The Cunking of America

‘Cunk On Earth’ has arrived to enlighten us all

Philomena Cunk is the biggest idiot on television. Until last week, when ‘Cunk on Earth’ appeared on Netflix in the U.S., she was pretty much the exclusive property of the United Kingdom and a few American comedy dorks who had seen her on YouTube. Now the whole world, or most of it, or at least the English-speaking part of it knows: no one does it like Cunk. What “it” is, and what she actually does, remains an open question.

Cunk, played by British comedian Diane Morgan, first appeared on annual BBC Year in Review comedy specials that Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, wrote and produced. She was a kind of regular-person talking head, appearing alongside such eminences as “Barry Shitpeas.” She was so popular that she broke out into her own franchise. “Cunk on Britain” covered the history of the United Kingdom in several deeply absurd episodes that preface Cunk on Earth. She also did a Christmas special. The essential joke on this: Philomena Cunk is a semi-privileged, uneducated twit, tormented by a breakup with her ex-boyfriend Sean, who spends her time interviewing academics on camera about very important matters. And she gets every fact totally wrong. Now she brings her lack of expertise to the history of human civilization, with typically ridiculous results.

For instance, in the second episode of “Cunk on Earth,” she asks an expert if the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object “audible from space.” When he corrects her, she doesn’t seem to notice, and then asks if there’s a “Great Roof of China.” In another recurring bit, she breaks out stories about her “mate Paul.” While discussing ancient Greek theater with a historian, she references a “true story” about how Paul got a new potato stuck up his bum. She then asks the historian if that qualifies as a tragedy.

This is the level at which Charlie Brooker pitches Cunk on Earth. It’s a fantastic parody of every self-serious historical documentary on TV, but also somehow also provides an incisive and intelligent look into the stupid futility of human history. Cunk is not amused by any of it, and continually refers to our so-called greatest achievements, like the written word, classical music, and theater, as “boring,” while the camera cuts to her checking her smartphone. At one point she asks a music historian if the people on a record in an old gramophone can hear her if she talks into the speaker.

She knows nothing, less than a woman on the street. “What was the Soviet Onion?” Cunk asks a historian. Early mathematicians, she said, learned to count on something called “a bacus”. She asks why the Greek philosophers instructed us to “dance like nobody’s watching.” In my favorite joke in a series stuffed with them, she pronounces Einstein’s Theory of Relativity equation as “E Equals McTwo.”

The show stuffs joke upon joke so quickly, it could easily warrant a second watching. And, possibly because they have a bigger budget than they did in Cunk on Britain, and possibly because Brooker has completely mastered this kind of comedy, the show is full of set pieces. A segment on the ancient Maya morphs into a hilarious parody of luxury tourism videos in the Yucatan. Cunk spends more than one beat wondering why Michelangelo’s David doesn’t have a butthole. And speaking of buttholes, she spends quite a bit of time trying to get a historian to tell her whether or not the ancient Romans invented anal bleaching.

And then, every episode, there’s a special surprise, where the action cuts to Brooker making fun of ‘Pump Up the Jam,’ the cheesy late-80s techno anthem. This trick worked incredibly well in “Cunk on Britain,” where they mocked the opening credits of a terrible British sitcom called Brush Strokes, and it works just as well in Cunk on Earth.


#philomenacunk #philomenacunkedits #philomenacunkedit #hilarious #bbc #humour #cunkonbritain #cunkonearth

♬ original sound – xiaobaorong


Only once in in the show does one of the beleaguered academics who Cunk interviews break character, when Philomena asks, in all seriousness, if people would have had a stroke in the 1950s if they’d seen Elvis’s penis. The interviewee cannot help but bust up laughing, but Morgan holds character saying, “it’s not a joke, we’re talking about people’s lives here.”

Only twice in the five episodes does Cunk exhibit anything close to human emotion other than befuddlement. She breaks down in tears when she realizes that it’s still possible we could face a nuclear holocaust, understandable. Then she asks for a moment of silence for Laika the Space Dog. When a historian tells her that Laika died several hours into her flight, Cunk says,

“Are you fucking joking? There’s a dead dog in space?”

She is fucking joking. About everything. But that’s actually a very normal human reaction. And would have been even for someone from the Soviet Onion.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “The Cunking of America

  • February 9, 2023 at 1:55 am

    Cunk is a perfect complement to the witless self absorbed, hilariously self congratulatory, high on their fearless “insights” supply cable news and podcast, talking heads era we are endlessly subjected to. They revel in their ignorance and a large part of the their audience celebrate it. “The Know Nothing Party” never went away and very importantly – it’s not just the usual suspects on FOX news. This idiocy is thoroughly bipartisan. Although …on that network there is a very nasal, in love with her own image as slayer of the spineless demons of DC show lead who could pass for Cunk’s doppelgänger. “Facts? I’ve ot my own facts!” They’re all fighting for you “America”!
    Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G played around the edges with this stuff. Cunk masters it.


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