Published Jan 05, 2021Back when I was in elementary school, students were forced to participate in a school-wide public speaking competition. Every kid had to pick a topic, write a speech, and then deliver it in front of their class. One of the kids in the older grades did his on the word "fuck." The teacher allowed it because the student claimed to be doing an academic investigation into the word's power — but the kid ended up flunking the assignment because, in reality, he was just a troublemaking preteen who wanted to swear in front of the class.
That same concept has been applied to History of Swear Words, a six-part series with all the wit of a 1990s edgelord preteen. Comedian Nikki Glaser says, "People just laugh when you say 'fuck.' Everything is fucking funnier when you say 'fuck'" — a claim that disproves itself by being completely unfunny.
Each episode of History of Swear Words concerns a different profanity. The episodes are "Fuck," "Shit," "Bitch," "Dick," "Pussy" and "Damn" (so it's basically George Carlin's "seven dirty words" joke from 1972, which should give you a sense of how timely and relevant this is in 2021). With an ironic classical score and host Nicolas Cage seated next to a globe-shaped mini bar, History of Swear Words is presented as if it were a stuffy PBS show à la Masterpiece Theatre; this formality is undercut by the cut-and-paste style animations and talking heads from comedians like Sarah Silverman, Nick Offerman (who, disappointingly, doesn't know how to properly use the word "myriad"), Open Mike Eagle and more.
As well as not being very funny, History of Swear Words spends too long explaining exactly what swear words are and how they're used — as if we don't know already. Do we honestly need a lengthy explainer on the difference between "shit" and "the shit"? An entire episode about the sexist connotations of "bitch" is similarly insulting to everyone's intelligence (although the philosophical discussion about its use in hip-hop briefly scrapes the surface of a more nuanced debate). "I think there's an interesting conversation to be had about the way that [Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's] 'Wet-Ass Pussy' got such a reaction," says Patti Harrison in the "Pussy" episode — it's such a shame that the show doesn't actually bother having that conversation.
In lieu of offering anything substantial, the best parts of History of Swear Words are the random anecdotes and fun facts: we learn which Hollywood actor has said "fuck" the most in movies, Sarah Silverman talks about the time she pitched the word "fuck" for School of Rock, there's an interesting story about archeologists stealing the penises from statues in Pompeii, some discussion about what "mincing" words means, and a fascinating section about sexually explicit 1930s blues singer Lucille Bogan. The "Damn" episode is by far the most interesting one, since the word is so mild that it relies on research rather than edginess.
You might get a couple of decent anecdotes to tell at parties, but nothing here will make anyone see cussing in a particularly different way. This might have pushed the envelope a few decades ago, but here in 2021, it's decidedly lightweight; perhaps tackling racist or homophobic slurs could have yielded some genuine insights, rather than just schoolyard naughtiness, but History of Swear Words doesn't risk being genuinely shocking. The show certainly isn't funny — but with quick edits, bright visuals and peppy music, it's decently fun. (Netflix)