Outside the box office: Playfully dark — what John Mulaney’s Netflix special reveals about adults and growing up

Portrait of American stand-up comedian John Mulaney against blue, pink, and yellow background.
(Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

Do you let out a lot of nervous laughter? Does a bit of unease and discomfort ever humor you? Do you add “lol” to the end of concerning texts? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” is the Netflix special for you. 

Though very different from a typical comedy special — which often features a solo comedian, a stool and a stage curtain — this special is not devoid from Mulaney’s own past standup specials, and is full of poignant, dark and deadpan postmodern humor. 

Written by John Mulaney and “Saturday Night Live” writer Marika Sawyer, this Netflix special was bound to be zany. Instead of a polished comedian taking center stage, though, the special instead centers on a group of children — the eponymous Sack Lunch Bunch — that coax the audience into identifying with their inner child again.

This messaging is delivered to the audience alongside a cherry-on-top package of style, sound effects and educational segments that emulate nostalgic television programming similar to “Barney & Friends,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street.” Mulaney even enters the “caring adult” mentor role — much like a Mister Rogers or even a Steve from “Blue’s Clues.” 

Although reminiscent of some nostalgic shows, the show is wholly uncategorizable, described in its trailer as “a children’s musical comedy special,” “from a man with neither children nor musical ability” and in the show’s opening as “a show for kids, by adults, with kids present.” 

In a recent interview, Mulaney reveals that he himself has no real words to describe the show: “I did not know what the show was, nor could I explain it to people,” he admits matter-of-factly. In the special, Mulaney explains the show’s existence with a simple curiosity: “I realize these kids have a lot on their minds that I want to explore,” he says with a shrug. 

Consisting of wacky musical numbers and zany comedic skits, the special, like Mulaney, entertains a particular kind of curiosity: What are the weird, existential observations children have that adults won’t pause to entertain — and how can they be made humorous to any age? 

The show’s pondering produced creepy-funny songs like “Do Flowers Exist At Night?” and “I Saw A White Lady Standing On The Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once A Week).” In “Do You Wanna Play Restaurant?,” the imaginary setup becomes all too real when the faux-restaurant is closed for a chic private event, and “Pay Attention!” becomes a protest anthem when, while demanding her mother’s attention, a Sack Lunch Bunch kid also tells Ronald Reagan to pay attention.

Unease and self-awareness form the show’s foundation, with a layer of dark humor laid underneath the bright set. In the show’s first minute, a Sack Lunch Bunch member questions what the tone of the show is. Mulaney answers by saying, “Honestly, if it doesn’t turn out great, I think we should be like, ‘Oh, it was ironic.’ But if it turns out really good, we’ll be like, ‘Oh thank you, we worked really hard.’”

This playfully dark statement sets the tone for the show, which pokes fun at and blurs the lines between what scares and makes both children and adults anxious, revealing their overall similarities.

In addition to Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the special also hosts a handful of celebrity cameos that include actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Natasha Lyonne and David Byrne. What’s interesting is that the way the adult celebrities behave in their cameos are almost identical to the behavior of the child stars. 

For instance, in an interview portion of the show, the adult guest stars answer the question “What is your worst fear?” Their answers show that an adult is just as prone as a kid to having an irrational worst fear, and the show enhances this similarity, ignoring a guest star’s earned celebrity status to place them on the same pedestal as the Sack Lunch Bunch.

With its 15 distinct segments, “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” is a little over an hour long. The show gives children a platform to showcase their own anxieties, ranging from being a picky eater to not understanding an adult conflict, to not being taken seriously or not given enough serious attention by adults. Each of these segments serves to give children and their perspectives the same amount of investment in production as a segment that showcases the anxieties or problems of adults. 

The intelligence and thoughtfulness of the children is truly central to the special. It’s the focus on children, and placing them at the same level of importance as adults, that minimizes the differences between them.

Hannah Avalos PO ’21 is one of TSL’s film columnists, even though she’s not technically writing about film this week. She loves writing, picking out which earrings to wear and finishing the books she starts reading.

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