‘Cunk on Earth’: A Hilarious Mockumentary From the Creator of ‘Black Mirror’
“I know I come across as quite confident,” says newswoman Philomena Cunk, “but sometimes when I’m talking to experts, I worry that, you know, I might come across as quite stupid.”
This is easily the most self-aware moment for Cunk throughout the five-episode British mockumentary series Cunk on Earth, which began streaming on Netflix this week. As played by Diane Morgan, Cunk is a naive simpleton who can barely grasp any of the subjects she discusses, filtering everything through an extremely narrow and modern lens. As she attempts to survey all of human history in Cunk on Earth, for instance, she declares, “One of the reasons we still know about the Romans today is Wikipedia.” At another point, she and British historical linguistics expert Dr. Irving Finkel study a stone tablet featuring some of the earliest human writing. “If someone shouted this aloud,” she wonders, “would that have been the first audiobook?” Finkel takes a long pause before simply saying, “No.”
This is more or less the dynamic with everyone Cunk encounters. Morgan has been playing the character on and off for a decade, starting with appearances on the comedy news show Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. On this side of the pond, Brooker is best known as the creator of Black Mirror, and while there are hints of the sci-fi anthology in Cunk on Earth — notably a joke where Beethoven is resurrected inside a smart speaker — for the most part, the Cunk series are significantly sillier. It’s still deeply satirical — while Cunk is profoundly stupid, many of her individual questions do not feel that far off from what some actual TV personalities might ask, or what the man on the street might think about mummification (which she compares to “the kind of spa treatment Gwyneth Paltrow has on a regular basis”) or Genghis Khan (who these days “comes up in conversation less often than Dennis Quaid”). But the tone is a lot lighter.
Because Cunk’s interview subjects are real-life experts in their field struggling to answer her ridiculous questions, there is perhaps an easy comparison to make to various Sacha Baron Cohen characters, Ali G in particular. The key difference, though, is that here the joke is entirely on Philomena herself, rather than the real people who aren’t sure how to respond to her(*). While many of Cohen’s subjects are very much deserving of the humiliation he gives them, he sometimes just crosses paths with perfectly innocuous people whose innate politeness inadvertently makes them into comic victims. There’s none of that awkwardness here.
(*) Where once upon a time, the experts may have been oblivious to the nature of Philomena and the show, Brooker has acknowledged that Morgan’s been doing it so long that everyone is in on the joke. But the producers ask each subject to be as sincere as possible, and to essentially treat Cunk as a naive child. The dynamic works beautifully, and they are often still flummoxed by the things she says, like when she admits to a scholar on ancient Greece that “I just don’t give a shit about people in Ancient Greece.”
There are occasional moments where Morgan seems to break character slightly — while saying various blasphemous things about the birth of Christianity, she turns to the camera and says, “Don’t worry. I’m doing Islam later” — but for the most part, she commits fiercely, hilariously to the bit, mispronouncing familiar names like “Bible” and “Camelot” (the latter inspires a discussion of how much semen King Arthur produced), making random pop-culture references (prepare to have Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” lodged in your head, not that this is a bad thing), and forever comparing important moments throughout history to the scatalogical exploits of her mate, Paul. (The Crusades remind her of that time he got bad diarrhea.)
Every now and again, Cunk will make a shockingly good point, like when she explains the huge artistic leap that came from the invention of perspective, comparing da Vinci’s The Last Supper to an earlier, less effective painting of the same subject. But then in the next breath, she will compare this particular innovation to the release of the first Crash Bandicoot game, and all seems normal again.
What a ridiculous person is Philomena Cunk. What a very funny show is Cunk on Earth.
All five episodes of Cunk on Earth are now streaming on Netflix.