Using the time-honored We Love the ’80s/Best Week Ever format that VH1 deployed with much success for many years, History of Swear Words tackles one expletive per episode, tossing the word to comedians like Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries, DeRay Davis, Joel Kim Booster, and Nikki Glaser while also lightly delving into each profanity’s particular history and evolution with lexicographers, cognitive scientists, and various experts on cultural ebbs and flows.
The series never settles into a full groove, though it’s always engaging on a surface level. Just when you start touching on a truly interesting aspect, or angle, an episode will bounce over to something else and you don’t get the full deep dive you were expecting. But there are a handful of interesting tidbits to absorb throughout – like how swearing under duress can actually help people tolerate more pain or how Jonah Hill, of all people, has belted out more swear words in movies than any other actor. You’re always learning, even if it comes in an erratic manner.
Each episode has its own flavor to unleash and its own topics to discuss. The series is nicely bookended by “F**k” (the big one) and “Damn” (which hardly anyone considers a swear word anymore). In that regard, you start off with the undisputed king of bad words (which is also the most malleable) and end with a cool historical look at a word that’s run through “the complete life cycle” of a profane phrase. And in between, you get “S**t” (which still mostly means excrement), “B*tch” (a slur that women are reclaiming), and the coital combo of “D**k” and “P***y” (which both refer to genitalia). It’s a good assortment of words that allows the show to touch on a variety of subjects ranging from politics to censorship to good old fashioned d**k jokes.
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Because, yes, what is the difference between being “a s**t” and being “the s**t?” Or between getting called “a b*tch” and “that b*tch?” Context is key, as is the notion of “semiotics,” which relates to the intention of the speaker and the reception of the listener, along with all the connotations and denotations in between. History of Swear Words is actually fascinating when it lands on these types of conversations, but it brushes past them rather quickly in the name of the overall gimmick – which is that this is a light, springy series designed to get in and out quickly while Nic Cage has a grand old time swearing up a storm.
I’ll award a few bonus points here too for the inclusion of actor Isiah Whitlock Jr., whose unique delivering of “s**t” (which adds both syllables and seconds) broke into the pop culture lexicon thanks to The Wire. History of Swear Words may only achieve cuteness on a cursory level, but it still knows where to find, and wield, the right amount of fun at the right time.