Early in John Mulaney’s new Netflix special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (debuting December 24th), one of the comedian’s underage co-stars asks him what the tone of the show is supposed to be. “Is it ironic,” she wonders, “or do you like doing a children’s show?” Mulaney confesses that his answer depends on how the special turns out: If it’s bad, he’ll claim he meant it to be ironic. If it’s good, he’ll brag about how hard everyone worked. “You can go very far in life,” the comic adds, instilling his first lesson to kids on the set and at home, “If you pretend to know what you’re doing.”
Mulaney very clearly knows what he’s doing with The Sack Lunch Bunch. It’s a delightful hour-plus of silliness, just in time for the holidays, and it manages to answer the tonal question both ways. It is, like Galaxy Quest, The Princess Bride, or Jane the Virgin, one of those gems that manages to simultaneously parody a genre and be an excellent recreation of it.
Riffing on sincere Seventies’ kids shows like Sesame Street or the Maurice Sendak/Carole King special Really Rosie, The Sack Lunch Bunch finds the 37-year-old Mulaney — who admits early on that he doesn’t have children of his own and doesn’t really want them — playing mentor to a group of kids in a neighborhood garden. The special kicks off (after a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills quote, because of course it does) with a member of the Bunch going on at length about his fear of drowning. (“Actually, I’m afraid of death,” he explains, “but of all the ways to die, I don’t want to drown.”) The show is peppered with similar endearingly vulnerable thoughts from both the kids and special guests like Natasha Lyonne.
The humor is never at the expense of the Lunch Bunch themselves, but rather from the incongruous use of many of the adults. Mulaney, as you would expect if you’ve been watching his comedy career, seems glib and wryly amused by everything that’s happening. And Richard Kind pops up at one point for a segment called “Girl Talk,” where he extols the virtues of the 1957 Billy Wilder film Witness for the Prosecution to several female Bunch members.
Back and forth, the special deftly toggles between satire and straight, until it becomes hard to tell which it’s going to be until you’re deep into a sketch or musical number. (The songs are courtesy of Eli Bolin, who co-wrote the soundtrack to Documentary Now!‘s “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” with Mulaney and Seth Meyers.) Hadestown‘s André De Shields sings a musical shaggy dog story that tries and fails to explain why he has an eyepatch. David Byrne’s irresistibly catchy number about how parents should put down their phones and pay attention to their kids, meanwhile, wouldn’t seem at all out of place in an episode of Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The whole thing is a joy, but particularly a climactic number featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a character named Mr. Music. The less you know going into that bit, the better, but I will say three things: 1.) It made me wish someone would hire Gyllenhaal to star in a really broad and stupid comedy as a change of pace; 2.) It’s a classic example of how surprise in comedy matters much less than execution; and 3.) Despite leaving me gasping for air at one point, it, like most of the special, manages to find an actual human lesson in the midst of something incredibly dumb.The tone is whatever John Mulaney and his friends (young and old) want it to be. And thank goodness for that.