John Mulaney and David Byrne Have History Far Beyond SNL

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On Leap Day 2020, John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live for his third time in three years. Long before Mulaney was one of the country’s most consistently acclaimed and hilarious stand-up comics, he was a writer on SNL for five years – and at some point, he also became friendly with David Byrne, the legendary musician and former Talking Heads frontman who performed as SNL’s musical guest on Mulaney’s most recent episode. Mulaney and Byrne have history far beyond SNL – here’s how they met and everything they’ve done since.

When they first met

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David Byrne, Oh Hello on Broadway, November 13 2016

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In November 2016, Mulaney shared an Instagram post in which Byrne appeared with the two main characters of Oh, Hello, Mulaney’s hit Broadway show with his comedic partner Nick Kroll (the two are also behind the animated Netflix show Big Mouth). Byrne, known for his silver-white hair and idiosyncratic stage presence, looked completely at home while reaching forward with a somewhat confused look and stuck between Mulaney and Kroll’s extremely aged, decrepit characters. The Instagram post of the three is the earliest Internet evidence of Mulaney and Byrne knowing each other, and in an interview in late 2019, Byrne said that the two met when he was invited onstage during Oh, Hello’s talk segment.

What came next

Despite his five years on SNL and the success of both Oh, Hello and Big Mouth, Mulaney is arguably best known for his Netflix stand-up comedy specials New in Town, The Comeback Kid, and Kid Gorgeous. That’s why, in late 2019, when Mulaney announced his return to Netflix would take the form of a children’s musical comedy special, some were puzzled. John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch nevertheless premiered to just as much fanfare as his usual stand-up specials – and among its guests was David Byrne.

Byrne appeared in two Sack Lunch Bunch songs. In “Pay Attention,” Lexi Perkel (one of the kids in the Sack Lunch Bunch) and Byrne perform a musical number urging Perkel’s parents and their friends to do just what the song’s title commands. According to Mulaney, his demo for this song first attracted Byrne to The Sack Lunch Bunch. Byrne would also appear in the sketch “Papier-mâché time with David Byrne,” which was a sketch based on Byrne’s childhood fear of volcanoes.

Now: SNL

It’s surely not a coincidence that Mulaney hosted an episode on which Byrne performed as musical guest. The two even appeared together in one of the Leap Day episode’s funniest sketches, “Airport Sushi.” This sketch, like the other musical sketches from Mulaney’s previous hosting gigs, addressed the unsanitary nature of dining in New York, but unlike the other sketches, it featured a David Byrne cameo. Byrne appeared in the titular airport as a baggage handler singing a song called “Plane to Nowhere,” which was an obvious parody of the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere.” 

Besides this Talking Heads parody, Byrne also performed the Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime” and his BPA collaboration “Toe Jam” during his two performances as musical guest. Byrne, like Mulaney, is capable of immense musical and theatrical creativity on stage – and the relationship between the two is sure to lead to more great material in the future.

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