John Mulaney’s new Netflix special will entertain a very specific audience, but more notably, reflects how far the stand-up comedian has come.
Let’s talk for a second about Mulaney the sitcom. We’ll get to the new Netflix special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, in a moment but first: Mulaney.
In 2014, FOX gave an auteur sitcom to a promising comedian with one beloved stand-up special and 10 years experience on Saturday Night Live. It should have been a success — such set-ups and shows were (are) very popular. Instead it stands out as John Mulaney’s one major failure.
Five years later, Netflix gave him Netflix-money to make an hour long children’s variety show with a collection of guest stars (Richard Kind, Natasha Lyonne, André De Shields, David Byrne, Jake Gyllenhaal) that is as impressive as it is bizarre. (Is there an element of endless chances for a white man whose friends with Lorne Michaels? Yes and no. Pretty much everything since Mulaney has been gold and it took time to build up to this level of creative carte-blanche, but many comedians never get that first second chance.) Sack Lunch Bunch is good — it’s not the best thing Mulaney has ever done, it’s far from the worst — but it is so incredibly niche, so incredibly specific to Mulaney’s interests and tastes, it’s best described simply as a flex.
(Not a heat-check, might you ask? No. A heat-check implies there is something to be checked. The stakes of the success of Sack Lunch Bunch feel almost non-existent. It’s unlikely Mulaney would even ask to repeat this joke with another children’s show, and Netflix will want his next stand-up regardless of with four or four million people stream SLB.)
Sack Lunch Bunch, which is based off the children’s variety shows Mulaney grew up with, feels very Saturday Night Live with a dash of Mr. Rogers — an association no doubt heightened by the recent release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In short, it feels like an SNL sketch about a children’s variety show expanded into a full length feature. (And cleaned up — to be clear, Sack Lunch Bunch is absolutely kid-friendly.) It’s far less accessible than his standup, but underscores how far he’s come as a producer and performer. With Documentary Now!, Big Mouth, two SNL host appearances and Oh! Hello behind him, it’s clear to see how much sharper of a writer and comfortable an on-camera presence he’s become. Even when he’s playing himself, or a version of himself, there is a level of command and confidence that is light-years from Mulaney.
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That said, the kids are the clear highlight here — Tyler and Jacob were my personal favorites. The guest stars are fun for the recognition factor and contrast alone. Gyllenhaal’s appearance as Mr. Music is deranged or delightful or both, depending on how much you love Weird Gyllenhaal (or how much you loved his character in Okja, an intentional homage/recreation). Regardless, his is the most memorable of the adult cameos and the most laughs come from the kids — both their line delivery of whatever Mulaney has them singing about (grandma’s boyfriend, white women crying on the street) as well as their answers in the confessional interviews Mulaney and co-creator Marika Sawyer conduct. (Speaking of confessionals, starting a children’s variety special with a Real Housewives quote is a pure Mulaney.)
Sack Lunch Bunch is not going to be for everyone and it certainly may be a harder sell for group viewing for anyone whose not already a Mulaney fan. You have to be willing to go on this journey with him, follow where the show takes you, be game to get very, very weird. To be fair though, you should know that from how it’s billed: a children’s musical comedy special from “a man with neither children nor musical ability.” (On the other hand, you could just watch it and see — to quote Mulaney describing church, it’s an hour!)
Ultimately, one finishes the special with an appreciation that Mulaney made this for himself, because it’s exactly what he wanted to do and he’s at a place in his career where he can. Sack Lunch Bunch is joyous and silly and absurd — and it’s 100 percent a professional flex.
John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is streaming on Netflix on Dec. 24.