it was better back then. So, I made it like that.” Comedy Central agreed with Mulaney, as the network recently struck a deal to create two more specials, one of which will be holiday-themed.
But don’t let the colorful graphics and Sesame-Street-esque set design fool you. Mulaney’s children’s special is anything but adolescent. Serving as the program’s de-facto host, Mulaney’s interactions with the spirited child cast members are extremely adult as Mulaney asks several mature questions surrounding life and death. In spite of the bleak nature of the interviews, the children respond earnestly, offering candid responses surrounding their hopes and anxieties. “Yes,” is Lexi’s answer when asked if the world is a scary place. Honesty, it seems, is the major motif underlying the entire show. This should be obvious given the thematic quote from “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne displayed among the opening title cards: “Do you know who tells the truth? Drunks and children.”
The many musical numbers performed by the talented young cast deal with trivial childhood dilemmas. Titles of songs such as “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul” and “Algebra Song!” are comedic from the start, and grapple with children doing what children do best: seeing everyday issues of adulthood from an intensely simplified perspective. As a grown-up viewer you begin to wonder, “Why can’t I eat a plate of buttered noodles for every meal?” and “When did I stop wondering such creative things like ‘Do flowers exist at night’?” To turn the live-action children’s genre on its head, Mulaney took a page from his own book of wisdom. “In elementary school, it doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what you know. You have to have answers to questions,” he says to his audience in his stand-up hour “The Comeback Kid.” “But when you’re a little kid you can’t say ‘I don’t know.’ You should be able to.”
In one extremely brief musical interlude, Mulaney agrees to “play restaurant” with 10-year-old Suri, only to be turned down moments later when he is informed that the imaginary restaurant she constructed is closed for a private event. While kids can be blunt when they want to be, rarely do you ever bear witness to a child fully grasping the complexities of how an actual restaurant can operate. Instances like these are where Mulaney’s brand of comedy begins to be better understood.
Celebrity guest appearances by Natasha Lyonne, Richard Kind and David Byrne only serve to capitalize on the juxtaposition of old and young, of wisdom and blissful ignorance. These surprise moments never come across as jarring, however. Even as an adult, Mulaney’s interpretations of the world hold complexities to unanswered questions as well as room for childlike wonder.
“The Sack Lunch Bunch” is yet another example of the incredible success of John Mulaney’s comic genius branching into new forms of media. From the mind of a comedian who is too much of an adult to be a child, yet too much a child to be an adult, “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” is a lighthearted exploration into our collective childhoods of the past, present and future. If the next two specials are anything like the first, they will most likely leave you wondering where the time went.