An illustration of Philomena Cunk

Philomena Cunk is Changing the Way We Learn History

Who even is she?
November 18, 2022
7 mins read

Philomena Cunk is popping up on the “For You Pages” of American Tik Tokkers everywhere, leaving a puzzled crowd wondering just what they’re watching, but Cunk has been around for close to a decade across the pond. To clear the air, that’s not her real name, Philomena Cunk is the creation of British comedienne Diane Morgan; her character first appeared on a British show called “Weekly Wipe” in 2013. The character Philomena Cunk is an ill-informed journalist who interviews real scholars about subjects in their respective fields. As she does, her audience ends up cackling, and unexpectedly, learning. Diane Morgan’s exceptional performance draws in viewers as they quickly forget that Cunk is not a real person. 

After her popularity on “Weekly Wipe,” Cunk branched out with her own shows in a series of “Cunk on…” followed by the topic. She even has her own book, “Cunk on Everything: The Encyclopedia Philomena,” which claims to be the only book you will never need to read in order to know everything. In 2018, Cunk began her popular historical series, “Cunk on Britain,” and this year, her series “Cunk on Earth” has attracted attention stateside due to it’s recent focus on American history. 

While viewers may laugh through the show, Cunk may have stumbled upon a way to actually teach us history. The inability to recall much of what was learned about history in school seems to be a nearly universal American experience. A popular video trope that has flooded Youtube and TikTok is interviewing Americans on very basic historical facts and watching in horror as the only questions they can answer involve vapid pop cultural trivia. “The Nation’s Report Card” is a data collection report by the National Center for Educational Statistics and their most recent 2018 data show that only 15% of eighth graders demonstrate a “proficient” level of historical knowledge. There are hundreds of articles on how American education has dropped the ball; all statistics point to a system that continually fails its students. 

The alarm on American historical deficits has been sounding for a while; as evidenced by the 1995 James Loewen book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and its consequent adaptations. The popular online educational platform Khan Academy has tried to address the problem by launching their “World History Project;” the course can be taken by anyone with an internet connection. In 2011, John and Hank Green launched their platform CrashCourse — a series that began with a standards-based World History class split in bite-sized segments by topic. The CrashCourse company has since offered more and more “courses” from economics to biology to literature and history. Nevertheless, historical knowledge and critical thinking still remain elusive in the minds of Americans. 

Ok, back to Cunk. In only five episodes, Cunk on Earth covers topics that span the existence of humanity across the planet. Obviously, that’s not enough to elevate Americans to an adequate level of historical proficiency, but what Cunk does with her silly questions and satirical statements is ignite the introspection of her viewers. On the surface, Cunk pokes fun at traditional documentaries as she walks through the landscapes of famous historical sites and offers one-liners; pointing out the absurdity of serious filmmakers and narrators. And, like traditional documentaries, “Cunk on Earth” features well-educated, real experts who are more than happy to talk about their specialties. Often, these traditional experts wouldn’t be particularly interesting but Cunk asks them inane questions like “How come Americans are allowed to kill anyone with a gun?” to which the experts try to explain the second amendment and the two end up discussing whether bears have arms or four legs. Laced throughout the series, Cunk finds a way to introduce the song “Pump Up the Jam” by Technotronic leaving viewers confused and in stitches. She also offers anecdotal stories about “my mate, Paul” which serve as hilarious (albeit distracted) allegories for the types of societal discussions that permeate the corners of the internet where Facebook trolls like to hide.

Because the series is only five episodes long, there isn’t much time to cover the entirety of human history; some criticisms include that the series focuses predominantly on Eurocentric cultures. Episodes are only thirty minutes long so it is clear that the show only focuses on topics that are familiar with most viewers, and unfortunately doesn’t leave much room for more diverse cultural explorations. But now that Cunk has unlocked the key to getting historical knowledge into the minds of the masses, there is now space for other creators to follow in her hilarious footsteps and offer perspectives on deeper historical concepts. 

Accessing Cunk is a bit tricky stateside. Even though the show is a collaboration between Netflix and the BBC, it appears to still only be available in the UK. Episodes do appear on YouTube and the BBC has uploaded tons of clips on TikTok to entice American viewers. There is still no confirmed Netflix release date for audiences in the states, but based on its social media popularity, it would be surprising if it didn’t appear in US Netflix accounts soon. “Cunk on Earth” is still worth jumping through a couple of hoops for, and given the rapid increase in viewership, Netflix is incentivized to bring the show to the US and perhaps even produce more of Cunk’s thoughts on history. 

Megan Miller, Arizona State University

Writer Profile

Megan Miller

Arizona State University

Megan has lived her whole life in Southern California where she enjoys all the local attractions, especially the beaches. She enjoys reading, writing and cooking. She is obsessed with her dog, Moose.

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