By Kyriacos Nicolaou
When it was first announced that actor Nicolas Cage would host an off-the-cuff Netflix series about the history of cursing less than four weeks ago, audiences were more than receptive to the premise. Yes, lighthearted content of any kind would be welcomed during the coldest time of the year, added to the pandemic induced increased isolation, but the excitement generally stemmed from Nicolas Cage just doing a very Nicolas Cage type of thing.
The show is split in six 20-minute episodes with one solitary curse word being the focal point of each. The words include f*ck, sh*t, b*tch, d*ck, p***y and damn, and the show explores their origins, linguistic evolution, usage and connotations. If this sounds like a documentary purposefully broken up into more digestible chunks it’s because that’s exactly what it is.
In days gone by the entire series could have been wrapped up in a single 40-minute episode, with the academics and linguists involved taking centre stage to provide knowledge-based facts about the words in a more stark and straightforward fashion. But with everything having to be spiced up for increasingly attention-lacking and skittish audiences, the show has been peppered with various entertainers who talk about each word, predominantly comedians.
For streaming companies like Netflix, comedians have become the go-to resource for creating content. In this instance, the comedians featured on the show include Sarah Silverman, Nikki Glaser, Jim Jefferies, London Hughes, Zainab Johnson, DeRay Davis, Patti Harrison and Baron Vaughn.
Of all of the above, it’s the two veterans in Jefferies and Silverman that I am somewhat jaded with. Call it repetitiveness or overfamiliarity with their style and jokes. Having said that, no one comedian truly steals the show here, although Baron Vaughn and London Hughes were quite amusing, the former for his calm but astute delivery and the latter for the genuine fun she seemed to be having while recording her segments.
Beyond the comedians, the show has also tapped other entertainers who are comedy-adjacent, including actor Nick Offerman and musician Open Mike Eagle. While the latter has also entered the stand-up comedy world in recent years, it’s his music I am most familiar with, particularly with the release of his 2020 album Anime, Trauma and Divorce.
However, it’s the inclusion of seasoned actor Isiah Whitlock Jr which truly shines. If you know him and what word he is most famous for delivering in a truly unique way then there is no question as to which episode he features in. While Whitlock can be seen in the 2020 film Da 5 Bloods, also on Netflix, it is a scene in a much older Spike Lee film which forms the origins of his involvement in the History of Swear Words. It was back in 2002’s excellent 25th Hour when Whitlock played Agent Flood and delivered his iconic prolonged version of ‘sh*t’ to the doomed Monty Brogan.
History of Swear Words is an easy, low-effort watch. It’s adequately entertaining in terms of the moment of pure comedy, but its true worth comes in the moments when the linguists, lexicographers and academics are on the screen. There’s also a silly little treat for Cypriots tucked somewhere in the show but I won’t let the cat out of the bag.