Maverick Life


Cunk On Earth – if Monty Python made a history mockumentary

Cunk On Earth – if Monty Python made a history mockumentary
British comedian Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk in 'Cunk on Earth'. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Fearless comedian Diane Morgan presents a five-part series on human history as the deadpan Philomena Cunk, who gets away with asking experts mirthfully shocking and subversive questions under the guise of a total lack of intellect.

In a nutshell

British comedian Diane Morgan yet again takes on her popular alter ego, dim-witted presenter Philomena Cunk, this time for a series examining the entire history of humanity from early hominids to the Anthropocene and modernisation that threatens to destroy planet Earth and everything humans have accomplished. Cunk journeys to “every corner of the globe money and pandemic travel restrictions would allow”, drolly interviewing and poking fun at “leading academics, clevernauts and expertists”. 

Don’t expect to learn much – if anything she is very good at misinforming – but do expect to re-evaluate any assumptions you hold about the world based on traditional wisdom. Morgan uses her dry, irreverent humour to have a go at as many people as she can with devastating one-liners like: “The Greeks also invented a kind of theatre for stupid people, known as sport.” The series is easy to watch and very funny, provided you aren’t so precious about your interests and ideology as to get offended by her taking the mickey. 

Where to watch it

Cunk On Earth is streaming on Netflix worldwide.

What’s the vibe?

The character Philomena Cunk was invented in 2013 by writer Charlie Brooker (also known for Black Mirror) for the BBC show, Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, which is a sort of low-budget British iteration of The Daily Show. The reports of the clueless investigator in her monotone Bolton accent became so popular that they spurred other mockumentaries including Cunk on Britain and Cunk on Shakespeare.

If you’ve seen any of the “Cunk on” shows, you know exactly what to expect, but if you haven’t, imagine the absurdist renegade humour of Monty Python with the added cringe comedy of the mockumentary format. The naughty satisfaction of watching a patient expert think very hard to answer a disarmingly pointless question or seeing pompous toffs and fundamentalists faced with blunt contradiction, is something Cunk has in common with Ali G In Da USA, Borat and the other works of Sacha Baron Cohen. 

Compared with Baron Cohen, Cunk’s balance of humour relies less on shock factor and rudeness, with more focus on rethinking everyday concepts in a silly way. In that sense, Cunk on Earth is similar to the bizarre work of Nathan Fielder and mockumentary series such as How To With John Wilson, Idiot Abroad or Review With Myles Barlow

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with 'Galileo' in 'Cunk on Earth'. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with ‘Galileo’ in ‘Cunk on Earth’. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with 'Mona Lisa' in 'Cunk on Earth'. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with ‘Mona Lisa’ in ‘Cunk on Earth’. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

A closer look

“This is our planet – planet Earth,” insists Cunk with painfully emphatic intonation. The show’s name is sending up science communication documentaries like Planet Earth and Night on Earth and all the earnest expressions, industry gimmicks and romanticised style conventions that come with them. There are a lot of shots of her standing and staring at things in a thoughtful, mock-deep way.

Even those conventions that she does conform to are turned on their heads to point a finger at documentaries that aren’t as self-aware. For example, the history she tells is characteristically Eurocentric, but rather than defend that position she will casually describe Gutenberg’s printing press as “the first of its kind if you ignore that China invented it centuries earlier”.

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Morgan’s bathetic jokes are so casual and quick that you can easily miss them:

“… but Americans back then weren’t the humble, unassuming people they still aren’t today.” And yet she also commits to certain gags so confidently that you beg through stifled laughter for it to stop (look out for a hysterically persistent reference to Belgian techno anthem Pump Up The Jam.)

The word “Cunk” sounds rudely blunt, befitting her solemn, shatterproof façade. You will never see a hint of a smile even while she appals her interviewees with shamelessly cheeky and irrelevant anecdotes about her drug-taking mate Paul. Her genius is that by feigning ignorance she’s able to be brutally honest about things that an apparently intelligent interviewer would never get away with, and make subtle political critiques in a concise and extremely unsubtle way.

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with in the White House in 'Cunk on Earth'. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with in the White House in ‘Cunk on Earth’. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

As the show goes on it becomes slightly more educational, and while you may remember a factoid or two, Morgan’s goal is not really to educate you but rather make you reconsider the things you think you know in a different way. Her basic formula is: Cunk asks a misinformed or subversively mis-phrased question; the well-meaning expert corrects her question and explains the answer as if to a child, making it easy for viewers to understand; then Cunk retorts with yet another idiotic comment, thereby ensuring you don’t feel irritated about having learnt something. 

Cunk is an endless supply of goofy and barbed sound bites, and nothing is out of reach:

“Whether or not they think he actually was the son of god who performed miracles like walking on wine or making a deaf man see, they all agree he preached tolerance and forgiveness, a message so important, his most ardent followers would eventually start killing anyone who didn’t want to hear it.”

She can surprise you on topics you might never have considered sensitive: “Cave paintings like these are one of the first examples of civilisation on Earth… don’t worry, it gets better… then they branched out into stories. Initially, just boring stories about cows standing still.” 

Cunk on Earth is worth the watch for its playful dark humour alone, but what makes her shtick so potent is how she uses her character to supersede the presumptions of traditional wisdom, academia and social norms. For someone so dense there are no “holy cows”, standing still or otherwise. DM/ML

Cunk On Earth is available in South Africa on Netflix.

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • mignon van hoek says:

    ‘Cunk on Earth’ is delightful (for lack of a more ‘cunky’ word).
    History was one of my matric subjects school – for the ‘stories’ that promised to be the truth, but often weren’t. I studied for exams in a Philomena Cunk fashion, and more than often forgot to revert to the ‘proper’ – had to please explain to pass because I at least included all the so called factual as well – taught my boys the same method, in all subjects – they did very well

  • Ann Bown says:

    It’s certainly entertaining, a good old chuckle with some interesting responses. And we learn that there truly is no such thing as a stupid question !

  • Robert Mckay says:

    True humour. And one does learn facts and thinking is challenged.

  • Leon Groenveld says:

    Very funny.

    Most impressive how, with only one hilarious exception, all her interviewees manage to keep a straight face.

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