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John Mulaney makes one crazy, mixed-up kids’ show

The comedian’s brilliant Netflix special, ‘The Sack Lunch Bunch,’ goes to bizarre places but keeps its messages grounded.

John Mulaney (center) laughs it up with some of the child performers on his special “The Sack Lunch Bunch.”
Netflix

Still just 37, the Chicago-born John Mulaney already has cemented his status as one of the top-tier comedians of our time.

And deservedly so. Mulaney’s smart, original, relatable, surgically precise comedy has earned him widespread critical acclaim, the admiration of some of the biggest names in the business and a huge and loyal fan base.

Mulaney could live out the rest of his career in smooth and safe fashion and reap a fortune by playing to his strengths and staying within his comfort zone — but he’s far too talented and creative and subversive to take the easy path.

To wit: “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch.”

Talk about taking risks. In lesser hands, the premise of this Netflix comedy special could have resulted in an epic fail — a career-stalling stumble.

Mulaney is far too good to let that happen.

“John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” is an instant classic.

In the tradition of master put-on artists such as Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen, the sweater-clad Mulaney mocks the banality of children’s television and plays a heightened version of himself as a hipster, deeply cynical, alternate universe Mr. Rogers.

“What you’re about to see is a children’s TV special,” Mulaney says at the outset, as a gaggle of diverse kids hang on his every word. “I have no children of my own, and that’s by choice.”

“What’s the tone of the show?” inquires one of the kids.

Another kid elaborates: “Is it ironic, or do you LIKE doing a children’s show?”

“First off, I liked doing the show,” responds Mulaney. “But honestly, if this doesn’t turn out great, I think we should all be like, ‘Oh it was ironic.’ … [And] that’s the first lesson of this special: You can go very far in life if you pretend to know what you’re doing.”

From that moment forward, “John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch” is a brilliant, multi-layered piece of performance art.

The kids who make up the roster of “The Sack Lunch Bunch” come across as precocious, theatrically inclined child actors in the on-set sequences — but when they’re interviewed individually and asked to talk about their biggest fears, they’re just … kids. Who appear to be sharing some legitimate, real-world anxieties.

Or maybe not.

When the “Sack Lunch Bunch” children are asked to draw pictures of their grandparents, John learns one of the students is fringe showbiz royalty (hint: the kid’s father is named Marlon) — and it kicks off a flashback musical sequence in which the young John belts out a ballad titled “Grandma’s Got a Boyfriend,” which is about his widowed grandmother’s romance with a World War II vet named Paul.

“Everyone don’t like him, he’s almost 88,” sings young John, “my aunts say they don’t trust him, but me, I think he’s great!”

Snarky as that might sound on the surface, the full video telling the story of Paul is nuanced, and rather sad, and ultimately touching.

Such is the case with many of the stand-alone sketches in this special. The trappings are surreal, but there’s something grounded and resonant about the message.

Veteran actor Richard Kind hosts a weird ‘Girl Talk’ segment on ‘John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch.’
Netflix

Consider the show-within-a-show “Girl Talk,” with 62-year-old character actor Richard Kind as the host, telling his guests (all members of the Sack Lunch Bunch, all aspiring actors) his favorite movie is “Witness for the Prosecution” and offering invaluable advice. It’s bizarre and funny and endearing.

And yet the “Girl Talk” sketch isn’t even close to the weirdest highlight of this special. Wait until you see Jake Gyllenhaal’s crazy-ass performance as the unhinged, psychotic, unmusical “Mister Music,” who snaps at the children who offer to help him out. (“You’re ignorant!” he barks at one 12-year-old critic.)

Time and again in “Sack Lunch Bunch,” the children and the adults who appear in this special address the camera directly as they reveal their deepest fears.

And that’s the ultimate testament to the fearless nature of this show.