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John Mulaney’s Sack Lunch Bunch special is sharp comedy for the whole family

Netflix delivers a throwback revue just in time for the holidays

john mulaney cackles in a mister rogers sweater while sitting around his sack lunch bunch kids Photo: Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

Fans of John Mulaney, comedy specials, and/or musicals won’t need any convincing to watch John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, but for anyone on the fence: When asked what his “top New York moment” would be, one of the child stars in the Sack Lunch Bunch turns directly to the camera and belts, “I saw a white lady standing on the street just sobbing, and I think about it once a week.” “I think I saw her, too,” says one of the other kids, to which Mulaney responds, “Oh, I doubt it was the same white lady. Once you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see crying white ladies all over New York City.”

Mulaney’s new Netflix “children’s special” is not a Christmas special per se, but its universal compatibility makes it feel that way. The “Sack Lunch Bunch” are all children and their songs are accordingly earnest, but the material is also so unmistakably Mulaney (that is to say, full of niche interests and dry humor) that it’ll tickle any adults watching, too. Seeing someone crying on the street would stick in the mind of any kid; that it’s a common occurrence in the city is the joke for the grown-ups in the room.

Directed by Rhys Thomas (Documentary Now!), John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is an entertainment revue, and an adult-friendly Sesame Street for (the end of) 2019. Lovingly produced musical numbers about different adolescent concerns — having a hankering for noodles with butter, being annoyed when adults don’t pay attention — are connected by talking heads prompted by the question, “What is your greatest fear?” and sketches featuring Mulaney and his assembled cast. Cameo appearances include everyone from David Byrne, to Jake Gyllenhaal, to Natasha Lyonne.

Richard Kind in a periodic table jacket laughs while Mulaney and kids dressed in yellow hazmat suits Photo: Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

There’s no overarching story, just a simple message delivered poignantly by André De Shields: Be oneself and maybe everything will be all right. That’s enough: The special is a celebration, and an excuse to stage musical numbers (with music composed by Eli Bolin) in styles that parody everything from power ballad music videos to, of course, Broadway shows, and invite people like Richard Kind on to chat with kids about growing up.

The format may be familiar — Sesame Street and The Muppets perfected it years ago — but John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch feels fresh for how Mulaney updates the fun for the changing times. It’s got the same earnest energy of children’s shows past, but mixes it with a sharper sense of humor. Elmo might sing about crying in public, but definitely not in the specific terms used here. What Mulaney knows is that that specificity is what takes the song from “fun” to “funny.”

That sharpness, however, doesn’t come at the cost of kindness. The special serves as a neat rebuke to the idea that comedy has become harder; the jokes Mulaney has written aren’t told at the expense of anyone except sometimes Mulaney himself, and big corporations, but are still funny for how they dig into the absurdity of things like having to prepare in memoriam cards for people who are still alive, or saying an algebra tutor came recommended by “the rich parents.” There’s no sense of condescension, either — the “adult” jokes aren’t that way because kids aren’t smart enough for them, but because they’re about inane things that kids don’t (and shouldn’t) have to worry about.

One of the best things to come out of Netflix in a year full of great things (The Irishman, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, Marriage Story, Atlantics), John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is a perfect special debuting at the perfect time. The biggest question that crops up around the holidays is, “What can/should I watch with my whole family?” and Mulaney’s latest special fits the bill.

It also feels like a notable progression in the development of the children’s revue — its earnest energy doesn’t preclude wryness or a little sarcasm — as well as a next step for Mulaney. From the discussions of theater in his comedy specials, to “Diner Lobster,” to the “Co-Op” episode of Documentary Now!, to even just the All That Jazz parody trailer for this special, it’s clear that he’s interested in old-school showmanship. After John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, it’s clear that if there’s anyone to usher that spirit into the new decade, it’ll be John Mulaney.

John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is streaming on Netflix now.

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