John Mulaney on Embracing the Theatrical and Building a Broadway-Size Sack Lunch Bunch
The actor-comedian discusses his new Netflix special about fear and death, starring a bunch of children and André De Shields.
John Mulaney's latest Netflix special is a doozy. It's called John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, and it features the actor and comedian singing and dancing about fear, death, and loneliness alongside some of Broadway's most talented children (and also Tony winners André De Shields and Annaleigh Ashford). Here, Mulaney discusses the genesis of the project, whether he considers himself a theater geek, and how working with Alex Timbers on Oh, Hello on Broadway has impacted all of his projects since — including the Documentary Now episode where he played a character inspired by Stephen Sondheim.
The content in John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is so specific. Tell me about the genesis of the project.
The practical genesis was, I like doing specials, or one-off things, where you work for months, you put everything into it and curate it, and then it's out there. I wanted to do a special that wasn't standup or a sketch show — because I worked on one for several years and probably used up all my sketch ideas — and something that's performative and bizarre, because when you look at the bulk of what I've enjoyed doing, people come in and see a few bizarre things.That's a lot of words. Basically, I wanted to do an eclectic special like the ones my cowriter, Marika Sawyer, and I grew up on, like Free to Be You and Me and Really Rosie, with children in a melancholy setting, with a lot of fun and songs, but with a bit of heaviness.
You've cast some of Broadway's most talented children as the "Sack Lunch Bunch." Was it hard to assemble that group, and did you realize at the time that some of these kids have more Broadway credits than most adults?
Roundabout Theatre Company and the casting director, Jim Carnahan, and his team were great. They weren't just extremely resourceful, they knew specifics. This is a project where describing what I wanted was very often difficult: "Do you have any kids that can deliver, but when we sit down to talk, they're the most natural kids in the world?" They knew, "There's a kid who's a swing in The Lion King and he's down to earth but really talented." This really talented kid, Alex Bello: Someone in casting said, "He was in All My Sons and he was the best young person I've ever worked with." They were very plugged into every production.
I was talking to [child actor] Jonah Mussilino on the last day of shooting, and he was like "When I did the Falsettos touring company…" and I was like, "What? You were Jason in Falsettos? We could have been talking about this the entire time?" I was amazed that they could just drop a credit like that.
Do you consider yourself a huge theater buff?
I can be decimated by a true theater buff. When we were shooting the song, "Do Flowers Exist at Night?," Zell [Steele Morrow], the young man in Flowers, and our musical coordinator and I were playing the cellphone game where you can't see the screen but you hold it up to your forehead and it shows the title of a song or a person from musical theater. I was kind of good at it. It was like, Pippin and I was like [singing] "We've got magic to do," but then I would have runs of "What the hell is Nine?" I have so many blindspots.
You certainly nailed a Sondheim impression in Co-Op. How many times did you have to watch the original film to perfect it?
I first saw it when I was in my early 20s. When I started working at Saturday Night Live, I saw it again and realized, "Oh, that's not not me on a Friday night." Rehearsals go till midnight and the show's the next day. And I smoked back then. And I smoked indoors. It's pushed to an extreme in the "Ladies Who Lunch," moment in Co-Op, and I studied it a ton when we were writing the episode, but the notion of smoking amongst other writers and then going "Damn it," and walking to the floor and saying "Hi. You've been saying this wrong," loomed large in my mind.
How has working with Alex Timbers, who directed Oh, Hello on Broadway and your last standup special, affected your creative process over the past few years?
There are a few things that he very gently instilled. One was live up to the scale of the venue. We were going into a Broadway theater from the Cherry Lane. It had been a funny show, we checked that box. But for the Lyceum, he started working with Basil Twist and Scott Pask right away to be like, "These guys are gonna do their thing and we need to add scale." Basil's tuna puppet and Scott's set were beautiful and appropriate, but also said, "We understand you paid a great deal of money for these tickets."
Another thing was...One night post-opening, the audience was only OK, so we're like, "You want to play OK? We'll give you OK." Afterwards, Alex said "You know what might be cool? If the audience is ever really quiet, just double down on the show. Really go for it." In our minds, it seemed like "Shove it even more down their throats" but what he was saying was, "It doesn't matter if they're quiet because they just walked out in a snowstorm, but give it 110 percent every night."
Lastly, because this really stuck with me, we were getting to the end of tech for Oh, Hello. Alex is the nicest, calmest person in the world, but I walked by him one day and he was having a semi-charged exchange about getting a little more tech time for the pre-show look. I knew we were gonna have music when people came in, but I thought it was going to be a standard thing. He had haze and lights and Steely Dan blasting, and we never got to see it. I actually snuck into one of the balcony boxes one day, and I was like, "Holy sh*t." Imagine knowing from the moment you walked in that you can tell people to focus and get ready. That really factored into my touring since then.
That was a longer answer than you expected.
But it leads me to asking, how did those mantras stick with you during the creation of Sack Lunch Bunch?
One thing he was very big on, that I have struggled with in the past, is stating your purpose so everyone can relax. With Oh, Hello, it was, "We're doing a play. Why are we doing a play? Here's why we're doing a play. This is what we like about plays and this is what we don't." Especially for a show like Sack Lunch Bunch, which is all over the place and eclectic, I probably could have sat back and been like, "Deal with it. Enjoy!" But you bring the audience in and you say, "Here are my reasons and here's what you're about to see." It sounds kind of 101, but it's hard to remember.
Lastly, I just want to say how impactful I thought André De Shields was in the segment where he discusses how he's not afraid of anything. It's incredible.
I gotta tell you. Each kid, we interviewed for about 30 minutes. André was probably a 50-minute interview, and at one point, I was like, "Should we just air this?" He was far more fascinating and illuminating than anything we could write.