When Netflix forked over however much money it cost to produce “The History of Swear Words,” the premise and pitch must have seemed like a no-brainer. Nicolas Cage hosting a docuseries about the history of naughty words? Joined by some of the best comedians around and actual historians that will teach you something in between the laughter? Pure gold! Sadly, to borrow from the series, “The History of Swear Words” is nothing more than an example of combining sugar, honey, and iced tea and ending up with absolute shit. Another way to put it: it’s like VH1’s “I Love The ’90s” or any of those execrable ’00s VH1 shows — a lot of talking heads trying to be funny with mixed results — only behind the swear words with little to no insights about anything and not all that humorous.
Disappointing, to say the least, ‘Swear Words’ is a joyless slog. What should be lightly entertaining and casually watchable, ends up wasting everyone’s time. To his credit, Nicolas Cage—who isn’t in it all that much other than being the host that sets up “experts”— is doing exactly what you expect. He’s equal measures over-the-top and serious, bringing a surprising gravitas to his ceremonial duties. Sure, there are moments of unadulterated “Cage-iness” where it feels like he might jump through the screen and shake you into submission, all while screaming “FUCK!” in your face. Though startling, those fleeting moments are a welcome departure from the series’ real meat— the cringe-worthy comedian interstitials.
Throughout each of the six episodes (focusing on one swear word at a time), Cage’s introduction gives way to a variety of professional comedians trying their best to sound edgy and funny while talking about the qualities of “dick” and “pussy.” With jokes flying at you at every turn, you would expect your face and stomach to hurt from laughing so much. As the show says, dick jokes are often hilarious. Instead, you’re left wanting to crawl under a blanket in horror as funny people such as Jim Jeffries, Sarah Silverman, Nick Offerman, and Nikki Glaser drop bomb after bomb. The fucking show even wastes Patti Harrison’s talent, one of the funniest people on the whole damn planet. You know the comedy isn’t landing when you’d rather hear historians talk about the etymology of “bitch” for the full 20 minutes than hear Harrison and her cohorts attempt jokes.
It’s this overabundance of cringe that makes each 20-minute episode feel twice as long. Word of advice to anyone brave enough to watch this series—binging is not your friend. Though you can get through all six episodes in about as much time as a feature film, it’s a chore. By episode two, the novelty of hearing swear words every 10 seconds has worn off. At episode four, you’re going to check your watch and probably begin looking at your phone. And if you somehow make it to episode six, you’re likely going to turn it off in favor of the various films and TV series ‘Swear Words’ shows clips from, which are all infinitely more enjoyable than the actual show itself. Seriously, by the time you see the first clip from “Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping,” you’re going to fight the urge to bail completely and enjoy the idiocy of The Lonely Island.
That said, there are some moments where “The History of Swear Words” does entertain, albeit briefly. The aforementioned experts, such as Benjamin K. Bergen, Anne H. Charity Hudley, and Elvis Mitchell, succeed in providing a good mix of history, context, and insight, while also landing an errant joke. If the show cut the comedians completely and just focused on Cage and these folks, the show would have been about half as long (a good thing) and could have been a really solid little web series. One particular highlight is in the “Fuck” episode, where they discuss the cultural impact of the word in protests and hip-hop. It’s a surprising detour for the series and shows that there was a bit of ingenuity in the creative development of the series.
Alas, getting to these bright spots requires a commitment that ‘Swear Words’ doesn’t deserve. You’d be better off just reading Wikipedia entries for the history and watching “Face/Off” for your Cage. Ultimately, “The History of Swear Words” is a show with fuck tons of promise that completely shits the bed. [D]
“The History of Swear Words” is available now on Netflix.