Director: Christopher D’Elia
Writer: Bellamie Blackstone
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Silverman, Nick Offerman, Jim Jefferies, Nikki Glaser
Streaming on: Netflix
Could anyone else but Nicolas Cage have hosted Netflix’s History of Swear Words? The actor’s unhinged, manic energy sets the tone for this anything-goes six-episode romp into the history, etymology, culture and popular uses of the words ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘bitch’, ‘dick’, ‘pussy’ and ‘damn’. He seesaws between utter sincerity, playful flirtatiousness and a full-bodied descent into insanity as he roars out a prolonged “fuuuuuck”, proclaims he has “BNE” (Big Nick Energy) and adopts goofy accents, sometimes several in the same sentence. Unfortunately, the rest of the show can’t match his commitment to the material, its tonal shifts more jarring than anticipated.
The broad nature of its topic is both a strength and a weakness. While it makes for several interesting tangents, like the theory that politician Dick Swett’s 1990 Congressional run was successful owing to his (unintentionally) hilarious name, the end result is an odd mishmash of the academic and the juvenile, with guests representing both sides. The two ends of the spectrum sometimes intersect, like when a lexicographer explains why ‘Cecily Bumtrinket’ was an old-timey slang for a vagina, but the show doesn’t fully lean into either aspect, making for a series that feels a little too unfocused.
The presence of comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Jim Jefferies, London Hughes and Nikki Glaser add little to the show, apart from banal observations such as, “We use the word ‘fuck’ all the time.” Too much time is devoted to them using the swears in a variety of sentences and contexts. If the show’s intent is to normalize them, the result is more a feeling of resigned acceptance, that’s how repetitive and tiring the exercise is. It’s unlikely that the audience watching this show wouldn’t know or use some of those words already, and so these recurring segments make each 20-minute-long episode feel much longer.
More genuine laughs come from the academicians who illustrate the impressive number of careers to be found in the field of swearing — one has authored a book about cursing, another’s written definitions for swear words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and a third is a cognitive scientist who talks about swearing’s neurological links. Their context and insight give the show its best and most interesting moments, like an explanation of the cultural impact of NWA’s ‘Fuck The Police’ and a visual depiction of how usage of the word ‘bitch’ spiked during the Suffrage Movement and second-wave feminism.
Other connections are frustratingly never explained, like how the handle of riding crops came to be known as ‘dicks’ during the 1860s. “During the sexually repressed, tightly corseted Victorian era, people must’ve been clamouring for things to call penises,” Cage deadpans. While the show uses him sparsely so that his shtick remains fresh, the same can’t be said for the guests, who more often than not, end up making the same points phrased differently. Some of their anecdotes, like Joel Kim Booster recounting his experience of the word ‘bitch’ as a homophobic slur, add heft and perspective to the conversation. Others, like Patti Harrison’s objection to the ‘pussy hats’ worn by women marching against President Trump, are left vague, with the episode swiftly cutting away.
Despite its bright spots, History of Swear Words doesn’t really live up to the potential of its premise. At one point, the guests test out the theory that swearing makes you feel better. Which might explain why seeing them do it for us instead feels so unsatisfying.