Editor’s note: John Mulaney — probably best known for his Netflix stand-up specials such as Kid Gorgeous at Radio City; his writing at Saturday Night Live; and his Broadway–and–Comedy Central collaboration with Nick Kroll, Oh, Hello — has flouted that old adage about never performing with kids. John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, premiering on Netflix December 24, is a riff on the shows that he himself knew as a kid, like Free to Be … You & Me and 3-2-1-Contact, that involved a group of children performing with celebrity adults. For this one, Mulaney cast a group of 15 uncannily talented performers ranging in age from 8 to 13. They’re joined for elaborate musical numbers by (among others) David Byrne, Natasha Lyonne, André De Shields, and Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a manic, clearly troubled kids’ performer named Mr. Music. Richard Kind does a segment, too, in which three tween girls interview him on a chat show called Girl Talk With Richard Kind.
As it happens, New York had available an interviewer in the show’s target audience. My son Alexander is 10, and he is a John Mulaney superfan who at the drop of a hat will impeccably reproduce every line of Kid Gorgeous over breakfast. After school on a recent Tuesday, the two of them sat down at a café for an interview. Alex himself wrote the questions he asked, with some very light coaching from me. Afterward, as we departed, I thanked John and remarked that Alex had been a little nervous and jangly at the outset; “Oh,” Mulaney responded, waving it off. “Carbon copy of me at 10.” — C.B.
John Mulaney: “In a Sentimental Mood,” by John Coltrane, is playing. You can add that.
Alex Bonanos: I’ve heard this song about 47 times because they always play it in school.
J.M.: They do? When and where?
A.B.: When we’re working. Our teachers are allowed to put on music while we work. This happened a lot during second grade, and for some reason they think second-graders are interested in jazz.
First question: How did you come up with the name “The Sack Lunch Bunch”?
J.M.: I was basing it off something I don’t know if you’ve ever read or come in contact with, “The Nutshell Gang,” that series of books by Maurice Sendak. I became acquainted with them through the album Really Rosie, and I wanted something like that. And at Saturday Night Live, I had a sketch that was cut multiple times called “The Scrapyard Gang.” A scrapyard is like an old …
A.B.: I am aware what a scrapyard is.
J.M.: Sorry, sorry!
A.B.: No, it’s fine!
J.M.: And then I thought that might kind of jinx it because the gods of television had cut it. So I wanted something that had some punchy words in it and rhymed, and then I thought I was going to call it “The Latchkey Kids.” I was a latchkey kid, which meant that we came home and our parents were at work and we enjoyed ourselves. It was sometimes used pejoratively, like “these kids are sad,” but we were not sad — we enjoyed being able to watch television in peace. “Sack Lunch Bunch” kinda came from that. [Pauses] They’ll all be this long, my answers.
A.B.: How did you choose the kids?
J.M.: I saw probably a hundred or so kids coming from all over. We were interested in young people who had some experience but were not too polished. I wanted to be talking with real kids — not that a polished actor child is not a real kid, but those that were just a little green in the best sense of the word. The Roundabout Theatre Company helped me because I was looking for more theater kids than kids that have done a thousand commercial auditions. We got the 100 kids down to 30? 25? And then we made the hard decisions. It was kind of like putting together an SNL cast. Like Lorne would go, “That guy can play a senator, he can play a father.” Not that any of the kids could play a father. One of the proudest parts I am of this is the cast we put together. I take no credit for their talent.
A.B.: Did the kids have fun on the set, in the song segments?
J.M.: You mean the larger-scale theatrical segments?
A.B.: Yeah, like “Grandma’s Got a Boyfriend.” That’s my favorite.
J.M.: Ah, yeah. Based on true events!
A.B.: That sounds like the opening to an episode of an old TV show.
J.M.: Yeah. “Based on true events — but all names have been changed.” I changed David to Paul. That’s a very good question. I believe so, because especially in the case of Jake Ryan Flynn, who sang “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul,” or Alex Bello, who did “I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Sobbing,” it’s a lot of singing along to playback, and it’s a bit more — not tedious but focused than some of the more ensemble moments. And anytime we had downtime, we played games. When the 15 Sack Lunch Bunch kids were together, it was incredible. They bring each other a lot of energy.
A.B.: Did you get along with André De Shields?
J.M.: I did! I really admire him. He made an extremely impactful impression on me from the first time we met. You saw that we interview him in the special, and he talks about how he has no fears?
A.B.: When he talked about that, it really made me think.
J.M.: I had this conversation with him I knew we’d talk to the kids about their fears, and thought we’d talk to the adults [too] and he said, “Well, I don’t have any fears.” And I said, “Oh, what?”
A.B.: Like, “You think very highly of yourself”?
J.M.: Well, no — it was very interesting. He said, “Now, do I have fight-or-flight? Yes. But I have grown out of fears.”
A.B.: You know how one of the segments is Mr. Music with Jake Gyllenhaal? I have to say that was amazing — did you also think that his performance was the most amazingly over-the-top thing?
J.M.: I wanted [laughs] — he was my No. 1 wish, because when he hosted SNL, and in this movie I saw, Okja, he made very strong choices, which not a lot of actors do. And we thought Mr. Music has to be a bit of a lunatic, and it’s a calypso song, so we needed someone who would own that enthusiasm. When I talked to him on the phone, he said, how do you want me to play it? And I said I can’t stress enough how much I want you to make your own choice. And he started laughing and said, “Oh, mmmkay, all right.” I didn’t say anything about Okja. And we were on the set after shooting Mr. Music, day two, and he wandered over and said “I feel like this is Okja II.” And I said, “Funny you mention that, because this to us is like the drunk guy from Okja but he’s been sober for two days.” There’s a moment near the end when he’s staring off and I say “Mr. Music …?”
A.B.: That’s one of my favorite lines, “Is Mr. Music okay?”
J.M.: “No, he’s having a lot of trouble.” Also the kids are really laughing in that shot, which I enjoyed. We did a take, only one, where Camille de la Cruz calls him “Dad.”
A.B.: I was wondering about that.
J.M.: Some jokes make no sense and are just so stupid.
A.B.: Like when one kid calls you “Mom.”
J.M.: Well, a few of us in our childhood accidentally called our teacher “Mom.” I don’t know if you’ve ever done that.
A.B.: I accidentally called one of my best friends “Mom,” and he gave me a look.
J.M.: Yeah. It’s strange when those wires are getting crossed. Mr. Music was revealed, I guess, as Camille’s dad? I don’t stand by the continuity of it.
A.B.: But with Mr. Music’s current mental condition and also him having a child, that sets up a pretty interesting B-plot.
J.M.: They might not live together. I don’t know?
A.B.: Maybe he’s a deadbeat? Afterward, I researched whether Jake Gyllenhaal has a child.
J.M.: Oh good, I like that — that’s good.
A.B.: [Long pause; looks at list of questions] This is about Richard Kind.
J.M.: [Laughs] What a serious tone you took on! Like “Now, we really have to talk about your divorce.” “I would be remiss to not mention your arrest.” “We need to talk about Richard Kind.”
A.B.: Do you know if he got along with the girls in the “Girl Talk” segment?
J.M.: Yes. I can’t tell you how much [good stuff] we had to cut out. That was a pretty much improvised conversation.
[Dad, interjecting]: Entirely? Even when he kept addressing the three of them as “Girl Talk,” over and over?
J.M.: No — I told him, “Please begin or end every sentence with ‘Girl Talk.’” And there was one thing — I’d said, “Why don’t you talk about making ‘A Serious Man’ with the Coen brothers?” And at one point Richard says, “I was saying to Scott Rudin …,” and one of the girls says, “You said this to Rudin?” [All laugh.]
A.B.: Did anything go wrong on set? What was the worst part?
A.B: [Quoting a line from Mulaney’s stand-up] “Strange, the passage of time.”
J.M.: Very strange! It was nine-and-a-half, ten shooting days. We were using every second, and there was a lot more I wanted to do — and hope to do in the next one — but yeah, we’d just hit these child-labor laws.
J.M.: And I’m all for the laws.
A.B.: In the show, you asked other people how they want to die. How do you want to die?
J.M.: I asked other people how they want to die?
A.B.: Yeah, how they wanted to die.
J.M.: I did? Oh, well, I asked everyone their biggest fear —
A.B.: Yeah, but you also asked …
J.M.: Oh, Natasha Lyonne! I think she was talking about ways she didn’t want to die, and I did ask her. You know, there was a time when I would have answered “Assassination,” because then I’d be forever immortalized at this age, and I don’t mean that in a dark way, I mean it in a kind of Lincoln-Kennedy-esque way, where there’s a lasting image of me at 44, hopefully still looking okay. And everyone would go “He was perfect, a great great person.” I used to think that. I really like what I do, and I really like my life, so I do hope to go very old. Also stand-up comedians can keep performing into their 80s and 90s, so I hope I get the chance to do that.
A.B.: I also hope you can do stand-up for a really long time.
J.M.: Thank you very much. I think my persona will make a lot more sense when I’m 80.
A.B.: And by then, those jokes about not having any children will be rendered useless — you might have kids then, might not, probably not.
J.M.: That’s very funny. You and my mom want to know about that.
*A version of this article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!