A Comedy Special for Kids That Gets Their Dark Sense of Humor

“John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch,” a charming foray into kids entertainment by the stand-up comic premiering Christmas Eve on Netflix, begins with a quote from one of the Real Housewives: “Do you know who tells the truth? Drunks and children.”

Nonsense. Kids lie all the time. They can be cruel, sure, but just as often kind. And while some say the darnedest things, many kids just spit out banalities. Every cliché about young people is wrong because they are an infinitely diverse group, even more so than adults, whose eccentricities have often been socialized out of them.

It’s a testament to how much respect Mulaney has for his audience that you might wonder if the introductory quote was a joke at the expense of the Real Housewife. For he has made a special that works hard to not condescend or speak down to children, sometimes to a fault. In a season when pop culture panders with noisy space battles and singing cats, Mulaney offers counterprogramming, a quirky variety show with a modern Broadway sensibility. At its best, and most fully realized, it feels like a program made by unusually sophisticated, precocious children for their friends.

On the surface, Mulaney is making something retro, evoking “Sesame Street” and “3-2-1 Contact,” with its homemade sets, beeping and blooping audio design and old school animation, not to mention its casual conversations between adults and kids. John Mulaney doesn’t adjust his wry stand-up sensibility or dumb down his references to be as inclusive as those classic public television shows. Early on, he sits with a bunch of 8 to 13 year olds, one of whom asks him what the tone of the show will be. Mulaney looks confused. So another girl clarifies: “Is it ironic, or do you like doing a children’s show?”

Mulaney responds that he does like it, but then levels with them in a quieter voice: “Honestly, if this doesn’t turn out great, I think we should all be like, ‘It was ironic,’ and people will be like, ‘That’s hilarious.’”

As a host of these song- and dance-filled sketches, Mulaney projects what might be called a kid’s idea of a grown-up, which is to say, something like a local news anchor: smoothly confident, assured, slightly indifferent. He’s Mister Rogers, if he cared more about showbiz than kindness. But he’s really a supporting character here, and the stars are these charismatic kids, who, in one of the unifying devices of the special, speak directly to the camera about their greatest fears (home invasion, clowns).

The highlights are the stylishly shot musical numbers led by these youngsters, including a Busby Berkeley-inspired ode to noodles and a little bit of butter, the only food worth eating, according to Orson Hong, a white-suited kid who delivers his song with irresistible panache.

In another dynamite number that transforms the tedium of real life into heightened reality, a fireplug named Lexi Perkel enlivens a grown-up party where no one is paying attention to her. With David Byrne accompanying her, she performs a pop song that perfectly captures the frustration of being overlooked — with some tap dance mixed in.

Most of these songs emerge from perceptive readings of outsized feelings generated by ordinary events, like a comic tune about your grandmother getting a new boyfriend or a sweetly romantic one about seeing a white lady crying on the streets of New York. “Once you keep your eyes peeled,” Mulaney tells his co-stars, “you’ll see crying white ladies all over New York City.”

Mulaney mixes in cameos by beloved character actors like André De Shields (who plays a stylish, eye-patch-wearing crooner preaching the virtues of algebra) and Richard Kind (who chats with three girls in a segment called “Girl Talk”). This hodgepodge aesthetic is tied together by a running joke that the special (and often the kids) makes cultural references that are more The New Yorker than Nick at Night. This has got to be the only show for children that has references to Fran Lebowitz, Federico Fellini and Ed Koch.

The jokes will alienate some young viewers. They annoyed the two-kid focus group in my home: my 5-year-old lost interest, while my 10-year-old felt talked over, if also intrigued by these adult-world references. It’s hard to see the audience for a sketch imagining a focus group for a movie, where kids act like showbiz veterans, talking about Elizabeth Banks or Mark Ruffalo. Children will be confused, while adults who chuckle may grow tired of the name-dropping many bits.

At the same time, these knowing jokes reflect how committed Mulaney is to rejecting any note of condescension, which earns the trust of kids, so often patronized by adults. Death is a frequent subject here, often comically, which might strike some as odd, but youngsters have much darker senses of humor than adults tend to believe. There’s an interlude offering a fun fact about the number of people who died from volcanoes and an irreverent sketch with a blue Barney-like character named Googy that is interrupted by news that the man in the costume died. It’s a risky joke that some children (and adults) will love, and some might not.

That’s the assumption behind most art put out in the world. Taste is subjective. Yet kids’ entertainment can be overly cautious and homogenized, anxious about upsetting or confusing its audience. But there are worse things. Perhaps because Mulaney doesn’t have children, he sees this more clearly than some parents. And it makes his special stand out.

And yet, as committed as he is to his taste, Mulaney also has the instincts of a crowd-pleasing entertainer. So he knows his final musical number must include the broadest, most flamboyantly silly performance. As Mr. Music, Jake Gyllenhaal pops his eyes and flops his limbs in a calypso number that tries to explain how ordinary sounds can be musical, but he keeps stumbling, an escalating pratfall of a comic turn.

He’s a grown-up who comes off like a fool. What kid wouldn’t love that?

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