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How 15 Kids Helped John Mulaney Make His Most Personal Work Yet

John Mulaney Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

It’s been five years since John Mulaney’s attempt at a multi-camera sitcom, Mulaney, was put out of its misery by Fox after weeks of bad reviews and ratings. In the time since, Mulaney’s stature has only skyrocketed, with him becoming one of the biggest stand-ups working today. Especially after his unbelievable run with Nick Kroll on Broadway with Oh, Hello and his three stints hosting SNL, people started speculating what our friend John was going to do next. No one guessed a silly yet earnest musical variety show co-starring 15 kids ages 8 through 13. But that’s what we got with John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch this past Christmas. More surprisingly, it actually really, totally worked, eventually garnering two Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Variety Special and one for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. Next up: two more specials!

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Mulaney talks about coming up with the Netflix variety special, what he learned from the Sack Lunch Bunch, and his young fans. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Devising The Sack Lunch Bunch

I mainly work in spaces where I’m emulating a style. Obviously, Documentary Now! is the most profound example of that. SNL is, you know, you grow up knowing what an SNL sketch kind of sounds like. So you’re working within that structure. And stand-up-wise, I’m working within the forms that already exist but putting a spin on them. This idea did not originate that way.

Later on, in order to do good press, I said things like, “I was thinking about 3-2-1 Contact and Sesame Street. I thought, No one’s done one of those with a darker sensibility. So I called Marika Sawyer, and we wrote it, and then David Byrne was already dropping by to borrow a bicycle-tire pump, and things got pretty groovy.” The original seedlings were just, Oh, a school gym when they have a play. That would be an interesting look. Because I watch a lot of specials, and I’m very interested in the sets, and what looks different, and how sketch shows make themselves look different. I was seeing a junior-high production of the play Our Town, and I was looking at the school-gym stage with the paper cardboard set and just the way a gym looks at night: I haven’t seen this. I haven’t seen something presented with this staging. So it started off like, What if we did SNL with kids in a school gym? But ran it like SNL and did it live? That was my idea.

Then I talked to Marika Sawyer about it and she said, “I think that’s a really, really bad idea because they’d be kids.” I said, “No, we’d have a dress rehearsal and then we’d have meetings.” She was like, “I think kids can memorize, but I don’t know if they take notes like in 15-minute rush sessions before a live taping.” And she has a kid, and I don’t, so I said, “Agree to disagree.” We were kicking around this idea of school theater. You know, Our Town has the stage manager; I thought I could be something like that. I was kicking it around and then Marika said, “Did you ever read the Nutshell Library, by Maurice Sendak? And I said, “Nope.” They were a series of little books, one of them called Chicken Soup With Rice, that Carole King made an album out of. We kind of ripped [it] off for our song “Plain Plate of Noodles.”

When I was trying to think of a variety show, the second most successful variety show to SNL is Sesame Street. That’s the only other one that measures up in terms of longevity and kind of going from a very loose form to a more rigid one. And they both had Paul Simon on a lot in the ’70s, so that intrigued me. That world — Reading Rainbow and all that. So all that bouillabaisse, which is a French fish soup, got stirred together. And then once Marika and I finished the script, then we knew what it was. But before that, we did not.

On Casting the Sack Lunch Bunch

When we started auditioning, a big boost of faith in the project came back to me because I realized I was looking for kids that were super-talented but could converse and didn’t feel like, for lack of a better term, stage kids. I, at one point, wanted to cast it in Iowa because I thought that’s where “real” people were at. I’m from Illinois, and I don’t know why I thought that. It’s like something out of a ’40s movie, where a producer is like, “We’re going to go to Iowa and get a real person!” But I was worried that kids with too much experience might somehow be, I don’t know — Who’s a kid star? — Mickey Rooney or something. None of them were Mickey Rooney. They were pros. They were extremely talented. But when you called “cut,” they were kids, and you could talk to them like regular kids.

On What Was Cut From The Sack Lunch Bunch

There’s a thing we’re gonna try again, but I couldn’t work a puppet well enough, and we really were under the gun, so we couldn’t spend any more time with me trying to manipulate a puppet.

There was a sketch I do miss called “Mr. Molecules,” where Richard Kind plays a funny, wacky science guy on a kids’ show. He’s doing an experiment in how to make crystals, like when you put a string in water, whatever the hell that was when you’re a kid. And he says, “Any questions?” And all the questions the kids have are like, “What does your home look like? I always wonder. Like, describe it.” And then Camille says, “Is it a mid-rise, the kind of building that looks like a hospital?” And we just keep asking questions and speculating about his life. And someone says, “Are you your mother’s guardian? I bet he’s his mother’s guardian.” That was a lot of fun.

On Kids Doing His Bits on TikTok

It feels different because — I’m going to be saccharine again — thinking about sitting in my room night after night, after I was supposed to be in bed, on my Walkman listening to George Carlin Class Clown … [intentionally mumbles] Woody Allen … Bring the Pain, Bob and Ray, Denis Leary, just every comedy album, and laughing so goddamn hard and being so happy. The idea that a kid that age would be watching my stuff and enjoying it is extremely cool to me because I was at a very young age when I really, really, really fell in love with doing comedy. So, paying adults: Please come. I need that demo financially. But kids enjoying it to the point that they do it on TikTok is very rewarding.

On the Knowledge He Wanted to Pass on to the Sack Lunch Kids

I taught the kids nothing, and they made me cry. Here’s what I thought I’d teach them: Hi. I’m an adult, and I’m not going to talk to you like I’m an idiot. I’m not going to get on the floor and crawl around. I’m not. Let’s have a conversation. I didn’t have to teach them that. They were good at that right away. Tyler was even better at it than me. I went up to him after a table read, and I was like, “What do you think?” He said, “That was pretty good.” I said, “You think that one worked?” He said, “Yeah, I think it works.”

I wanted to give them a few lessons, all of which I’m glad I didn’t. You know, the importance of not overlooking revenge, that revenge gets a bad rap. That people have falling-outs because of credit, because people hog credit, and never do that if you don’t want to have a falling-out with collaborators. And I did want to tell them that people will lie to them; they’ll lie to their face. They’ll say, “I swear. I swear to you, my kids, I would never tell ‘Page Six’ that. Ever. Ever.” And they’re lying. But don’t say, “I think you’re lying,” because they’ll just keep denying it. Just go, “Okay,” and take it. And then later, you know, in some way, knock ’em down, and they’ll know what it’s for. Those were the lessons I wanted to tell.

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