john mulaney and the sack lunch bunch review

John Mulaney made a kid’s musical special. That sentence alone should probably be enough to sell you on John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the upcoming Netflix original Mulaney cooked-up just in time for Christmas. One of the funniest people in comedy right now, Mulaney brings his own unique brand of comedy to the scenario, and crafts something that is both utterly silly and surprisingly serious.

Well…serious probably isn’t the right word. No special that features special guest star Richard Kind hosting a segment called Girl Talk With Richard Kind can be thought of as that serious. Yet beneath all the absurdity and manic humor, Mulaney peppers in occasional bursts of existential insight, where the biggest recurring topics are personal fears and the inescapable specter of death. Trust me, it’s very funny.

Staged to look like an educational children’s TV special from the ’80s and ’90s, John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch has Mulaney interacting with a group of insanely talented youngsters on brightly lit sets made up to look like street corners, rooftops, and black voids of nothingness. The mood is set from the start, with Mulaney off-camera interviewing members of the young cast about their fears. Right away, one of the youngsters informs us: “I’m afraid of death.” Get used to it: death and fear are major players here, which is something you probably didn’t expect from “a show for kids by adults, with kids present,” as Mulaney calls it.

Predicting that audiences might be completely confused as to what’s going on here, Mulaney gets that question out of the way rather quickly. One of the Sack Lunch Bunch kids flat-out asks him: “What’s the tone of this show…is it ironic, or do you like doing a children’s show?”

“If this doesn’t turn out great, we should say ‘that was ironic’ and everyone will say ‘that’s hilarious,'” the comedian replies. “But if it turns out really well, we act fake humble.”

What follows is one laugh-out-loud musical number after the next. Songs about Grandma’s new boyfriend, Paul – “He just reads his mysteries/Yeah, you can solve ’em, Paul!” one of the lyrics proudly states. Then there are songs questioning whether flowers exist at night; only having the taste for noodles with a little butter and no other foods; a surreal “date” between a kid and a random woman he meets crying on the streets of New York; and more.

The best of the songs comes during a segment with an algebra tutor played to perfection by singer and actor André De Shields. Wearing a glittery red suit and a conspicuous eye patch, De Shields’ tutor character promises to sing a song about how algebra could’ve helped save his eye, and then proceeds to launch into a number that does nothing of the sort. It gets so utterly ridiculous that the song makes sure to include a moment where De Shields croons, “My song makes sense!” It all comes to a showstopping moment where De Shields belts out, “Algebra song!”, holding the last note as long as possible. I lost my breath from laughing so damn hard, and continued laughing when De Shields delivers the final punchline: he actually lost his eye while rehearsing the musical number.

As the special unfolds, Mulaney constantly comes back to interview segments where the youngsters (and some guest stars, like David Byrne, Natasha Lyonne, and of course, Richard Kind) discuss their biggest fears – clowns, home invasions, drowning, the trailer for the movie Us. And of course, death. Lots and lots of death. There’s even a segment where Mulaney reveals to the kids that he has “In Memorium” title cards for all of them in case they die while filming the show.

“We talked about death a lot today!” Mulaney proclaims as the show draws to a close. But before things can end, Jake Gyllenhaal arrives as special guest star Mr. Music. His entire bit involves trying to teach children that they don’t need instruments to make music – they can use everyday objects. Unfortunately, every item he tries to create music with ends up being rather silent – sample lyrics: “Toss a dress shirt in a laundry sack/subtle sound, let me find something else!”

Gyllenhaal is completely unhinged, sporting a xylophone shirt and tiny mustache, and seemingly channeling his off-the-wall character from Okja. But as bizarre as this performance is, it fits right in with John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, an utterly original piece of entertainment that will leave you cracking up and also confronting your impending doom.

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John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch launches globally on Netflix on December 24, 2019.

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