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Review: Netflix’s ‘History Of Swear Words’ is Expertly Balanced Between Comedy and Documentary

By Prathyush Parasuraman 8 January 2021

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Swear words are malleable in meaning because they slip through the grip of those who fixate on and fix meaning—the lawyers, the lexicographers, and the ivory tower laity. No one has ever said, “That’s not how you use the word ‘fuck’!”, simply because—like ‘shit’, ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’—the meaning is context-driven, personality-driven, and indifferent to syntactic and grammarian challenges. As History Of Swear Words points out, the word “profanity” itself comes from a root word meaning outside the temple, thus also outside the purview of the codifying eye. 

The fascinating thing about this six part Netflix comedy series, anchored by Nicolas Cage, is it brings in both the layperson and the lexicographer on equal footing to discuss the origins, evolution, cultural impact and imperatives of swear words. The compendium of cuss words, as Cage puts it, includes episode length discussions on ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘pussy’, ‘bitch’, ‘dick’, and ‘damn’. 

When the trailer dropped, I was skeptical because it seemed like Cage’s exaggerated overtures, stressed elocution, and dry humour were being used to embellish an essentially dry, fact-filled documentary. The skepticism bore fruit to a certain degree—while peppered with comical takes, the series is never funny beyond the chuckle decibel, because it doesn’t want to be. Humour is only a framework around the investigation into swear words, it isn’t the point. 

The bite-sized 20 minute episodes are designed to be informative, but not densely so, and entertaining, but not entirely so. There’s a middle ground here, with comics taking care of the entertainment as academics try to be informative, padding one another against comic or cerebral exhaustion. (The show thankfully doesn’t tap into the perverse instinct to make the academics the entertainers, and the entertainers academic.) So you have Sarah Silverman and Nick Offerman, among many others comics (London Hughes, Zainab Johnson, Patti Harrison), being themselves—sardonic, savage, dry—with the more intellectual perspective coming from academics like Melissa Mohr, who studies expletives at Stanford; Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist with dad-line humour; and Mireille Miller-Young, a snappy Gender Studies professor. 

Nicolas Cage is himself in a set that is designed to imply intellect — the wooden globe, the fireplace, the book-case, and the mantle-piece — but his comic irreverence for what is considered conventionally “intellectual” is on full display, subverting the idea of what can and cannot be considered “intellectual”. Humour is often seen as the genre for the silly and the stressed. Cage morphs it into a fireside chat, imbuing the comedy with documentary-like flourishes of thought. 

The progression of episodes betrays a curve—with the episodes in between, on ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’, being the ones that have the potential for both the catharsis of profanity (cussing, for example, makes one’s grip stronger, and increases capacity to endure pain), and also the cantankerousness of misogyny. Mireille Miller-Young makes a beautiful point, that while we must look to bands like 2 Live Crew—who fought against the censorship of words like ‘pussy’—we must also acknowledge they were using it with a thick coat of sexism. It is in these moments of introspective information that the show really gets going. (I had never thought of ‘dick’ as a word with “great phonetics… the same structure as fuck.”) 

The funniest bits, however, are the excerpts from comedy stage acts of Leslie Jones and Chelsea Vanessa Peretti that punctuate the proceedings, which are mostly interview based. The comics, especially London Hughes, bring their personality in well-curated bits—it’s somewhere between a conversation and comedy show stage. There is no suggestiveness to the humour because the humour is about the suggestiveness. This also means that even as the show wants to entertain, it is grounded by its documentary genre, even perhaps, caged in it (hehe)—there is a very distinct desire in the show to make a Wikipedia page come to life, with cartoon sketches floating back and forth through time. This might be a good thing, because the opposite of it might have been a string of dick jokes designed only to make one laugh, and not necessarily learn. But the desire here is different—to tie our casual usage of words like ‘damn’ and ‘dick’ to a complex history of events like bribes paid to censorship dons of the 1930s, or the American president Richard Nixon (aka Dick Nixon) sending Americans into the Vietnamese jungles to kill and be killed. And in that pursuit, it succeeds entirely.

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