Fearless stupidity

Philomena Cunk meets a notable carpenter in Cunk on Earth.

Cunk on Earth, a new documentary series parody co-produced by the BBC and Netflix and premiered on the BBC in September, packs more laughs into every minute than any show I’ve seen in years. Grimly moronic broadcaster Philomena Cunk, played by Diane Morgan, hosts a six-episode series about the history of civilization, endlessly spewing inaccuracy and nonsense as she traipses through caves, museums, and deserts, baffling experts but never losing sight of her own illusory expertise, gleaned through Wikipedia pages and TikTok videos. The Guardian review of the show is here, and I hope that, as a Netflix production, it finds its way to the US service soon.

Philomena Cunk was created by Charlie Brooker in 2016 for his BBC Weekly Wipe series as one of several characters commenting on current events, and she proved so popular that she was featured in her own series, Cunk on Britain, two years later. A favorite in Britain, the new series bids well for similar success here. Along with Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ Fleabag and the surreal Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, Cunk on Earth is a product of the comedic generation after Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan: more than parodies, their characters satirize self-confidence, arrogance, and ignorance, not only of the media but also of the culture. (Indeed, Cunk may herself be Alan Partridge‘s illegitimate daughter.) Part of the fun of watching these shows is amazement at the blithe, supreme, entirely unearned self-confidence of these characters; another pleasure is admiration for the pitch-perfect parodies of their forms — cultural documentary series, children’s show — which are themselves undermined in the process.

Morgan entirely, physically invests herself in Cunk’s stupidity and arrogance, and the show itself wouldn’t be successful for its 23-minute length were it not for this deeply committed performance, the hook on which the comedy rests. Waller-Bridges’ character Fleabag is in fact a quite intelligent if brittle character, but Morgan invests Cunk with a similar fearless sincerity that only serves to emphasize the nonsense that comes out of her mouth. In that sense, these are characters for the 21st century, thanks to their brilliant embodiment in these actors.

Below, you’ll find a few lines I wrote about Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, first posted here last month.

When it comes to popular entertainment — movies, television, music — parents soon find that it’s their children who make the final decisions of what films to see, what shows to watch, what musicians to listen to. My kids are both in their early teens now, and although I’ve done my best to inculcate them with an appreciation of the great artworks of the past, they’ve done theirs to inculcate me with an appreciation of the great artworks of the present.

Which leads me to the pleasures of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, an animated series created by Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling for YouTube in 2011; last month, the BBC’s Channel 4 premiered six new episodes commissioned and produced by the channel, in the wake of the extraordinary cult following the YouTube videos engendered. On its surface, DHMIS (as it’s known to its fans) is a parody of children’s programming like Sesame Street: Two Muppet-like characters (Duck and Yellow Guy) and one costumed human character (Red Guy) share a house into which various strangers enter, representing things like “Creativity” (a talking sketchbook) and “Jobs” (a talking briefcase). So they’re off on an adventure, which usually begins with a catchy song but over the length of the program becomes darker and more surreal.

DHMIS exploits a variety of animation techniques from claymation, puppetry, CGI, and traditional 2D drawing, but it exploits a variety of narrative techniques as well, all serving the cause of black humor and satire: Parody, monologue, and surrealism all contribute to the haunting effect that an episode leaves behind after its usually sudden and ambivalent ending. Although there’s plenty of music and dialogue, these are often punctuated by long, uncomfortable silences during which the characters stare wanly into the camera, awaiting whatever comes next.

The Channel 4 series that premiered last month was not the first effort to retool the series for a wider television audience. As the creators told the Guardian last month, a 2016 run-in with an American company provided a cautionary tale as to whether America, at least, was prepared for it:

An unexpected detour helped them clarify what they wanted the TV series to be. Back in 2016, they made a pilot with a US company. It had a town and neighbours and was “a bit South Park”, says Sloan. “We also made an attempt, and I’m going to whisper this, because it almost sounds like a dirty phrase, to get an element of current affairs into it,” says Terry.

But the timelessness and claustrophobia of the originals was missing. Writing the new version during the pandemic, often over Zoom, may have helped recapture that oppressive vibe. “It was very strange writing a show about characters stuck inside during a time when we were all stuck inside,” says Pelling. “So maybe there are points where we did actually go insane.”

Indeed, American animation already had its current affairs satires like South Park and The Simpsons; one more would probably not have contributed much. But teenagers readily grasp timelessness and claustrophobia when they play off the animated pablum they experience as younger children, more than they grasp current affairs, perhaps.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been American equivalents to DHMIS over the past few years. My kid Charlie recently turned me on to Moral Orel, a similarly dark claymation satire that ran on Adult Swim from 2005 to 2008, the creation of Dino Stamatopoulos. Although it wasn’t originally intended as a parody of the old Davey and Goliath series, there were obvious parallels. Moral Orel centered on a young boy who lived in the middle American town of Moralton. Orel tried very hard to be a good little boy, and in each of the early episodes he tried to follow precisely one moral precept or another, and inevitably it ended in comic chaos and despair. But like DHMIS, the show evolved over the three seasons of its existence into a much darker satire of the human cost of adherence to an unbending fundamentalist code of moral strictures: a satire as timeless, perhaps, as DHMIS‘ depiction of ennui and nihilism. (Moral Orel had a particularly hard time navigating network policies and practices towards the end of its run; see its Wikipedia page for more details.)

Where my children came across these shows, God only knows — my guess is YouTube, but obviously they were pointed in their direction by their friends and their social media accounts. While I despaired on the past iteration of this blog about the lack of any magazines like Mad for their generation, I realize now that I needn’t have despaired: Shows like DHMIS and Moral Orel have picked up this slack, and in remarkably effective ways. Like DHMIS and Moral Orel, Mad magazine was not originally targeted at children or teenagers: Its artists and writers created work that aimed to amuse themselves, and although there was a great deal of silliness there were also darker considerations. (Indeed, one of the early classic Mad features was Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman’s parody of the children’s show Howdy Doody — still a landmark of surrealist satire of children’s literature, television, and the commercialization of childhood itself.)

DHMIS and its ilk, like Mad magazine, National Lampoon, and underground comics were for me, are continuing to provide to my children just the right comic and acidulous antidote to the depredations of conformity and blinkered moralism that adulthood will no doubt try to force upon them. I think the kids’ll be all right after all.

(A tip of my hat to Jason Zinoman, whose appreciation of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head ran in the New York Times today and inspired my own remarks here. I should add that I tried to introduce my kids to both Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill — to no avail, alas.)