Netflix

I really wanted to love John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, because I really love John Mulaney.

John Mulaney is easily my favorite comedian of the modern era. He's an expert writer, capable of digging into jokes with such extreme specificity that you wholly believe that whatever absurd scenario he's recounting must have actually happened to him. And yet, he's never unrelatable, especially to fellow New Yorkers. As weird as the homeless man who lent Mulaney's Netflix special New in Town its title sounded, most of us have encountered similarly weird people on our late night subway treks.

From his musical SNL sketch "Diner Lobster" to his "Too Much Tuna" skits with Nick Kroll, Mulaney has a particular knack for bizarre humor that goes completely outside the box while staying entirely on-brand. Better yet, John Mulaney isn't a mean comedian. His comedy doesn't rely on punching down or calling out, but rather the reflections and introspections that come part and parcel with being a person in a society that doesn't always make sense.

Diner Lobster NBC

So, when John Mulaney debuted a new Netflix special billed as a children's musical comedy a la Sesame Street and The Electric Company, I had no doubt that it was going to be something special––and it is. The Sack Lunch Bunch is incredibly unique, patently Mulaney, and unlike anything else on TV. But despite all that, as much as it pains me to say this––and I realize my opinion is in the vast minority here––I thought John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch was only okay. Not terrible. Not amazing. Just okay.

John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is a concept album of sorts. The idea behind it is phenomenal––it's John Mulaney's take on an 80's-era children's ensemble show, one that attempts to address real issues on modern children's minds while also being equally aimed at adults.

Early on in the show, one of the members of the Sack Lunch Bunch––a group of 15 child actors who chat, sing, and dance throughout––asks John Mulaney: "What's the tone of the show?"

The sack lunch bunch Netflix

"Is it ironic, or do you like doing a children's show?" chimes another member of the Sack Lunch Bunch.

"First off, I like doing the show," responds Mulaney. "But honestly, like if this doesn't turn out great, I think we should all be like, 'Oh, it was ironic,' and then people would be like, 'Oh, that's hilarious.' But if it turns out very good, we'd be like, 'Oh, thank you, we worked really hard' and act really humble, and then we win either way."

This exchange effectively sets the tone for the entire show. John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch actually is a children's variety show, rather than a parody or a straight satire of one. But it also has the same bizarre, irreverent air as most of Mulaney's comedy. It's earnest, but maybe not entirely earnest.

For example, one of the show's big musical numbers, titled "Plain Plate of Noodles," features a set-up wherein one of the child actors complains about not being able to eat whatever he wants before breaking into a song and dance routine about only liking to eat plain noodles with a little bit of butter. Part of the humor lies in the absurdity of a child dancing on a stage surrounded by giant spaghetti tubes, but a lot of its cleverness lies in the fact that some kids really are just super picky and tend to cling to plain noodles with a little bit of butter. In other words, it's a real issue that kids can actually relate to and no other children's show has ever talked about.

But therein lies my biggest problem with John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, a similar problem that has plagued countless concept albums: The idea is more interesting than the execution. As funny as the idea of a kid in a suit dancing around and singing about buttered noodles may be, I didn't get the same joy from actually watching it. Something got lost in translation; perhaps it's a larger point to the whole ordeal.

While plenty of the show's segments are amusing (the show makes great use of non-child-friendly celebrity cameos, like "Girl Talk with Richard Kind" and a song about being annoyed that adults aren't listening to you featuring David Byrne of The Talking Heads), none of it is laugh-out-loud funny in the same way that so much of Mulaney's humor tends to be. But if it is an earnest children's show, then I'm not sure there's actually a ton there for kids to enjoy. It may not talk down to children, but it also feels strongly geared towards adults who grew up with these kind of shows as opposed to kids today.

Jake Gyllenhaal mr music Netflix

The one real standout segment came at the finale, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as Mr. Music, a man who is supposed to teach The Sack Lunch Bunch about the joy of making music but failed to prepare in advance and, as a result, messes up his entire shtick and injures himself in the process. Gyllenhaal, as always, is an absolute treasure and fully commits to his bit, which ultimately feels like a genuine parody of the genre. The rest of the show falls extra flat in comparison.

To be clear, there's not a single person other than John Mulaney who could have helmed such a project, and the world is most certainly better for its existence. Mulaney has proven himself time and time again as an artist of the obscure with a distinct creative vision, and I love that he's been given the freedom to make pretty much whatever he wants. But while I grew up on Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Zoom, and I really entered with the intention of loving this, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch didn't quite do it for me.

It wasn't bad. It wasn't great. I still recommend it as an entertaining work of weird art. Who knows, maybe you'll like it more than I did.

When did Asians become funny?

Sure, Asians have seemed funny to Americans since the early twentieth century when media had two representations of them: Fu Manchu, the archetypal vainglorious villain trying to "kill the white man and take his women"; and Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective (played by white actors Warner Oland and Sidney Toler) who became wildly popular by embodying Oriental stereotypes. But then the U.S. was pulled into World War II by the Japanese plane that struck Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Yellow Peril seemed all too real. Everyone with Asian features was suddenly a "jap," "nip," or "Asian menace" threatening to take over or generally debase America with their inferiority, a fear which intensified with the Korean War and then Vietnam War.

Maybe those fears were grounded, because Netflix recently released, "Asian Comedian Destroys America!" It's the title of Ronny Chieng's stand-up special, a play on the use of "destroy" to suggest out-of-the-park success and the history of xenophobic fear in America. "Or maybe I just came up with something funny and I'm just trying to explain it retroactively," he told The New York Times. "It came from Netflix telling me I'm not famous enough and I need a title to get people to click on the icon."

Frank admissions–somewhere between deadpan humor and social awkwardness–characterize Chieng's hour-long special, which captures his equal parts bemusement and devotion to the country he's called home since 2015. Beginning with admittedly hackneyed observations on American attention spans and wastefulness ("every night in America is a competition to see how many screens we can get between our face and the wall: iPhone, iPad, laptop, TV, and then Apple Watch"), he wades into deeper waters about racial politics and divides between his Malaysian Chinese culture and American diversity.

Asians, who only account for about 5.6% of the population, need to "get that number up," he says. Why? First, "We are the only objective referees in your ongoing race war between white and black people," Chieng explains. "Because you don't care about us, and we don't care about any of you. So you can trust us...Our skin is not in the game. Literally. NFL, NBA, our skin is in none of those games." Second, we need to elect an Asian president; "Man or woman, get that Asian president in the White House. We will fix this sh*t in a week!" The proof? "We don't shut down for anything," he said. "We don't shut down for Christmas. We work through public holidays. Any city in America when it's 3:00 a.m. and you're hungry, where do you go? You go to Chinatown cause things are delicious, affordable and open."

Chieng, already recognized for his satirical correspondence for The Daily Show and his role as Eddie Cheng in Crazy Rich Asians, doesn't defer to self-effacing humor to critique social issues, from healthcare and civil liberties to the Darwinism of gluten intolerance and the undeniable coolness of the black community owning their own racial slur. "You never see Chinese people walking around, 'Yo, where my chinks at? My chinks!" he mimes with finger guns, "Hey, stay yellow, my fellows–sounds awful!"

While the 34-year-old comedian has lived and been educated in Singapore, Australia, and the U.S., his comedy career, since 2009, has clearly been informed by the fraught history of Asians being accepted in western culture. From the title of his special to the promotional trailer's riff of media's anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II, he speaks back to Yellow Peril with alternating empathy and hardened logic.

Ronny Chieng Netflix Standup Comedy Special | Asian Comedian Destroys America! Trailer youtu.be

It might be working, at least in comedy. This year Bowen Yang became the first SNL cast member of Asian descent in the show's 44-year history, and the viral humor of Joel Kim Booster has been showcasing his observations on being gay and Asian in America ("I'm not a bad driver 'cause I'm Asian; I'm a bad driver because I won't wear my glasses and I text. It's a CHOICE!"). And in film and TV, of course, there's been Lulu Wang's The Farewell starring Awkwafina, six seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, and the flash in the pan of Crazy Rich Asians' success. But back in the early aughts, only a handful of East Asian and Indian individuals had found mainstream success in comedy (this was back when Korean-American Margaret Cho was told by a major network that she "was not Asian enough"). In cartoonist Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings, he captures the complexities and contradictions in Asian-American masculinity and, more largely, the respectability politics involved with being accepted.

Culturally, respectability politics is an odd game of self-effacement and personal betrayal that's weighed against the prize of acceptance.

Thessaly La Force at The New York Times describes "Asian jokes" as "an accepted kind of humor when it comes to talking about Asian-Americans — it's a humor comfortable with its own ignorance, like the bully in the schoolyard who pounces on perceived weaknesses and kicks up dirt for a laugh. These types of jokes often concern Asian men's masculinity, or lack thereof — or the Asian man's helplessness in life, his neediness, his foolishness, his greed, his feminine demeanor and physicality."

Or, as Joel Kim Booster puts it, "I'm terrible at math. I don't know karate. My dick is huge." On the surface, this might even seem lazy: "Why does every comedian of color have to have material about their racial identity? Can't you come up with something else to say?" But every person of color has, at one point or other, felt the weight of racist stereotypes in the room–like an invisible, crushing fog–and been sorely tempted to comment on them first; because with stereotypes (however hackneyed) come a haunting fear that someone else will invoke them first. Whether that's in the form of an attack or, more commonly in 2019, a blatant display of the speaker's own ignorance, the resulting awkwardness permeates the room. Imagine knowing the discomfort is all about you. Embarrassment and a baseless guilt starts churning your stomach–you feel responsible to ease the tension but, at the same time, f*ck off, you didn't create this ignorance. It's all very unpleasant and, just as bad, it's never funny.

Similarly, just about every comedian of color targets racial stereotypes at some point in their act, because in an industry dominated by non-POC entertainers, their race is still an elephant in the room. Diffusing that tension is hard to do well when there are centuries of ignorance and propaganda and yellow face that have come before you, and it's even harder to do in a way that's refreshing and unique. Maybe Chieng pulls it off because he's partly socially awkward and partly just "a grumpy person," as he self-describes. "When someone says that people of your race are not supposed to be grumpy, it just makes me grumpier." Or it's his brand of authenticity when there's still been more mockery of people of color than genuine representation in American media. "I'm just trying to write what I think is funny," he says. "I'm just trying to have as authentic a reaction as possible to something."

In English author Sax Rohmer's 1913 novel, he writes, "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan ...one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ...Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man." Rohmer's caricature would become an icon of satire because of its over-the-top portrayal of foreign threats and the Asian menace. Between the 1950s and '80s, he became a subject of parody in radio and film: He became funny. Whether he's a mockery of Asian culture or the ignorance that once surrounded it depends on whether or not American media is ready for comedians like Ronny Chieng to "destroy" racist stereotypes (see what I did there? Stay yellow, my fellows).

TV

Paul Rudd's "Living With Yourself" Is Extremely Normcore

This article contains spoilers for Netflix's "Living With Yourself."

Netflix's new series Living With Yourself has two major things going for it.

The first is Paul Rudd. The man has a charm to him and an ageless youthfulness that makes him a delight to watch even as the schlubby, nihilistic Miles, who is only distinguishable from New Miles by his messy hair and eye bags.

The other main positive is the premise, which apparently occurred to creator Timothy Greenberg in a recurring dream. In the series, Rudd plays a worn-out and downbeat man who decides to fork over $50,000 in order to undergo a mysterious operation meant to make him into a "happy" person. He visits a spa and then wakes up underground. It soon becomes clear that the procedure was actually a cloning process, and now there are two Paul Rudds—one loving and upbeat (also known as New Miles), the other as down as ever, albeit more confused.

That's about the extent of the weirdness of Living With Yourself, an impressive fact in and of itself—the show takes a complex sci-fi concept worthy of Black Mirror in its eeriness and makes it palatable, inoffensive, and simplistic. In its eight episodes, it's heavy on lackluster humor, benign upper-middle-class suburban surroundings, and cookie-cutter characters.

'Living With Yourself' star Paul Rudd on giving himself mouth-to-mouth and that bonkers ending ew.com

That's not to say that it's a bad show. At risk of shattering any residual illusions of journalistic objectivity, I admit my personal vendetta against it may come from the fact that I've been interested in personal duality and its intersections with technology for years, and I've spent a good amount of time researching and writing about it. The concept that each person contains a dark side and a light side within them is ancient and primal, and the show's plotline had all the makings of a fascinating or at least intriguing psychological journey. Also, the question of whether—if given the choice—we would eliminate our sadness and internal turmoil and allow ourselves to be replaced by happy-go-lucky clones touches on larger philosophical debates about genetic engineering, medication, artificial intelligence, and technology on the whole, questions that we'll have to face sooner rather than later.

Instead of addressing these themes, the show's creators opted for a light, almost anachronistic rom-com vibe, relying heavily on Paul Rudd's charm while asking for relatively little critical thought from the audience. The vast existential implications and science of the cloning process are sidenotes at best. Out of all the characters, I personally related most to Weinraub, the insane FDA employee running a cloning interrogation room in a spare office.

All that said, Living With Yourself has ample charm. It will certainly appeal to anyone who's ever been stuck in a repetitive rut, wondering what would happen if negative thoughts could be completely wiped out of their brain. It's careful to practice some element of social awareness, too. Though it centers on Paul Rudd, it offers its leading woman—Miles' wife Kate (Aisling Bea)—a nuanced if initially underwritten storyline, giving her some piercing clapbacks and context and refusing to allow her to be pigeonholed or idealized. Miles' relationship with Kate is probably the show's most complex aspect, for better or for worse.

Living With Yourself is also embedded with gentle critiques of toxic masculinity and other harmful tropes. The original Miles recoils when New Miles cries, and he's afraid of showing emotions and connecting to others, which is a core part of his sadness. That he has nothing else to be sad about is indicative of his class privilege (among other kinds), but it's also something that everyone can probably relate to in some way. Still, Miles' sadness is mostly expressed in doleful glares and sighs, and ultimately the show fails to actually make a piercing emotional impact in any way, either in the humorous or emotional sense. It lacks the rigor of Black Mirror, the quirky vibrance of Russian Doll, or the vulnerability of Modern Love, a show that has been criticized for its dreamy idealism but that seems deep and nuanced compared to this one. There's nothing wrong with Living With Yourself, but it's missing a spark.

Living With Yourself | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com

CULTURE

5 Funniest Moments from Hasan Minhaj Schooling Congress About Student Loan Debt

After all, who better to articulate such a chaotic and dystopian crisis than an Indian-American Muslim comedian who was waitlisted for law school?

Sean Duffy (left), Hasan Minhaj (center), and Maxine Waters (right)

Comedian Hasan Minhaj just delivered some tight stand up to what is maybe the fourth worst audience in the world, following North Koreans, ISIS, and an office Christmas party.

On Tuesday, the Patriot Act host appeared on Capitol Hill to speak before the House Financial Services Committee about the $1.5 trillion student debt crisis. Specifically, he addressed the crippling reality of the cost of higher education, the shrinking of the middle class, and why policy-makers and student loan services are such douchebags.

The committee held a "long overdue" hearing on student lending and the higher educational system's craven and predatory practices. Chairwoman Maxine Waters called the hearing overdue "given the scale of the crisis at hand," referring to the 45 million Americans with student loan debt—the size of which has surpassed the nation's total outstanding credit card debt and auto debt. Waters invited Minhaj to speak, considering Patriot Act's large outreach to audiences of thirty-something-year-olds and younger, who came of age amidst the worst recession since the Great Depression and whose daily struggles are dismissed by politicians who are deluded about the severity and real-world cause and effect of "millennial problems."

When Minhaj appeared before congress, he applied his usual mix of candid humor and anal retentive research. After all, who better to articulate such a chaotic and dystopian crisis than an Indian-American Muslim comedian who was waitlisted for law school?

It's unfortunate that some of Minhaj's best lines from Tuesday's hearing only received a smattering of laughter from the back of the room amidst a miasma of Republicans' indignant huffs and that smell of fear boomers give off in the presence of minorities who know things. In that spirit, we've spotlighted some of his best bits:

1. When he reminded the room he's brown but was still invited to congress

"My name is Hasan Minaj. I'm a Muslim and I condemn radical Islamic terrorism. That has nothing to do with anything but I just want that on the record."



While the focus of furious attention has been on the NFL domestic violence crisis in recent weeks, don't think Jon Stewart has forgotten about that other scandal that has been plaguing the biggest sport in America.

The Daily Show host aired a controversial — and hilarious — skit on Thursday tackling the racist outrage over the Washington Redskins team name.

Stewart teased the spot by claiming that complaints from Redskins fans had caused the segment to be edited.

"We learned later that some of the individuals who participated in the piece, they didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s something that happens a lot less than you would think," said the Comedy Central host, preceding the segment with correspondent Jason Jones.

“But we take the complaint seriously. We generally don’t want people who participate in the show to have a bad experience. We work very hard to find real people who have real beliefs and want to express those beliefs on television, and we work hard to make sure that the gist of those beliefs are represented accurately, albeit sometimes comedically on our program.

"If we find out that someone in a piece was intentionally misled or if their comments were intentionally misrepresented, we do not air that piece," he teased.

Cue the video, which showed Redskins fans airing their views in one room and Native Americans in another. The daring reporter even ventured into a tailgate party where he persuaded partying pre-gamers and Native Americans to shake hands.

Watch the clip below.

Earlier in the week, it was the turn of South Park to mock the racist determination of team owner Dan Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — who's battling a PR nightmare of a different nature thanks to Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice — and other NFL team owners.

The foulmouthed animated group call themselves "The Washington Redskins" and rake in funds on Kickstarter. When Snyder and coach Jay Gruden demanded they stop using the name, Cartman bluntly tells them, "From one Redskin to another: go fuck yourself."

Pit Alabama against Mississippi in a battle of homophobia—who’s going to win?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn it’s pretty much a dead heat… but, perhaps you will be surprised to learn that citizens of both states are showing an amazing amount of tolerance.

At least that appeared to be the case when The Daily Show dispatched Al Madrigal down south with hidden cameras to follow around two “stunt gays” and capture the reaction of local residents.

Not only did most folks not even bat an eyelid, there were celebrations when a mock gay marriage proposal played out—in a Waffle House no less.

As Madrigal summarizes perfectly, “Alabama may as well be blowing Mississippi right now.”