cunk up the jam

Cunk on Earth Is So Perfectly Stupid

Photo: Andrea Gambadoro

Philomena Cunk, the host of Netflix and BBC Two’s Cunk on Earth, a mockumentary series about the history of human civilization, asks the stupidest questions. Half historical tour guide and half field reporter, the character, played by comedian Diane Morgan, trains her glassy gaze upon real academics who’ve dedicated their lives to scholarship and poses queries like, “How did Egyptians build the pyramids? Did they start at the top and work down?” and “Were numbers worth less back in ancient times?” These experts, many of whom are in on the bit, play along by answering her questions as sincerely as they can. In episode five, Ashley Jackson, a professor of imperial and military history at London’s King’s College, gives in quickly after Cunk accuses him of “mansplaining” the distinction between the Soviet Union and what she calls the “Soviet Onion.” “If you want to talk about Russian Soviet vegetables, we can,” he says.

But Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator — best known in the United States for creating the anthology series Black Mirror — knows Cunk on Earth can’t sustain itself on dopey interview questions alone (Morgan’s Cunk character originated on Brooker’s mid-2010s BBC Two series, Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe), so the show etches out different ways to maintain its profound commitment to stupidity. Cunk’s narration is packed with factual inaccuracies, anecdotes about eccentric characters from her personal life, and daffy non sequiturs. “What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was he was actually named after the two words you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer,” she says in episode two. For no apparent reason, the show’s go-to benchmark for the measurement of time is the 1989 Technotronic song “Pump Up the Jam.” Each reference to the “unrelated Belgian techno anthem” is accompanied by nearly 40 seconds of the song’s extremely ’80s music video and a chyron displaying jokes about the song like, “‘Pump Up the Jam’ is an anagram of ‘Jam Up the Pump.’” There is a commercial for a hotel resort played completely straight, a solo reenactment of a medieval feast turned mêlée soundtracked by expert sound design, a Black Mirror–inspired bit about traumatizing an artificially intelligent Beethoven by re-creating his sentience within a smart speaker, and more.

Sometimes, the way Cunk on Earth subverts this formula is by being deceptively smart. The phrasing of an ostensibly silly question will illuminate something insightful about human behavior, or Cunk will travel so far down the path of apparent stupidity that she loops back around to intelligence. When she asks Joyce Tyldesley (professor of Egyptology at the University of Manchester) in episode one about whether the shape of Egypt’s pyramids was designed to prevent “homeless people from sleeping on them,” for example, the answer seems obvious. But just by asking the question, she makes an implicit point about how accepted anti-homeless architectural design is today by comparison. In a similar move, when Cunk asks University of London’s professor of history Kate Cooper in episode two if she could call Jesus Christ “the first celebrity victim of cancel culture,” she cuts off Cooper’s reply. “Sorry, that wasn’t a question,” she clarifies. “I’m literally asking if you could call him the first celebrity victim of cancel culture for our show.” To go viral, her show needs to reduce hot-button issues to zippy sound bites, after all.

In the show’s first episode, during a conversation with Douglas Hedley (professor of the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge), Cunk posits, to his dismay, that the human brain is full of pipes. “You know how philosophers have these thoughts, and they try and push these thoughts through these pipes?” she asks a weary-looking Hedley. “When you’re having a big idea, is it best to break it up into lots of little thoughts, about the size of peas, and squeeze them through in quick succession, or just bite the bullet and force it through your mind pipe in one huge clod, like gritting your teeth and thinking for dear life?” Hedley’s expression softens as the question progresses. “That’s a very interesting way of describing two general tendencies in philosophy,” he replies. “The more analytical style, which means cutting problems up into bite-size portions, and the other, a more synthetic approach, which takes on a larger perspective. Your characterization is, in fact, a rather intriguing delineation of two major strands in current philosophy.” All of that from an unacknowledged poop joke.

That scene is reminiscent of a classic clip from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show when Ali G shocks a group of animal-rights activists he’s otherwise antagonized with a sneakily thoughtful question. “What happens if they say, ‘Here’s a chicken. You eat this, or we kill another chicken’?” he lobs at them. “You’ve just asked a question that was the hardest question that the toughest moral philosopher, when I did philosophy at university, asked us,” answers one activist, a big smile pasted on his face. Watching experts react like this to Ali and Cunk feels like seeing someone coincidentally check the time on a stopped clock at one of the only two times it happened to be correct that day. But none of this is the product of happenstance. Being stupid is easy, but committing to a comedic brand of stupidity that revels in and explores stupidity in all its forms like Cunk on Earth is a much taller order. It requires a command over the brain-breaking, the groan-inducing, the squint-causing, and an understanding of how to reconcile all of these elements into an end product that justifies the effort. Cunk on Earth is like a symphony of stupidity, and at its helm is its virtuosic maestro of the form, Morgan’s Cunk.

In episode three of Cunk on Earth, Cunk sits across from Dr. Shirley J. Thompson, a composer and professor of music at the University of Westminster, to interview her about classical music. “Beethoven wrote that song that goes ‘Dum-dum-dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum,’” she says, humming the composer’s “Symphony No. 5.” “What do those lyrics mean? … It’s just the word ‘dumb’ over and over again. Is it a dig at his audience?” Cunk on Earth doesn’t play the same dumb note over and over again. Unlike Beethoven, it has some respect for its audience.

Cunk on Earth Is So Perfectly Stupid