The Greeks had an empire and the Chinese had an empire. But when most of us think of the word “empire”, we think of the big one: Star Wars. Or Rome. And this is history so it’s Rome, I’m afraid.Philomena Cunk, Personality and Person
In the world of mockumentaries, Cunk on Earth stands as a brilliant example of using humor to dissect reality. Created by Charlie Brooker, the mind behind acclaimed productions like Black Mirror and Death to 2020, this mockumentary takes a comedic yet insightful approach to the history of our planet. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the hilarious world of Philomena Cunk, exploring its unique blend of factual absurdity and satirical commentary. The show originally aired in weekly episodes on BBC before airing on Netflix through co-production.
The Cunk Mockumentary
Mockumentaries, a blend of documentary-style filmmaking and comedy, have a unique way of making us laugh while making us think.
Documentary as the Starting Point
Mockumentaries, according to Pérez Bowie (Leer el cine: La teoría literaria en la teoría cinematográfica), are a set of cinematic practices that borrow the codes and conventions of documentaries to craft fictional films. They often employ documentary-style techniques such as archival footage, unscripted scenes, interviews, informative narration, news clips, and newspaper excerpts. However, they are entirely fictitious, with all content created for the occasion. This blend of documentary realism and fictional storytelling creates a unique viewing experience.
As theorist Sánchez Noriega notes, mockumentaries must carry enough markers to ensure viewers correctly interpret them as fiction (as opposed to genres like biopics), as they could otherwise be misleading. This genre often plays with its references, simulates reality, employs humor through caricature and irony, incorporates expert commentary, and uses naturalistic lighting and sound, among other techniques. Mockumentaries use elements typically associated with news broadcasts, like image captions and graphics, to enhance the illusion.
Mockumentary: Comedy + Documentary
Mockumentaries are known for their ability to seamlessly blend documentary and comedy. This fusion can create humorous situations that challenge societal norms and the authenticity of the information we consume. Some common comedic instruments used in mockumentaries include:
- Contextual Clashes: Placing characters or situations in incongruous settings.
- Wildly Inappropriate Responses: Characters reacting inappropriately to serious or mundane situations.
- Opposites Attract: Using contrasting elements for comedic effect.
- Tension and Release: Building tension in a scene and then releasing it with humor.
- Truth with a Comic Twist: Presenting factual information in a humorous manner.
- Lies for Laughs: Presenting fictional information for comedic effect.
The Impact of Mockumentaries
Mockumentaries are a thought-provoking genre that actively engages the audience in deciphering the truth from fiction. By subverting traditional filmmaking and satirizing institutional hypocrisy, they challenge us to question the realities we perceive. These films encourage viewers to adopt an active stance, fostering critical thinking and prompting us to examine the world with a more discerning eye.
Philomena Cunk’s Take on Earth
The journey of Philomena Cunk, a character with a knack for hilariously questioning reality, began on Weekly Wipe, three decades after the relase of unrelated Belgian techno-anthem Pump Up The Jam. It was a humor-infused infoentertainment program hosted by Charlie Brooker. In this show, notable news of the week was humorously dissected, often with the participation of fictional characters, including Philomena. Her character, initially envisioned as a middle-class cupcake blogger, evolved to become a comical commentator and presenter in her own miniseries, exploring subjects ranging from William Shakespeare to the entire United Kingdom. As Charlie Brooker puts it: “it was obvious [that] we wanted to expand the cunkiness“
Cunk Speaks Live on Planet Earth
Cunk on Earth plays with the absurd and the mundane. She questions reality while weaving its own fictional narratives. In “The Renaissance Will Not Be Televised” (1×03), Cunk analyzes Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Initially, she suggests Venus was indeed born, only to later comically propose that the painting’s figures were photoshopped due to inconsistencies in the artwork.
I’ve spotted a mistake here. Look. He’s blowing, and her hair’s all whipping about. But look at these trees on the right. Not moving at all. No wind. I think these people have been photoshopped in. It’s all fake.Philomena Cunk, Meme Perpetuator
This mockumentary seamlessly navigates between three worlds: the effective reality (documentary markers), the plausible fiction (recreation of historical events), and the implausible fiction. For instance, in “Faith / Off” (1×02), Cunk envisions an absurd medieval castle life, including a party attended by Robin Hood, Gandalf, and even an alien, showcasing a blend of reality and imagination.
Comedy and Documentary Techniques
Cunk on Earth employs comedic techniques typical of the mockumentary genre. Expert interviews are conducted with absurdity and improvisation. The show’s humor often thrives on the expert’s seriousness. Participants are even instructed to treat Philomena as a child during these interviews. It obviously results in humorous interactions
Additionally, the show cleverly employs sarcastic questions that challenge societal norms. Inquiring about the cultural significance of the Renaissance compared to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” Cunk ridicules biases and conventions.
What was more culturally significant: the Reinassance or “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé? (…) So, the work of a few straight white men just blows Beyoncé out of the water? Is that what you’re saying, on camera?Philomena Cunk, Instant Theorist (a.k.a. Philomena Philomini)
Cunk on Earth blends the conventions of documentary filmmaking with comedic elements to create a hilarious and thought-provoking viewing experience. It employs various comedic techniques, such as:
- Contextual Absurdity: Placing characters and situations in incongruous settings.
- Absurd Interpretations: Philomena’s belief in utterly implausible scenarios.
- Questioning Reality: Challenging the authenticity of reality to absurd extremes.
- Expert Interviews: Engaging experts with comical and absurd questions.
- Improv and Seriousness: Balancing humor with serious, earnest interviews.
In the episode “Rise of the Machines” (1×04), Philomena lets viewers in on a little secret: the inner workings of the show itself (the concept of “out of field”). As she interviews Ashley Jackson, an expert, Philomena humorously alludes to the production process of the series.
During the interview, Philomena playfully asks Ashley Jackson to keep his responses short, hinting at the editing woes that might ensue from overly verbose answers. She quips, “Could you keep the answer in one short sentence? Because if not, they get really mad in editing… I don’t know who edits this, but that’ll have to do.” This meta-commentary on the show’s production injects an extra layer of humor, blurring the lines between reality and fiction even further. Furthermore, in the final episode, “War(s) of the World(s)?“, everything is revealed (or not?).
Satire and Social Commentary in Cunk on Earth
With a lack of disclaimers indicating its fictional nature (as it is pretty obvious), the series engages viewers in a satirical exploration of reality. As Nicholson aptly puts it, “Philomena Cunk is a comedic fictional creation, but it can provide a pleasant and brief sense of relief when we remember that she’s not real, after all.” (The Guardian) The show’s intent is clear: to mock the world openly, highlighting societal absurdities and challenges. As Charlie Brooker himself stated, the show provides a refreshing comedic perspective that counteracts the often distressing state of the world, allowing us to laugh instead of lament.
Through its witty examination of historical events and its satirical take on reality, the show encourages us to question the world around us with a smile on our faces. So, whether you’re a history enthusiast or simply seeking a good laugh, Philomena Cunk is your guide.
[Click on the image to to witness Earth’s pivotal moment according to Philomena Cunk]