JD Hansel – Having recently watched John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, I have less of an understanding of what this Netflix special is supposed to be than I did at the start. The latest of Mulaney’s bold and inventive comedy projects, this charming variety hour is a nostalgic take on children’s television shows, playfully gesturing toward Sesame Street, but never letting itself become another lazy lampoon. While it questions its own tone within its first three minutes, without ever offering us a definite answer, I get the sense that the show’s creators weren’t sure whether it was meant to be a sincere children’s program or a big joke — much of the content suggests that it’s mere parody for adults, but the genuine love for classic children’s television places this special squarely in the gray area of joyously impish pastiche. It’s the opposite side of Pee-Wee’s same coin. The odd thing about it, however, is the absence of most of the hallmarks of classic children’s TV due to its unique angle on what makes a kid show work — and it’s an angle that Sesame Street and other kids’ shows should take as their own.
While it’s a widely held view that Sesame is missing some ingredients that its secret sauce once had “back in the day,” I think the main focus of popular criticisms of contemporary Sesame Street is often wrong. You’ll hear people say that Elmo has taken a lot of screen time away from the great classic Muppet characters on the show, and it’s true that Elmo sits in the office that Big Bird once held, pushing Big Bird upstage. However, today’s Sesame Street is filled with Muppets, both new and old, and I’m willing to bet that Grover and Cookie Monster get at least as much screen time now as they got in the 1970s. If you’re ready to take something of a red pill though, allow me to trouble your mind with this haunting question: where the heck are the children?
Moreover, where are any humans on Sesame Street? This entire city street that used to be home to dozens of people, young and old, now seems to have about three human residents. This hasn’t stopped Sesame from being a good show that wins a ton of Emmys, but it does make for a significant change in tone. The children have been almost entirely moved out of the street scenes and into the cut scenes, and while I do believe that the best moments with children on Sesame have always been in the segments when Muppets talk to kids on a locationless blue set I call “the void,” something feels different now. In the new Season 50 segment “Big Bird’s Road Trip,” which is probably the closest approximation to those classic sketches that the show is still running, Big Bird is on a road trip throughout the season, stopping in different American cities to talk to the children there, driven in a van by Nina, who is also back on Sesame Street at the same time (confirming that Nina is canonically an omnipresent deity). These interviews unfortunately feel both rushed and carefully controlled, with every question and every answer scripted well ahead of time, even though the questions are typically as simple as “What’s your favorite food?” I think the street stories on Sesame Street are still fairly strong and engaging –– I watched the recent episode “Pigs for Another Day” for reference while writing this, and it got more than a few audible laughs out of me –– but I think that’s because the people at Sesame Workshop have a far better handle on what to do with their puppets than they do their humans.
Now let’s look at John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch. This show is supposed to be based on classic children’s TV shows, but it emulates almost nothing about “old school” Sesame Street: no puppets, no drab sets, no alphabet, no counting, no hand-drawn cartoons or analogue visual effects, and no appearances by Judy Collins (look up her list of appearances on Sesame Street –– it’s a lot). Instead, Sack Lunch Bunch puts a camera in front of some kids and some weird adults and asks them about the show’s topics: fear and death. While it’s definitely a variety show that’s jam-packed with an abundance of songs and sketches, everything seems centered around letting children speak their mind, which is something one almost never sees on television today, and even in the exceptions, it’s not half as organic as this.
What’s most indicative of Sack Lunch Bunch’s different approach to television is its songs. They’re typically about pretty dumb things, usually relating to the experiences children often have, and as clever as they may be, I’m not even sure that they’re funny. I’m not sure that anything in this entire special made me laugh out loud, but it’s all captivate nonetheless, because it’s just about people. The groovy earworm “Plain Plate of Noodles” sounds like it was written by my ten-year-old self, whose only hope to survive dinner at an Italian restaurant was this very dish. “Pay Attention” is a depiction of every skit, play, and puppet show I made my parents and their friends endure as a kid, while “Grandma’s Got a Boyfriend” speaks to the awkward confusion every child experiences when an old person they know starts a new relationship with another old person, which just shouldn’t be allowed. All of these songs and more transport the viewers back to their childhood minds, where “Do Flowers Exist at Night” seemed like a legitimate question. When this is juxtaposed with “talking head” interview segments of kids sharing their deepest fears, with adults thrown in the interview mix and asked the same questions, the adults and children (both in the show and in the audience) are all equalized as confused, scared weirdos who find the world curious and their own minds befuddling.
It turns out, then, that Sack Lunch Bunch’s secret ingredient isn’t anything hard to find, and in fact it’s been right in front of our noses all along –– the secret ingredient is simple humanity. It’s people. People are fascinated by people, and the function of the theme of “fear and death” in this special is not mere shock value, but a way to get to the heart of people. Unlike Sesame Street’s current rehearsed questions about what a child’s favorite food is, the questions Mulaney and his team ask people in this special are designed to show their raw, flawed humanity. We see people’s dumb, pathetic thoughts and fears and everything about people of all ages that makes humans weird. Even at our most pathetic, we humans are interesting just for being humans, and any show that values the real thoughts and feelings of children has that Mr. Rogers touch that makes a children’s show more than just a children’s show: it’s a human’s show.