By James Field | TV | February 7, 2023 |
By James Field | TV | February 7, 2023 |
We live in a profoundly stupid time. Most of our leaders are little more than soundbites pressed into cheap suits. The sum of human knowledge is literally at our fingertips but we spend all our time watching TikToks of deranged people argue that expecting authors to read is ableist. We can all create and share art and poetry across the entire planet, but we’re giving it over to bigoted AI that doesn’t know how fingers work and strings random words together like monkeys at a keyboard. States are freezing to death because their power grid is held together with spit and prayers but the citizens are too busy arguing whether it’s appropriate to teach about Martin Luther King, Jr. to notice. Half the planet still doesn’t understand how vaccines work. It’s difficult to make dumb comedy work in such an unserious era, because it’s impossible to top Daily Show interviews with real Trump rally attendees.
Into this world walks Philomena Cunk, with an open mind and inane questions. Cunk, played by Diane Morgan, is in full David Attenborough mode as she takes us through a mockumentary history of the planet, our species, and our culture. But where Attenborough comes across as deeply intelligent and thoughtful, viewers will wonder if Cunk could find her way out of a wet paper bag. Beginning with the earliest incarnation of our species, she interviews and stymies real archaeologists, biologists, and engineers with truly ridiculous questions. They are, unlike many of the aforementioned Daily interviewees, in on the joke. That doesn’t help them when Cunk asks a question like “Was early man made out of the same sort of meat as us, or did it have a brand name like beef or pork?” Though it borders on the edge of too much awkward comedy for my own personal taste there is still something deeply amusing about watching the light die in an academic’s eyes when she’s asked if ancient peoples could count higher than 700, which is the current largest number.
That’s a woman ready to swallow her own tongue to escape the current conversation, if need be.
Despite this, the expert in question is never the butt of the joke. Morgan first appeared as Philomena Cunk on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, a comedy news show from the British humorist and Black Mirror creator. And she’s so brilliant I shudder to think what someone like Catherine Tate would do to the role. She plays the entire thing straight, with the deadpan delivery of a seasoned television journalist. Nearly every sentence ends with a joke, some subtle but most so dimwitted that the viewer is left wondering why they can’t stop laughing. As she bumbles her way across the planet in the same rumpled suit in every episode, we are left to wonder how this character doesn’t drown in the rain. Every line, whether it’s explaining how a wheel rotating pushes the earth backwards or mankind’s never ending war against cows, feels entirely sincere. And its in that sincerity that Morgan shines. If it takes a smart person to successfully play a stupid one then she must be a genius, because she never once comes across as unbelievable. Her surface confidence masks a deep insecurity that is only rarely shown but when it is — such as when Cunk asks a philosophy professor about Aristotle’s famous quote “dance like no one is watching” only to be gently corrected — it feels genuine and is funnier because of it.
I thought I was done with comedy where ignorance is the point. There’s too much real-world proof that it’s not a joke for many people. They really are that uneducated and incurious about the world around them. I don’t mean that they didn’t go to college; the smartest and most well-rounded people I knew never got more than a high school diploma. I mean people refuse to look past the end of their nose. They’d rather a simple lie than a complex truth. But Cunk manages to hide complex truths in the same nonsense you’d hear in a Sacha Baron Cohen interview, without mocking her guest, and be breathtakingly funny at the same time. Literally; I found myself laughing until I couldn’t breathe multiple times.
Cunk on Earth is fantastic. With only 5 half-hour episodes it’s best to take them one at a time rather than as a marathon. It’s better for the comedy too; what’s extremely funny for 25 minutes might begin to wear thin soon after. But one episode a day provides a work week’s worth of laughs. And who couldn’t use that? Dave Chapelle might have won a Grammy for his latest tranphobic nonsense, but Cunk on Earth is the funniest thing now on Netflix. And I know I’ve been rough on the streaming service lately, but I will forgive them anything if we can get another season of Philomena Cunk stumbling around the planet. Do us all a favor. Watch this show. Make your friends and family watch it. Rake in those 100 million views. Because we need more Cunk.