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Philomena Cunk And The Wisdom Of Learning From The Dumbest Person On Earth

Still image from the TV show 'Cunk on Earth.'
Screenshot via Youtube

You wouldn’t think Abraham Lincoln’s assassination could be given a positive spin. But Cunk on Earth, British comedian Diane Morgan’s latest BBC mockumentary mini-series, in which she once again plays Philomena Cunk, the soberly moronic history presenter with the kewpie doll face, manages. This is how she narrates the president’s final evening: “A terrible fate befell him. He was forced to go to the theater to watch a play. He was put out of his misery by a kindly gunman, but cruelly, not until the third act.”

To say Cunk is an idiot is an insult to idiots—this is a person who stone-facedly inquires whether the pyramids were built from the top down. She calls the academics she speaks to “clevernauts” and “expertists” and then proceeds to ask these befuddled “boffins” about anal bleaching in ancient Rome. In between, she characterizes the advent of farming as a product of lazy hunters, math as a “tragic invention,” sports as “theater for stupid people,” the Model T as a “truly terrible car” and missionaries as “God’s bitches.” With her pop culture knowledge far outstripping her knowledge of literally anything else, she at least nails the name of the 5-part series’ religious episode: “Faith/Off.” Through all of it—even through the show’s inexplicable “Pump Up the Jam” leitmotif—Morgan never breaks. This is stupidity at its deadest seriousness.

Centered around the history of human civilization, up through Rome being “properly fucked to bits” until the iPhone (“So simple a child could make one”), this is Cunk’s third standalone series. (It aired in September on BBC2 and is set to air in the U.S. on Netflix.) The first was Cunk on Britain in 2018, in which she investigated Cerne Abbas’s “decorative pervert,” among other things. The second was Cunk and Other Humans in 2019, in which she commented on news footage, or tried to. (There was also Cunk on Shakespeare in 2016, though that was a TV movie.)

Philomena Cunk was conceived by Charlie Brooker, now known as the guy who created Black Mirror, whose show Weekly Wipe first introduced the character in 2013. The BBC series reviewed news events and popular culture with that kind of satirical absurdity verging on the surreal that the likes of Armando Iannucci (the dude behind Veep) have perfected. The first Cunk outing, which remains Morgan’s favorite, was about time, in a segment called Moments of Wonder. “What is clocks?” she asks, before puzzling an astronomy expert by claiming she has trapped time in her watch. In the press release for Cunk on Earth, Brooker described Cunk as someone who “like me, has never experienced the emotion of ‘delight’ and has only a limited understanding of what constitutes ‘work’.” Morgan told the Guardian that her character spoofs a variety of television presenter tropes, “the earnest expressions, the white gloves, sobbing over the manuscripts, all that—through the prism of someone who’s very dim.”

Cunk was supposed to be upper crust because all of those British presenters on the BBC tend to be—all of them hailing, if not from the peerage, at least somewhere close, all of them having attended Oxbridge together. This isn’t a particularly American phenomenon, but Americans will likely be familiar with these rumpled twitchy Savile Row–suited toffs who tend to defer to historical documents and a hierarchy that predates them (that they themselves have benefited from). They are mostly white and mostly men, though some white women have been allowed in (the new Cunk series seems to have made a conscious effort to add some academics of color to the litany of pale, hairy, big-headed eccentrics we are accustomed to).

The problem with these people is not that they lack knowledge, but that they lack perspective. In their ivory towers surrounded by the same kind of people as them, they have no cause—and surprisingly little curiosity considering their lifelong quest for knowledge—to venture outside of their immediate worlds. (An example from Moments of Wonder has Cunk explaining Monster Munch, a type of corn-based puff sold in the UK, to one doctor.) The result is a reading of the world—self-serious, cloistered, oddly humorless—which can be as dusty as the halls in which these academics regularly pontificate.

When Brooker was looking for someone to play Philomena Cunk—so-named for the tony background she was originally supposed to have—he was looking for an aristocratic accent. “Charlie had envisaged Cunk as posh but thick,” Morgan said in the Guardian. “What he definitely didn’t want was someone with a regional accent because that would be like saying you’re thick if you’ve got a regional accent.” But she was from Bolton, in the north of England, where the sloping accent sounds like every sentence is jumping off a cliff, so she suggested she use her own because it would be funnier. As a result Cunk is a slack-jawed wide-eyed simpleton who is completely serious about all of the absolute shit she is spewing. While the Cunk series is basically written by a handful of men (including Brooker and Morgan’s partner, Ben Caudell), during the interviews, Morgan improvises. She has told multiple outlets that she considers her character braver than she is for being unflappably herself, no matter how foolish that makes her look. “None of us want to admit that we don’t really understand the news or science or anything much really. We’re all just winging it,” Morgan told Esquire. “The difference with Philomena is, she doesn’t pretend.”

The reason Cunk has had such longevity is because she’s more than just a punchline. Her childlike inquiries are exposing in two ways. For one thing they strip the pretension from academia—“persecuted,” she explains, for instance, is “Latin for ‘shat on’”—and the kind of programming that stems from the same types of lofty institutions, dragging them down to street level. Cunk asks the dumb shit we don’t necessarily want to know, but in so doing breaks through the barriers of prescribed knowledge. While discussing Greeks wrestling in the nude, for instance, Cunk comments to Dr. Lyndsay Coo, “you’d have seen right up their bum holes.” To that, Dr. Coo is forced to acknowledge, “In some cases, people might have done.”

This particular Cunk series also clearly has an eye on corrective intersectionality, placing bits of accepted knowledge in a wider context that explodes them. “It’s hard to believe I’m walking through the ruins of the first city,” Cunk says, rambling through some stones, “Because I’m not. That’s in Iraq, which is miles away and FUCKING dangerous.” At another point she notes the Chinese came up with the printing press even though everyone in the West prefers to pretend it was Gutenberg. “He has made our modern world today,” a printing expert tells Cunk, to which she responds, “So that’s your idea of significant?”

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Cunk knows “how to perspective the shit out of things.” Part of doing that is confronting academics with their own humanity, rather than presenting them as untouchable authority figures. Cunk shows who is willing to plug for the camera (“You might even say Jesus was the first celebrity victim of cancel culture,” she gets one historian to say) and make concessions (one academic uses the term “top legs” in place of hands just because Cunk does) even if what they are saying is vaguely false. On the other hand, it also shows how academics can gracefully decipher prosaic confusion, with one supercilious-looking PhD weaving Cunk’s word salad about brain peas into a division between analytical and synthetic philosophy. Here we see the people behind our own prejudices, like the dour military historian who says flatly, “I love ABBA,” a rare instance in which Morgan’s delight seems to break her character’s facade. To otherwise staid circumstances, Cunk brings levity (see the lecturer who can’t stop laughing at the suggestion that seeing Elvis’s penis could give people a stroke) and illuminates these experts’ own lack of knowledge around the quotidian (as Dr. Nigel Spivey, a particularly dashing classics expert, quips to Cunk’s explanation of the anal bleaching people are known to do, “Well, not around my way they don’t.”)

By being a monumental idiot, Cunk actually takes knowledge back to naught, unburdening it of the cultural baggage academia (and adjacent programming) brings to it. In so doing, history is laid bare in all its simplicity. At the end of it all, you have a stone-faced history professor, unmoved, as Cunk (Morgan?) lets fly: “Ancient people invented currency to make life on earth easier but in doing so they inadvertently invented capitalism, which is going to kill everyone.” She says she read it on Twitter, but we all know what she’s saying is true, even if the academic in front of her refuses to see it. Some things you can see just as easily for yourself.

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