Harrison Burns — Staff Writer
Coming off a series of popular stand-up specials, Hollywood acting gigs, and various other comedy acts, it was initially surprising when John Mulaney announced his next major project would be a children’s musical special. After viewing the one-hour Netflix special, however, it is clear the bygone format is perfectly crafted for Mulaney’s unique humor and style.
The primary focus of the special is the many musical numbers and skits starring 15 or so child actors that make up the “Sack Lunch Bunch”. The sheer talent and charisma from each of the children elevate the special above a gimmick and instead creates quality, albeit bizarre, entertainment.
Each musical number is also bolstered by bombastic production value. The dance choreography, costumes, and lighting draw on both stunning Broadway numbers and goofy elementary education videos.
But it’s the subject matter of the varied songs that make Sack Lunch Bunch stand out and showcase Mulaney’s wry sense of humor. One song entitled, “Do Flowers Exist at Night?” ponders whether flowers can exist in the moonlight or if they simply disappear. Another, “Plain Plate of Noodles”, depicts the dramatic struggle of a child wanting only noodles and butter for his meal.
Yes, these songs are as ridiculous as they sound. But ridiculousness has rarely been done with such passion and quality, and I found myself enthralled.
Mulaney’s sharp writing also appears in the many brief interludes between the larger pieces. Many of the interludes poke fun at the children’s TV format, with hilarious spins on the “obscure question to viewer” segment and the moral lesson. While dripping with cutting irony, these bits also are brimming with nostalgia and highlight Mulaney’s ability to embrace the format while still mocking it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the plethora of cameos that are sprinkled into the special. David Byrne of the Talking Heads and Richard Kind have especially funny appearances that I will not spoil. Even Mulaney’s wife makes an appearance towards the end.
However, the show-stealing performance of the special comes from Jake Gyllenhaal as Mr. Music. The Oscar nominated actor commits fully to the manic character and uses his underrated comedic chops in a skit that rivals the best of SNL (which Mulaney used to write for).
But perhaps the best aspect of the special is the surprisingly tender and quiet moments appearing through a series of interviews with the cast in between the comedy. While directly speaking to the camera, each major performer ruminates on their greatest fears. Child and adult actors alike discuss some of the most existential questions that humanity wrestles with.
But while this could have easily devolved into pretentious, self-serious filler, these sections end up being a refreshing juxtaposition to the pure adrenaline of the rest of the program.
Throughout the rollercoaster of emotions and subject matter portrayed in the special, it never loses its tongue-and-cheek wholesomeness. It is clear Netlfix gave Mulaney wide creative control over this unexpected project and the “Sack Lunch Bunch” is a success because of it.