Sack Lunch Bunch: Gallows Humor for Kids

Joel Mayward

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is advertised as “a children's musical comedy special from a man with neither children nor musical ability.” The marketing for the comedian’s Netflix special is accurate, as it feels inspired by classic children’s shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, but imbued with Mulaney’s dryly ironic dark humor.

While there are all sorts of big musical production numbers, a key component of the show is unscripted. Crew members ask each kid in the cast (as well as special celebrity guests) to talk openly and honestly about their biggest fears. The kids’ responses include asteroids, spiders, clowns, and pigeons, as well as quite serious anxieties: home invasions, drowning, murder, and the general existential dread of death. Celebrities also share about their fears. David Byrne is afraid of volcanoes, Natasha Lyonne gets anxious about toilets and nuclear holocausts, and Jake Gyllenhaal fears losing both the people he loves and his iPhone. It’s confessional in tone, even therapeutic for both confessors and audience.

This seemingly contradictory combination—frank confessions about fear, grief, and death combined with silliness, snark, and satire—is a common theme in many recent television series (The Good Place, BoJack Horseman, Dead to Me, Fleabag, and Lyonne’s own Russian Doll). What makes Sack Lunch Bunch distinct is its children’s special premise and the fact that it seems outrageous to talk openly about human suffering and mortality with a group of cheerful 10-year-olds. In an early transitional scene, we meet Googy, apparently a recurring Sack Lunch Bunch side character who looks like a blue dinosaur (perhaps a nod to the purple Barney). The scene is interrupted when Mulaney abruptly tells the kids that the actor who played Googy died from an enlarged heart, subsequently leading to a conversation about death, where he also reveals that he has “In Memoriam” photos for the entire cast. It’s striking and off-putting, but it’s also weirdly comforting. Mulaney is helping the kids (and us) feel more secure with addressing our fears and our inevitable deaths. Like a good children’s show host, he’s teaching us.

The special is confessional in tone, even therapeutic for both confessors and audience.

This pedagogical intent can also be seen in the confession of celebrity guest André De Shields, a renowned Broadway actor. “I believe fear, like any prejudice, or bias, or predisposition, is taught and therefore learned,” De Shields says into the camera. “It’s the way we control one another in this world, in this American society. I know that fear is false, an illusion.”

On one hand, De Shields’ ideas feel a bit too romanticized, as if fear and death can simply be overcome by more positive thinking and “being yourself.” On the other hand, I think there’s a reason why “do not be afraid” is one of the most common divine commands we find in the Bible. Human beings are deeply prone to fear and need consistent reminders that God’s perfect love has overcome death. Similarly, I think one of Jesus’s most provocative teachings is “do not worry.” It’s so much easier said than done. Fear and worry are our knee-jerk reactions to so many things, but especially the reality of death. Sack Lunch Bunch and Scripture together remind us of reality itself: that you and I are definitely going to die someday, but also that you and I are deeply loved by a good God who has overcome fear and death in Christ.

This posture—openly and directly discussing difficult topics with children—was perhaps best exemplified by the saintly Fred Rogers on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Where Mr. Mulaney’s neighborhood is marked by irony and gallows humor, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood was striking for its sincerity, warmth, and richly Christian love. Indeed, as the recent films Won’t You be My Neighbor? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood demonstrate, Rogers viewed his work on television as a pastoral vocation, a public ministry based in his Christian faith. Though he is open about his Catholic upbringing, John Mulaney’s aspirations likely aren’t so divinely inspired. Still, both men (and both kids’ shows) share one key attribute: being honest with and genuinely listening to children. There’s an underlying resonance here with Jesus’s words in Luke 18:16: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

In one of the later confessional scenes in the Netflix special, a young Sack Lunch Bunch member says something profound: “Sometimes I try not to fear, because I believe, like, God is always watching us.” It’s a passing comment, probably lost to many audiences in the midst of all the wacky songs and dance numbers, but I think we have something to learn from her. It’s OK to talk about our fears with honesty and courage—even to laugh about them—because we know we’re not alone.

Topics: TV