In 2019, we saw the continued establishment of Jordan Peele as a horror visionary, Bill Hader’s award-winning Barry reach yet another level, and the guys behind The Hangover deliver two of the year’s most sobering pieces of entertainment. The lesson, oft-repeated, is that it should come as no surprise when creative people do creative things and demonstrate a broader skillset than we lazily imagine them having.
And yet, some people may be surprised to see comedian John Mulaney fronting a children’s musical special (which you can stream on Netflix starting on Christmas Eve) that is, in fact, filled with near as much heart as it is wonderful weirdness (see: Jake Gyllenhaal as the obsessed Mr. Music), and comedy (see: Richard Kind’s tween focused talk show). Something somewhat by design and somewhat a result of what Mulaney told us was a “softening” over the course of 70 minutes when we spoke with him last week about John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch. Also in the discussion? Plotting a course for this unique special and paying tribute to an era of children’s entertainment that wasn’t afraid of heavier subject matter. We also discussed the thrill of not being tied down for too long on any one project, and why SNL cast members probably don’t care that celebrities are getting to play politicians.
This comes from a place of admiration, not snark… But this special feels like an interesting or unique choice for someone to make. How much do you plan your career versus going with things that are interesting to you in the moment?
I plan about six months in advance and that’s after years of sometimes having like a five or a two-year plan. Often, I’ll be working with some people on one thing and then I’ll have so much fun doing that that I’ll kind of want to move into something else with them right away. The past couple of years, I’ve been very lucky to not have to see through an entire series of television or a feature film or something that. I’ve been able to kind of do specials or an episode or two of Documentary Now! Or go back to Saturday Night Live to kind of curate something I really like and do it in the way that I would really like to and then have that be over. That’s been very enjoyable. I really like putting out a couple of things a year that I’ve been able to put a lot of care into.
Is part of that because of the flexibility that that gives you and the ability to jump from one idea to the next without having to bank things and hope that you can do those things before they fall away?
A bit, yeah. That’s the part I maybe worry about. I wouldn’t call it restlessness. I can stay with one idea for a year or longer. But sometimes, yeah, I get creative ADHD where I kind of really like something and then I get distracted or I go to some show or I watch something and I get into that type of format. [Laughs] I remember I saw Book Of Mormon while working on Saturday Night Live. And I think there couldn’t be more polar opposites than a live TV show you put together in five days and a musical that you put together in five years. And I thought… I was in the middle of a writers meeting and at Saturday Night Live and said, “I just want to do something where we can spend five years on it!” And that’s really not helpful on a weekly variety show. So, yeah, the ability to kind of hop from rock to rock has, has been fun. I hope that’s not a weakness of mine.
I don’t say this to compare comedians to musicians, but it does seem to me, like, musicians put out albums and then tour. We kind of do the reverse. We tour and then we put it out as an album or special. But the expectation of, you know, a new project every year and it’s different than the last one, and hopefully you carry along the same people with you — I find that to be a lot of fun. So in a way, it’s like emulating that kind of lifestyle.
What was it about this idea that specifically stood out to you?
A lot of things stood out to me. I hoped that it would be clear that, if anyone was being parodied, it was myself. I really liked talking to the kids that I worked with on this. But what stuck out the most to me was how comfortable [co-writer and co-producer] Marika Sawyer and [director and co-producer] Rhys Thomas and [composer] Eli Bolin and I were with having more of a straight forward and sincere wrap up to it. That’s not something I would have felt comfortable with a decade ago. We were trying to make them less actors in a thing we wrote and more independent voices that you hear. I think I would have wanted to rig it more if I was 27 versus 37.
The specificity of language is so important with comedy, but with child actors, I imagine there might be more of a want to see where they go with the material. Were they free [to explore]?
The interviews were completely freeform. And we never tried to guide them towards anything other than just straight forward conversation about different fears and what they hope to be doing. Or if they had advice for their older selves. We kept it pretty general. We weren’t trying to provoke precocious answers at all. We just wanted to talk with them. And then there were a few segments that were pretty improvised. I played chess with a kid named Tyler Bourke. There are only two lines in that that we script. The rest of that was freeform conversation with Tyler. There’s also a great segment for tween girls called “Girl Talk With Richard Kind.”
Other than asking him to begin every sentence with “Girl Talk,” that was wide open. I wish we could air the whole 35 minutes that we shot. Jacob Laval and David Byrne do a segment called Paper Mache Time and there was a loose script that gradually got enhanced by the two of them working on it. I think my favorite line being the one that Jacob added, “Everything’s going to be fine, David Byrne.” [Laughs] There were a few sketches that were more tightly scripted, but Marika and I said to ourselves after maybe day two, “Oh this is now like on Saturday Night Live when you start writing for the cast,” because you know their strengths and what they’re great at. You kind of think like, “Well, how would we end this?” Well, let’s just give the ball to Linder (Sutton) or Camille (De La Cruz) or Cordelia (Comando) or Oriah (Elgrabli) or Zelle (Steele Morrow). You kind of know, they do this very well and this speech with them would be really funny. I’d say we adapted to that cast more than they adapted to us.
Why was it important to kind of have that authenticity in the wrap up of this and not necessarily have it come off as parodying or making fun of these things specifically.
Well, all evidence seems to point to the contrary, but I never really feel like I’m making fun of things when I do them. I felt with Documentary Now! on IFC, people would say like, “this week, Documentary Now! skewers…” like whatever film we’re doing. You know, to be like, it’s just an homage with no comedy would be a lie. But I really liked the type of programming we were trying to replicate with The Sack Lunch Bunch. I think, to be honest, it came together so much in shooting and then with our great editor Adam Epstein that you’re kind of seeing a half sincere person really soften throughout the course of 70 minutes [laughs].
The interviews with the kids focus on asking what scares them. Why was that a specific theme that you wanted to explore?
I don’t know much about children’s entertainment right now. I think I say in the beginning that I watched children’s programming in this era and I didn’t like it. That’s not really true. I’m sort of aware of some of it. But it appeared to me that when some of my friends watch with their kids, that it doesn’t have the same amount of melancholy or death that the stuff we consumed. And I thought, did I feel wrought up and scared and sad all the time when I was a kid because Roald Dahl would kill off the parents in the first ten pages of every book? Or was my mind already in that place? And so, I think I wanted to see if that tone fit with the kids of today, too. Things when I was growing up weren’t dark… Well, maybe they were dark. They were dark, but they felt right.
Like, it’s either James And The Giant Peach or The Witches. The parents go out for the night and they’re killed by a rhinoceros that escaped from the zoo. And my parents would go out on Saturday night and we’d have a babysitter. It seemed like every time I’d say goodbye to them, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, they could be killed by a rhino. And so, I wondered if kids still had the same amount of bizarre dread and then wondered that, if they did, what those fears might be about, and if they were different now than in 1989.
We experienced a lot of the same children’s programming, I’m sure. There weren’t bumpers on content back then. Whereas now, it feels like maybe there’s a little bit of protective padding around messages.
I think, in part, it was what was presented by us. And it was presented to us by adults, but it seems like by adults who didn’t think kids couldn’t handle certain things. Like in Labyrinth or Flight Of The Navigator, there was a lot of like, really wanting to escape your life and doing so and then really regretting it. And you have like 11-year-old protagonists that are like, “I’ve screwed up everything. Why did I get myself in this position?” [Laughs] It was a speed that I guess, as I say, “it’s for kids, by adults, with kids present.” Whatever adults were making our entertainment really thought we could handle a lot. And maybe we could.
Last thing. You were a writer on SNL when Tina Fey came on and did the Sarah Palin cameo, right?
Yes. I was hired that August. 2008, yes.
I’ve had the thought myself and I’ve seen people get bent out of shape over all the cameos and political pop-ins like Larry David, or obviously Alec Baldwin. People say that the cast is being shortchanged. Does anyone on that show really care if these cameos are happening? I’m just curious if that feels like an incursion, or if it’s just part of the show?
No, it doesn’t. When I’ve been there it doesn’t. I think, and this is kind of the treasure chest that is the show. The cold open is mainly where they are. And, in general, except for very large debate pieces, the cold open is often limited to a couple of people. And when I hosted — I think both times, actually — Ben Stiller played Michael Cohen. Those sketches travel a lot and they’re on CNN the next day and they’re on Meet The Press, hopefully, the next day. And they have a life in the news cycle, but at the show that’s three minutes and 49 seconds and you’re often happy you’re not in that so you can be getting ready for something else. [Laughs] That’s my experience.
Yeah, the show is such a big moving beast that I didn’t know if people could, necessarily, be able to be tied up with jealousy or anything.
No. Well, my memory of it is that those pieces are, not the Trojan horse, but those pieces are what grab a hell of a lot of people to watch. You know, the opening that is the topical cold open from that week is what we use to trick people [laughs] into watching more and more irreverent sketches as the night goes on.
So, singing lobsters… That’s what gets people in the door for singing lobsters in diners.
That’s how we trick you [into thinking] that we’re smart.
‘John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch’ will be available to stream on Netflix on Tuesday, December 24.