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Streaming History

Comedy collides with history in the spirit of British television tradition.

by Vince Farinaccio

Thanks to the modern wonder of streaming television, Mel Brooks has finally delivered on his promise of a History of the World Part 2, currently on Hulu. The series picks up where the original film left off, examining civilization in its beginnings and beyond through a Brooksian perspective of irreverent humor and song, although the creator is only represented as narrator of the episodes. However, the real treat in the hybrid package of comedy and history so far this year is the series Cunk on Earth.

The BBC show, which offers a drastically compressed lesson in world history, debuted in England late last year and arrived here a few months ago via Netflix.

Whereas the Brooks series can be faulted for an overindulgence of crude language and humor, Cunk keeps the profanity to a minimum in favor of the deadpan delivery of its titular host and tour guide who riddles the five half-hour episodes with a litany of malapropisms and a barrage of absurdist questions for the real-life academics interviewed throughout.

It’s those academics who provide the true history lessons on prehistoric life, World War II and, well, not quite everything in between. The interviewees usually require a moment of recovery from a dose of Philomena Cunk’s collection of misheard phrases, misunderstood concepts or odd analogies and anecdotes involving friends or family members.

Earlier this year, the New York Times’ assessment of the show observed that “the fictional Cunk, played by the actress Diane Morgan, is confident, impertinent and almost always wrong,” noting that the character never cracks a smile.

The series is the latest in a run of Cunk mockumentaries that include stabs at the history of Britain, Shakespeare and even Covid-19, all the brainchild of Charlie Brooker.

The character was first seen in the 2013 weekly BBC television satire Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. According to the New York Times, “She was originally conceived as upper-class and clueless, but the character’s trajectory changed after Morgan suggested in her audition that she should speak in her own northern British accent. Initially a bit part as a talking head, the character soon had longer segments on the show, which led to spinoffs…”

There’s something for everyone in Cunk on Earth. Whether it be art, archeology, religion, literature, war or science, it’s all there, informed and debunked in two-and-a-half hours. Christopher Colombo is presented as the Italian sailor and detective. Challenging topics are somehow measured against the Technotronic “Pump Up the Jam” music video that manages to appear and reappear throughout the run.

If it sounds zany, that’s because it is, belonging as it does to a tradition of British television that began with the 1950s Goon Show and honed and developed its craft in the 1960s with David Frost’s satirical programs and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The only current American offering on par with the Cunk series is Documentary Now, with its parodies of well-known cinema verite and original fare that spoofs the form itself. In fact, the most recent season of Documentary Now was filmed largely in the British Isles so that you almost expect to see Philomena Cunk traversing the landscape in a wide-angle shot.

What makes Cunk on Earth and any of the other related series work is how real and how ‘BBC’ the episodes look and feel. Morgan’s delivery may be dry, but you believe she believes what she’s saying. The comedy may be a product of what she says, but how she delivers it is just as crucial.

As Brooker told the New York Times, “We don’t tend to do too many things that tell you it’s a comedy…If you were watching this with the sound off you’d be like, ‘That looks like a real show.’ ”

Jersey Reflections