Why Cunk on Earth should be your next box set
Ivan | On 25, Sep 2022
Philomena Cunk. The name alone is enough to make you chortle, because ever since she was first conceived by Charlie Brooker and Diane Morgan for Newswipe, the idiotic academic has been a simple joke executed with precision. After her solo outing Cunk on Britain – following specials Cunk on Christmas and Cunk on Shakespeare – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the joke should’ve worn thin by now. But what’s remarkable is that the team of writers behind her only find new layers to her strangely straightforward view on life, to the point where she’s one of the most complex comedy characters of the past decade.
This six-part series sees Cunk take on the whole planet with a comprehensive review of the history of human civilisation. Did ancient humans have hands and legs like us? Were numbers worth the same now as they were then? Did Jesus ever paint a picture of himself? All these questions and are in the offing, and every answer consistently knocks it out of the park, whether that’s due to Cunk’s interviewees being completely baffled by the leftfield interrogation or them turning her unusual preoccupations into surprisingly thoughtful discussions.
That ability to perceive the world through childlike eyes is part of the character’s enduring appeal; the writing is so finely tuned that she’s capable of making a pop culture reference but grasps other things with an innocence that contains some element of irrefutable logic. If Great Wall of China can’t be seen from space, she ponders, is there some kind of Great Roof that makes it invisible? Her thinking is just reasonable enough to warrant consideration, even if it all crumbles into nonsense upon further scrutiny.
The experts she lines up to interview are all game to do the considering, keeping straight faces throughout the moments we see – you suspect other parts lie on the cutting room floor. While they’re kept brief to avoid outstaying their welcome and stop the format becoming stale, there’s always a question of how in on the joke they are. One historian who specialises in tragedies sincerely points out that she is very passionate about the events of centuries past, while a philosopher takes a remark about “mind pipes” as a serious bifurcation of two competing models of thought.
But Morgan has gotten savvy to when the game is up and knows how to behave regardless, slipping in moments that cut through the pretence with completely disarming bluntness. “It’s all so long ago, I don’t really care,” she says at one point. At another, she quickly pivots to a more profane line of questioning to throw her subject off their groove. It’s that ability to switch things up that keeps Cunk fresh and laugh-out-loud hilarious at the most unexpected times – even as you begin to wonder how much of those moments aren’t Morgan winking at the audience but Cunk herself staving off her own boredom.
All this is deftly balanced with an increasingly knowing send-up of the documentary format. The repeated inclusion of Technotronic’s Pump Up the Jam gets funnier every time, thanks to a string of facts and trivia laid over the top, but we also get a sense of Cunk the presenter – either attempting to avoid being out of her depth or confidently winging her way through dull matters. “The BBC say if I don’t read this script word for word, there’ll be an international incident,” she tells us at the start of a segment on religion – only for it to blow away in the wind. “Never mind, I’ll blag it anyway,” she decides, in a brave but foolhardy move that leaves us firmly rooting for her in a new way. At another moment, she convinces someone to say Jesus “was the first victim of cancel culture” into the camera with an authority that’s entirely unwarranted yet also feels oddly deserved.
The result is absurd, witty and an absolute joy to see in action, playing out on both highbrow and lowbrow levels with an astonishing consistency. If you ever wondered whether the first audiobook was someone reading the Rosetta Stone out loud, or changed the channel after seeing a scientist stand on a cliff and shout at a helicopter, Cunk on Earth is for you. Almost a decade after her first investigation into what time is, Philomena Cunk is a joke that still hasn’t run out of steam – if anything, it’s getting funnier.