Thrillist: That this special even exists feels like a miracle in a way.
John Mulaney: In more ways than one, yeah.
How did you get the idea for this?
Mulaney: I don't know if I had the idea to do the finished project. Or rather, I did, but I wouldn't have been able to sum it up as such. It turned out above and beyond what I'd hoped, and also what I had somehow envisioned but not been able to articulate. I take no credit for saying it went above and beyond. It really was a huge group effort between our director, Rhys Thomas, and Marika Sawyer, who co-wrote everything with me, and Eli Bolin, who did all the music. I would say I had an idea to do some kind of eclectic, I guess, variety show, though that term applies to so many things. I wanted to do something presentational but not a sketch show. I wanted to both interview kids a little but also have them perform things I had written exactly as I wrote them. A few times I've talked to kids around the age of 10 or 11, they are very matter of fact and they kind of talk like adults if you really listen to what they are saying. It wasn't like I was crotchety about this, but I thought that a lot of kids shows were written in an "oh, that's gross" kind of way. I thought across the board the tone would be a conversation among equals, me and a group of kids, and from there the influences of Sesame Street and Free to Be... You and Me brought us to the music. I don't recall what came first. I do know that I thought, No one's done this, not as a parody. That's the slimmest sliver of articulation I can bring to this. It was a lot of telling people what it wasn't as we were making it. And that is an odd thing to say to a company when you are asking for money. But nevertheless, we made it.
Who is the intended audience? It feels like some of the jokes are made to go over kids' heads, like the pull-away reveal of a People magazine with Larry Hagman on it. I don't assume a 10-year-old would really get that joke. But it does feel like it is speaking to kids on other levels.
Mulaney: Well, it's possible no one will like the Larry Hagman joke. Marika and I were writing kind of for ourselves at age 11. We consumed a lot of kids entertainment and we consumed a lot of general entertainment. Like, The Princess Bride and Little Shop of Horrors and Clue were all movies we watched. I wouldn't say they were for kids. I would say there are references that I always thought were fun. Like [the line] in The Muppet Movie, "Have you tried Hare Krishna?" I thought that was funny as a kid. I didn't know what it meant, but I thought the words were funny. I really didn't want to do things that are this joke's for adults and this joke's for kids. I was hoping to have an even coat of, if you don't know what it means it's a funny picture of a guy in a cowboy hat. If you remember how Larry Hagman's health was constantly in the news, it has some extra resonance.
The special harkens back to New York in the '70s and '80s. One punchline is a kid recognizing the voice of Mandy Patinkin. The promo evoked All That Jazz. What is it about that era and the city?
Mulaney: Sesame Street was always either a West Village or uptown cul-de-sac that they never really identified. I was on the set of Sesame Street recently and in Alan's Store [a.k.a. Hooper's Store], I was looking around and I was like, "Oh, this is a bodega." Up close it was like every single item was a fictional item brand but also jam packed in -- rice, candles, lightbulbs, everything. My basic feeling was, "Who was in things when I was a kid?" And Mandy Patinkin was in Princess Bride. We kind of discussed it like things weren't as catered to us or we had no demands about star power. The sketch about animated movies is [about finding] it funny that they go to such lengths to have every voice done by a very, very big person. I mean, who did the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid?
Mulaney: Oh really? Who's that?
Mulaney: I didn't mean it as a rhetorical. I was genuinely asking, but I was surprised that you knew that right away. Who's Jodi Benson?
She was a musical theater person. She had worked with Howard Ashman before.
Mulaney: I knew that. Exactly. Jodi Benson. There are couple moments discussing children's entertainment like that question I asked the group of, "Raise your hand if knowing that Benji the cockatiel is voiced by Mark Ruffalo enhances the movie," and they all raised their hand. Movies when I was younger or whatever, it was that we consumed for whatever reason had just a lot of interesting people in them. As a kid we're like, "Oh, that's Tim Curry, okay." That kind of a nod to the eclectic nature of the people we were familiar with when we were younger.