Boy howdy, do I have a lot of mixed feelings about John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch. For those unfamiliar, JM&tSLB is a comedy special that was released on Netflix in December of last year. It’s a program comprising songs, skits, and interviews that feature a number of players, but it mainly focuses on Mulaney and a group of 15 talented children who make up the titular Sack Lunch Bunch. It’s shot and edited to feel like a variety hour showcasing elements from shows such as The Electric Company and Sesame Street, and it tackles a lot of the same subject matter: death, relationships, sadness, and fear. But mostly fear. And it doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with it.
Fear is in great abundance these days, but Mulaney and the SLB certainly didn’t film this special with the specifics of COVID-19 on their minds. But the world is different now, and I can’t go back and watch this special in a different context. If pressed to explain my thoughts in a different timeline where I watched the special back in December, I’d imagine it may have connected with me more. I wouldn’t have been as concerned with how the media treats the fear of our youth. It wouldn’t have bothered me as much that it renders the entertainment industry a bumbling fool that is only concerned with name recognition. And it may have been easier to shrug off its manic pacing and its cavalier attitude towards over-taxed employees and mental health issues...but there’s really no way to be certain, is there? The show must go on.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of moments in JM&tSLB that I truly enjoy. Where the special shines, and frequently so, is when the kids take center stage and get to show off their plethora of talents. I was disappointed that not every child gets equal stage time, but when you have an hour long program that is bogged down with adults, there’s not always a number for every artist. But when there is a child-led number, man oh man, it’s a true delight. There is an accompanying album to the special, and I enjoy the concept of this special in an album context much better than the special itself. There are sooooooo many great songs from this special, and just to name a few, you get:
“Do Flowers Exist at Night?” performed by Zell and Oriah
What happens to flowers while we’re sleeping? Why hasn’t Zell just gone out to check on the flowers after the sun sets? It’s a very easy mystery to solve, but the questions beg asking.
“Plain Plate of Noodles” performed by Orson
Orson’s favorite meal is a “plain plate of noodles with a little bit of butter.” Frankly, that’s all he’ll eat. He’s tried every kind of dish, and nothing sates him like a “plain plate of noodles with a little bit of butter.” Dude, Orson, same.
“I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About it Once a Week)” performed by Alex
There sure are a lot of sad ladies out there in New York City. It’s strange to remember that all of these musical numbers were, in fact, written by adults. So, while Alex is singing about what he could have done to ease the crying woman’s pain, it’s really Mulaney maybe wondering what a woman needs...and maybe that’s a child? I’d like to hope this analysis is definitely me over-thinking this number (Mulaney and his wife have decided to not have children, so I’d be surprised to find him musing on a woman’s fulfillment), but my brain thought it and now it can’t be unthought. Regardless of ultimate intention, Alex sings his little heart out and there’s a very much welcomed cameo by Annaleigh Ashford as the very sad white lady.
“Do You Wanna Play Restaurant?” performed by Suri
Well, do you?
...and “Pay Attention!” performed by Lexi and (oh my goodness, I cannot get enough of this man at the moment, for real you guys, he’s just everywhere and it’s wonderful) David Byrne
Clearly, this is my favorite number from the program. Lexi’s mom is hosting a party, and Lexi has prepared some entertainment for the crowd to enjoy. But the crowd just. Won’t. Pay. Attention! They just won’t stop talking! She had this whole thing planned, and she’s gonna tell you what it was with the help of her good friend, and entertainment co-chair, David Byrne. There was gonna be a newscast, a complete reenactment of Frozen, and cartwheels...and damn, why are you still not paying attention?! (There’s just too much perfection in this number.)
What resonated with me the most in “Pay Attention!” was that THIS was my childhood fear. Other than spiders and swimming (of which I was NOT good at as a child), lacking adult’s attention and respect was my number one fear. And in many ways, this has translated into my adult life. In an age where people two decades my senior are caving to social media trends (the first time I witnessed a news broadcast insist viewers follow their instagram, my heart sank), the young simply can’t age. We’re always the younger version of what’s ahead, and it’s becoming more difficult to assume a level of respect where we’re treated as equals. In a society where social lingo is constantly adopted and normalized, how can anyone age out of adolescence? In a time when…
Sorry, this is supposed to be about the Sack Lunch Bunch.
But that’s just the thing. Just when I think they’re going to address a very common and important childhood fear (being ignored and not taken seriously by adults), the song is over and it’s not mentioned again. Instead, the song resolves in simply being an opportunity to put Lexi in an oversized blazer to make a Stop Making Sense reference. And while I found it to be enjoyable on the surface (I’m very into Stop Making Sense right now, if you must know), I found it much more problematic that the child’s underlying fear was more so being exploited to be the butt of the joke.
Throughout the course of John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, the 15 members of the SLB are interviewed about what they fear the most. A lot of them talk about the various, actual nightmares they experience, some mention dying in different ways, and two (Cordelia and Zell!) talk about their fear of clowns. Another (Ava!) talks about her fear of home invasions, and when she’s asked if she thinks she’s acquired any of her mother’s fears (which, why mother and not father? we don’t know her parental situation), she admits she acquired the home invasion fear from her mom. And several of them mention they’re fearful of entertainment they’ve been exposed to through film or advertisements on Youtube (most notably the recent work of Jordan Peele). All of this is frightfully depressing to me. It only illuminated some of my own worst fears about what it’s going to be like to raise a child in the next few years when my husband and I decide to have children of our own. With the constant bombardment of unsolicited advertising and the growing uncertainty in our future, it’s very important to protect and educate our children. But I can’t be convinced John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is actually concerned with that responsibility.
Throughout the majority of the special, Mulaney and different groupings of the SLB also perform in various skits and host various discussions at their home base, the Sackett Street Garden. During these moments, the children have lines of dialogue and certainly participate, but it’s difficult to ignore the direction of adult-bent hard comedy in which these discussions lean. The children are merely the prop to use by which to deliver the punch-line. During THE discussion on death, John and the SLB watch footage of their Barney-like character called “Googy” run around, completing all of the tasks the SLB instruct him to do. “Hi, Googy. Run far!” “No, Googy, run further!” Et cetera, et cetera, until the actor within the Googy costume, Ronnie DiMaria, suffers heart failure from exercising too much in a sweltering Googy suit. Ronnie had a heart condition, and the producers knew this, but his death is casually dismissed, and even jokingly blamed on the children instructing Googy to run around in the first place. And the joke doesn’t stop there, Googy’s friend “Binky” happens to be missing because the actor playing Binky (Denny Greenberg) has schizophrenia.
I have fond, fond memories of watching the MTV2 classic, Wonder Showzen, which aired between 2005 and 2006. Wonder Showzen aired a disclaimer before every program, stating:
Wonder Showzen contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children. The stark, ugly and profound truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be soul-crushing to the weak of spirit. If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad you are a bad parent or guardian.
Some of my favorite Wonder Showzen segments are as follows: “Beat Kids” (where a child interviews various adults at various venues), “Funny/Not Funny” (where a series of violent or macabre still images are displayed while children judge whether they are, indeed, funny or not funny), “Clarence’s Movies” (where Clarence, the puppet, interviews people in an obnoxious manner that often results in physical violence extracted upon him), and “Tyler, America’s Most Perfect Child” (where Tyler, a disturbingly well-behaved child, talks about how perfect he is).
I could not help but remember Wonder Showzen as I watched John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, and I also couldn’t help to be saddened by how short JM&tSLB falls. The Googy sketch is something that would have been earned by WS. It was fully aware of how brazen and absurd its subject material was and definitely could have justified making an off-color joke about pre-existing health conditions, overworked employees, and mental health issues. But JM&tSLB is simply too saccharine and never cares to fully commit. The SLB ask Mulaney at the beginning of the program if the special is made to be ironic. Well, that all depends, according to Mulaney. If it’s received positively, it was made with all the good and right intentions, but if people don’t like it, well DUH! It’s ironic! Yeesh, pick a lane, buddy.
In every scene which involves both adults and children, the joke lends itself to the allowance for the adult to steal the scene, but it falls flat due to the transparency of the writing. When the children argue they aren’t responsible for Googy’s death (the children-recorded instructions to run are “recorded out of context!”), the scene reads distant and dismissive. Mulaney explains that Ronnie had an enlarged heart, so isn’t it fitting that Googy died doing something that he loved? The scene is geared towards the children lamenting the use of the Googy scenes in their program altogether (Zell states, “I’m still surprised those were supposed to be funny.”) but if the kids are so cavalier about the death of a co-worker, why does the rest of the program hinge so heavily on their candid responses to their fears of dying?
During another segment titled “Girl Talk,” Richard Kind chats with three of the SLB: Ava, Camille, and Cordelia. Their first question is to ask him which character he played in Pixar’s 1998 A Bug’s Life, which I have to assume is a scripted question for the special, because why on earth would these lovely, young ladies have an investment in this question and not already know the answer? And when Kind responds, he tells them they aren’t going to remember the character’s name (which was Molt) but that he was the angry grasshopper’s brother. They react in shock and wonder, but I find it difficult to believe it’s genuine shock because the premise of the question is absurd. (I’m also not fond that Kind is scripted to belittle their knowledge of the film of which they’re “asking.”) The girls then ask him what his favorite movie is. He proceeds to answer with the title of a film that he thinks they won’t know about. Wait. Scratch that. He actually changes their question to “What is your favorite movie that we won’t know about?” in order to make it an educational question for them, which is not what they asked. And their last exchange is about any advice Kind has for them, three young actors. He goes on to explain that working on a play is a magical experience where the cast becomes your family and you’re going to remember it forever, right? Wrong. As soon as the girls agree with him that your play family becomes your real family, and you’re best friends forever, he tells them that in the next six months they’ll forget ‘em and move on to the next play. Sure, I mean, who needs friends anyway? Just throw that pure, beautiful, child-like sense of awe and wonder towards friendship and achievement right in the dumpster.
Directly following the “Girl Talk” segment, Kind is asked to reveal his worst fears. He says, “heights, spiders, [and] snakes.” But he’s asked to elaborate and he reveals that his worst fear, believing himself to be a smart individual, is showing others how not-smart he is. He fears being in a room with people, saying something stupid, realizing he’s said something stupid, and everyone else realizing it too. (Woof. Check, please. Relatable content right here.) Is this why, in the previous segment, Kind continually strives to one-up the girls of “Girl Talk” and repeatedly assert his intelligence dominance over a trio of female pre-teens? If this is intentional, then I suppose I can tip my hat to them and call this segment a day. BUT THE FACT THAT I CAN’T BE CERTAIN IS PROBLEMATIC, and I don’t think I can lower my guard against the patriarchy(!) when we’re treading such important waters in this day and age. I think maybe the point was to simply pair up these two different factions of performers and watch hilarity ensue from their wildly different reactions and perspectives, but I’m not okay with the cost. At the end of the day, my primary concern with John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is simple: how tall do you have to be to ride?
John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch opens with Jacob describing his fear of drowning. Saturday, a day beloved by children the world over, was his least favorite day of the week for a year because it involved swim class, which included the distinct possibility he would drown that day. I know as a mother you’re not supposed to pick favorites, but I think there’s a distinct possibility that Jacob is my favorite. He later films a segment titled: “Papier Mâché Time” with David Byrne where they discuss David’s childhood fear of volcano eruptions.
During their segment they, of course, have built a papier mâché volcano of which they are going to make erupt. Jacob tells David that everything is going to be alright, and to trust him. Maybe it’s because I’m a Jacob enthusiast, but this feels like the one, truly heartfelt moment in the entire program, and it’s because it comes across as genuine. Both Jacob and David may be reading memorized (or cue-card) lines, but it seems as if they don’t care for them. The conversation is oddly stilted and feels poorly rehearsed, but it seems the source is that Jacob and David simply don’t like the scene, or the joke. But what they do care about is each other (and the volcano). Jacob accuses David of not trusting him that things will be fine, and that he’ll never forget his mistrust. David says he’s ashamed. And then Jacob forgives him. It’s simple, and it feels honest. They’re having fun, and this is important, together. Jacob’s not regurgitating some super specific Mulaney-penned riff on whatever famous person Mulaney wanted to reference, and he’s not getting side-lined by an actor who’s trying to walk away with the scene. Byrne’s short-lived performances in JM&tSLB curtail mine (and Lexi’s) fear. He cares about these kids.
The last ten minutes of John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is an exercise in a failed fever-dream of a joke with a capper of attempted self-actualization. In their last group skit, the Sack Lunch Bunch are visited by a gonzo Sgt. Pepper version of Jake Gyllenhaal named Mr. Music. He dances around trying to make music out of extremely quiet objects, continuing to fail in more grandiose ways, all the while rebuking Cordelia’s kind offerings of her clarinet for the sake of music and silencing the other children’s suggestions. By the end, he’s frustratingly exhausted from belaboring his point. When Camille (Mr. Music’s daughter? sure, okay) assures him they understand he’s making the point that music exists everywhere, even outside of musical instruments, he’s relieved. He rephrases what she says but realizes that the Sack Lunch Bunch get the point and that Camille, in fact, “said it better.” Now, if you’re still on board and are just having a grand ole ball with this special, this all lands for you. I want it to. This should be fun. But I was one foot off the ride by this point, and I really just wanted to spend more time with the Sack Lunch Bunch and not with these weird caricatures of adults.
Just as it begins, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch ends with a discussion of fear. Throughout the special we’ve seen the adult cast confront their fears just as the SLB have. But the best, and strangest, adult correspondent is Natasha Lyonne, who isn’t featured in any other skit. Mulaney’s final question is asking Natasha if there is a way of dying that she isn’t afraid of, or a way of dying that she would prefer. Her response is my response:
A way of dying I would enjoy...You know...This is for kids, right?
Is it? Who knows! In the end, there is the minimal amount of resolution of how to quell the Sack Lunch Bunch’s very real, very scary fears. They’re told when they’re sad and scared to “look for music anywhere,” and that there’s nobody else like them, so they should “just be themselves.” But this isn’t the serious and honest advice I think these kids deserve in this special. Two men, off camera, joke with Cordelia about bringing in a clown, and she takes it like a champ. But I can’t help being angered by their adult dismissal of her tangible fear. The joke is blurred here, and I think that’s dangerous. I like these kids, and I care about ‘em. I think what Mulaney got from these children in these one-on-one interviews is special and, I’d imagine on his end, unexpected. I’m a fan of Mulaney’s other comedy specials and stand-up, and this won’t deter me from enjoying more of his specials in the future, but John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is simply that, a sack lunch: a boring and careless brown paper bag (the concept, the execution, the writing) only made nutritious by the contents, the Sack Lunch Bunch.
These kids (and all the kids) have been introduced to an entirely new set of fears in this past month. We all have. We need to get on the level and remember that their fears are valid and are to be handled with care. It’s not good enough to hear them, we need to listen. Pay attention!
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.