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John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch Is the Strangest Thing You'll See This Christmas

But it may also be the sweetest.
  • John Mulaney with the cast of his most unusual comedy special. (Netflix)
    John Mulaney with the cast of his most unusual comedy special. (Netflix)

    John Mulaney could very easily have delivered just another hour of stand-up comedy this Christmas. He's great at it. There are few comedians we trust better to deliver the goods. Which is why you might be thrown — even a bit annoyed — that he's instead decided to drop a tonally bizarre children's special on Christmas Eve, one that almost certainly will not appeal to most children. It's an arch, niche, and deeply strange 70 minutes, and you might not like all of it, but there's also a chance you might love it.

    Does that sound crazy? You might feel crazy after watching Sack Lunch Bunch, which Mulaney promises explicitly from the outset is a children's TV special, the kind which Mulaney — who has no children and no plans to have children — wishes existed in the children's entertainment landscape. The tone of the special is in question from the start, and it never gets fully answered. The titular Sack Lunch Bunch are a group of 8-13 year old kids whose levels of precociousness fluctuate throughout the special, but rarely if ever tip over into being obnoxious, and as the special cycles through production numbers, talking-head interviews, and quirky interactions with Mulaney and others (more on that in a second), there's a constant re-calibration of just how scripted or off-the-cuff these moments are. Obviously the production numbers are pure theater, though they mostly seem to be about kids-eye-view subjects, like how weird it is that Grandma has a boyfriend, and why the only meal they'll eat is lightly buttered noodles.

    This isn't edgy humor. When I tout the strangeness of Sack Lunch Bunch, I'm not saying this is avant-garde, next-level comedy show material, but it's certainly unique. From the quotidian set-ups of the songs, to the unvarnished talking head segments in which the kids candidly discuss their fears and share their thoughts on complicated subjects, to segments like "Girl Talk with Richard Kind" (which might be my favorite two minutes of entertainment all year), this special is curiously engrossing.

    Kind is announced in the opening credits as the only celebrity guest, but that's not at all true. At various points, John and the Sack Lunch Bunch are joined by legendary musician David Byrne, Tony Award-winner Andre De Shields, Tony nominee Annaleigh Ashford, and -- in the strangest segment (and the one that most tried my patience) -- Jake Gyllenhaal.

    Mulaney's vibe with the kids is aloof, but he plays it like he's not aware of it. In one comedy sketch, he plays a network exec running a focus group full of kids, and that's really his sweet spot, as he seems to brush away their kid-ness so he can level with them, which is where the comedy arises. You get the sense that Mulaney really likes these kids and is charmed and amused by what they say to him, but he knows if that he gives that reaction, all we'll be left with is Kids Say the Darndest Things.

    It doesn't all work, but on the whole, John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is so thoroughly disarming, it's hard to begrudge it, even if you're not totally charmed. I was charmed a LOT. I want that buttered noodles kid to have everything he wants in life. Much of which, it seems, would be more buttered noodles.

    John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch drops on Netflix December 24, 2019.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, Netflix, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mulaney, Richard Kind