Behind the Songs of “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch”

Eli Bolin Sack Lunch Bunch Songs Eli Bolin / John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (Netflix)

Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.

The holidays are (at their best) a time of wholesomeness, gift-giving, and the nervous interactions between adults and children who don’t normally interact. In that spirit, Netflix’s release of John Mulaney‘s new comedy special, John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, feels particularly well-timed. A pastiche of kid’s TV variety shows from the ’70s and ’80s, the special sees Mulaney spearheading an army of golden-voiced tots through sketches, songs, and setpieces that touch on everything from the tentative relationship between a family and their grandmother’s new boyfriend, to the anxiety of being ignored when you’re trying to put on a skit for a room of uncaring adults, to the finer minutiae of New York geography and politics.

As you can presume, the songs are a pretty integral part of Sack Lunch Bunch, a beautifully eclectic group of ditties co-written by songwriter Eli Bolin. Bolin previously worked with Mulaney on the Documentary Now! episode “Co-Op: Original Cast Album”, itself a glorious homage to old-school New York theater. But Sack Lunch Bunch put Bolin firmly in his wheelhouse, having written songs for Sesame Street and his own kid-centric songwriting project in New York, Story Pirates.

I got a chance to sit down for a phone interview with Bolin to talk about his collaboration with Mulaney and co-writer Marika Sawyer, writing songs for kids, and his greatest fears.

(The following interview is edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to the album on Spotify below.)

(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)


How did you get involved in Sack Lunch Bunch – was it a natural extension of working with Mulaney on Co-Op?

ELI BOLIN: My sense from getting to know John [Mulaney] since Co-op is that he’s a pretty loyal person, and if he gets to know someone and likes working with them, he wants to keep working with them. We had a good time working on Co-Op; I knew that I liked working with him and hoped to do it again. We stayed in touch, and out of the blue in March, he reached out to me with this idea that he and Marika Sawyer had started talking about. He pitched it to me and said, “Do you want to work on it with us?” I was totally thrilled because it is right in my wheelhouse.

Right, because you’ve been working on songs for Sesame Street, and you have a [kid-themed] project called Story Pirates?

BOLIN: Yeah, I’ve been almost ten years now at Sesame Street, and I was one of the founders of a thing called Story Pirates, maybe fifteen years ago or more now, where we take stories written by kids and turn them into songs and sketches. There’s a pure entertainment component of that, but there’s also an education component: we do writing workshops in schools and encourage students to tap into their creativity, and they write stories with us. Then we do assemblies at their school where we perform the stories the kids wrote.

Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

Given how much this aligns with your work there, were the challenges different from something like Co-op?

BOLIN: Definitely different from Co-Op; that was a very specific task in that it was an homage to [Stephen] Sondheim and very specific styles of ’70s musical theater, of which I’m a huge, huge fan. But that was a little more intimidating because while I’m a huge fan of Sondheim, he’s a very sophisticated composer. There’s a lot of what I see as ‘mathematical’ elements to his composing, because he’s very, very trained. I’m less trained and consider myself messier as a composer, so trying to write in that style was a little more daunting.

Whereas this, the musical touchstones are more like Sesame Street and Carole King’s music for Really Rosie, the project she did with Maurice Sendak. Songs from Free To Be… You and Me and The Electric Company, that’s all music I grew up and with and understand really well, and a lot of them I even played as a kid on the piano when I was teaching myself how to play. So that music is a lot more in my hands and my bones as a musician than Sondheim, necessarily. Though I knew it very very well, it’s less intuitive to me as a piano player and composer. So it was easier for me to slip into the musical styles of this project.

What are the stylistic signposts, then, for these kinds of songs? What sort of place do you start at?

BOLIN: For this, it depends on the songs. For example, there’s a song, “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul,” which is a combination of styles. It’s half Really Rosie, specifically this song called “One With Johnny,” and also half “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. So I tend to synthesize a lot of different styles and mash them up together. There’s the David Byrne song, which is me trying to mix up a bunch of Talking Heads things at once. But I’ve been buying Talking Heads albums since I was eleven years old, so that’s something I grew up with also.

The calypso song by Jake Gyllenhaal [“Music, Music Everywhere!”] is a combination as well. I actually really love authentic calypso music, from Trinidad especially, but there’s also silly calypso music they’d do on Sesame Street, which is sort of childlike. Because the song is so playful and childlike, it synthesizes those two things together. For “Do Flowers Exist at Night?” there were these specific touchstones that John would bring to me. That song was inspired by an Alan Parsons Project song called “Eye In the Sky,” so he told me that as a jumping-off point. I didn’t know that song particularly well, but when I listened to it I figured out what he was going for pretty quickly. Then I would set that to the side and not listen to it too much, so I could go away and do my own version of that kind of style.

Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

What was the songwriting process like? Was it a case of John and Marika writing the lyrics for you to score? Was there a back and forth?

BOLIN: What would generally happen is that I’d either get a draft of a lyric and/or a voice memo of John talking or speak-singing through the rhythm of the song. Sometimes it would be based on a melody, and he’d tell me what it is; sometimes it’d be based on a song, and he wouldn’t tell me what it is. I know that’s helpful to John and Marika when they’re writing; to replace the lyrics to another song. They would send that to me, and I would start chipping away at it. They were very generous collaborators; they were basically like, “do whatever you want to this.” I can cut things, rearrange things; if something doesn’t scan to the melody I’m working on, I can replace words or futz things around to create a rhyme here and there. They let me play with the lyrics as much as I wanted to, and would send things back.

Was there a song in particular that you put your stamp on the most?

BOLIN: “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul,” definitely. When the first draft was sent to me, the style point for that was actually ’80s hair metal, where the setting as described in the text was a kid in a recording studio with headphones on. He kept punctuating it with “Aw yeah! Right on! Let’s rock!” Once I saw the hook, “grandma’s got a boyfriend,” something popped in my head, this call-and-response idea. I ran with that.

As we went through it, just as a filler in places, I added some call-and-response things for the ladies. John actually kept a bunch of those that I put in as [placeholders]. Like “Stay out of it, Paul!” and “Oh no, Paul, big mistake!” I told him, “change it to whatever you want” and he never did.

But that goes to show how he and Marika are really generous collaborators in that way. There’s no ego about it he added two or three words here or there, but it was a very fluid collaboration.

Was “he even eats all the cashews” you or them?

BOLIN: No, no, that was John and Marika [laughs].

John Mulaney Sack Lunch Bunch
Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

You worked with all kinds of wonderful special guests, like David Byrne, but you also got to write a song for Andre De Shields. What was that process like?

BOLIN: That was super, super fun, because we knew we were writing it specifically for him. He’s in Hadestown, and he’d already won the Tony for it at that point. We wanted to use that to an extent as a style point, but I hadn’t seen Hadestown yet. So I listened to the songs from it, and thought, “this is incredible, this is amazing.” But I’m also a big fan of New Oreleans music — blues artists like Dr. John and Professor Longhair — so there’s probably more of that in there than the Hadestown style. When I finally got to meet him, I was so excited because I’d been such a fan of his. I listened to The Wiz growing up. And it’s crazy that he’s been doing Broadway for so long, since I was a child. The idea that we were writing this song for him was pretty intimidating, and same when I met him.

I felt very relaxed around everyone else we worked with, but there’s just something about him. He cuts such a commanding figure, but even more than David Byrne (whose music I worship), there’s something about Andre De Shields. He gives off this aura.

Let’s talk about the kids, then; what was it like writing songs for them, given your background? Had you worked with any of them before?

BOLIN: I didn’t know any of those kids, and they’re amazing. It was really something to meet them. It was so unusual to write these songs knowing they’d be sung by kids; in all my years of writing for Sesame Street and Story Pirates, I’m still primarily writing for adult performers — either puppeteers or adults on Sesame Street. There aren’t a lot of kids actually doing the singing. It was really exciting to know that these kids would be singing the songs, but we didn’t cast any of the kids until after everything had been written. So we kept imagining what these kids would be like.

Once we were casting, it sort of fell into place really quickly. It became very obvious to us which kids felt the most natural; we were looking for kids that could feel natural as opposed to more performative show kids. And they are show kids — even in the last two to three weeks, a bunch of these kids have booked huge Broadway roles for the upcoming season. But they’re also very down to Earth, and super fun, chill kids. That came across very quickly in auditions, which kids were like that and which ones weren’t.

Some songs were hard [to cast] — two or three of the kids could have even done this song or that song terrifically, and their interpretations would have been equally valid and wonderful. But at the end of the day, I think they all matched up really well. As we were working on the project, I’d have to listen to the songs again and again to do revisions, and I really feel happy with the songs by the time we were done.

Now, when I see the finished product, I can’t go back and listen to, like, me singing them anymore. I actually was going through some files recently, and I pulled out one of my demos. I was like, “oh, I just wanna pop this on for a second,” and it was uncomfortable hearing it. I couldn’t listen to my voice singing the songs. “No no no, this belongs to the kids now.”

John Mulaney Sack Lunch Bunch Songs
Jeffrey Neira/Netflix

There’s one other song I’d love to talk to you about — the one about the kid who meets the crying lady on public transit…

BOLIN: Oh, “I Saw a White Lady Standing On the Street Just Sobbing?”

Yes!

BOLIN: That’s probably my favorite song in the whole special, I have to say. That was written a little differently; John, Marika and I had a writing session together in a studio. I had very much wanted to write a song with a Laura Nyro/Burt Bacharach feel, and as we were talking I started playing this riff on the piano. John jumped on it, and we started improvising a melody around it. John really liked that, so then all together in the room I improvised a big part of the music for that song.

Once we settled on a structure that felt good, John and Marika took that and wrote almost a complete lyric to the song from that. That’s kind of the reverse of how all the other songs were written, where I was sent a lyric first. Maybe that’s why, from a musical standpoint, that song is very satisfying to me.

When we were having auditions, when Alex Bello started singing it, it was so clear he should be the one to sing it. He’s ten years old, but I think his voice is beautiful; his acting is incredible. There’s this depth to him, I don’t know where it comes from. His performance of that song kills me, I think it’s really beautiful. I also love the way [director] Rhys Thomas shot it, and my good friend Mike Petrie did the orchestrations, which are beautiful. For me personally, the way all of those elements come together, I love it so much. And Alex and the way he performs it, I’m so satisfied with it.

Since this question is asked of all the kids in the special, I have to ask you: what are some of your greatest fears?

BOLIN: My greatest fear is heights, for sure. I’m been terrified of heights or falling since I was a child. I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, and I worry about something terrible happening to them all the time — losing them or getting sick. I worry about climate change, the future that’s gonna be left for my kids. I’m terrified of spiders. I don’t like being on a train; I commute into the city from New Jersey every day, and I’m so scared that we’re going to get stuck in the tunnel, or the tunnel’s gonna collapse.

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