Catch the Talking Heads frontman in an Elsa costume on the Netflix variety special.

By Omar Sanchez
December 24, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
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This is what happens when a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, a.k.a. your childhood idol, tells you he can meet up in 24 hours.

But first, a little background: Cameos from celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal, Natasha Lyonne, and Richard Kind line John Mulaney’s new variety special John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch like the gleaming holiday lights on your front porch. Sure, Mulaney couldn’t get his entire wish list, but he still managed an extravagant haul, including an appearance by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

That cameo came together after a chance call from Mulaney to Byrne. Eventually, one asked the other if he could come over to talk through the musical sketch — and it wasn’t Mulaney doing the asking.

Jeffrey Neira/Netflix (2)

“David Byrne, one, picked up the phone when I called, and two, agreed to be on,” an astonished Mulaney tells EW. “He said, ‘Well, let’s talk about it. Where do you live?’ David Byrne came over that next afternoon, and we sat in my kitchen. I said, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do this.’ I guess we have this demo and I’ll watch you listen to it.”

The demo was for a song on the special titled “Pay Attention!,” which was still in its early stages. “It was very Saturday Night Live-esque,” Mulaney says of getting the demo together for Byrne. He and co-writer Marika Sawyer had the lyrics, but it was up to composer Eli Bolin to get a version of the song ready for a first listen.

Despite the time crunch, Bolin, Sawyer, and Mulaney were up to the challenge. By the next day, Byrne had something he could listen to, and luckily he was into it. “I read something David Byrne said once,” Mulaney notes. “He’ll like a project, but he won’t know exactly know what it will be. But he wants to try it. His yes was the first time I ever thought, ‘I think this could work, I have no way to describe it to anyone. But I can picture it and I can see it in my head.’”

“Pay Attention!” centers on one of the 15 child cast members (Lexi Perkel), who can’t get the parents in attendance to watch her performance. If you ever wanted to see the man who sang “Pyscho Killer” dance in an Elsa costume (from Frozen), this sketch is for you. Mulaney’s wife, Annamarie (whom we discuss more here), is also featured in the sketch.

But why was getting Byrne so important for Mulaney? The comedian is quick to answer: “He was a building block when I first started talking about [the special] with Marika,” he says. In the early process of writing the special, Mulaney thought about who he wanted to be when he grew up back when he was 10 or 11. That person was Byrne.

But won’t the David Byrne cameo go over the heads of kids who were born decades after the Talking Heads were nominated for a Grammy? (For your trivia night: 1984.) Mulaney has an answer for that too.

“I thought, you know, what’s interesting is that when we were kids, you didn’t have to know who someone was, necessarily,” he says. “It was often the specific choices of the adults in charge. They’d be like, ‘Here’s Alan Alda and Rosey Grier.’ And I’d be like, ‘Okay.’ I thought to myself, I [have] to have a very personal and eclectic feel for this.”

Read more from our conversation with Mulaney here. John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch is now streaming on Netflix.

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