Honestly, there are times where it feels like it's only possible to fully encapsulate the hellscape that was 2020 by using some, well — inelegant language. Same goes for when an alt-right mob breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. For that reason, it makes complete sense that Netflix's new, unscripted comedy series, "The History of Swear Words," was a pandemic-born project. It was conceived, sold, produced and edited all before the new year, and it's a fitting way to usher in 2021.
"I would say, there's probably no surprise that all of this came together in the most chaotic year that we've ever had," Brien Meagher, the co-founder of B17 Entertainment who serves as executive producer on the show, told Salon.
Bellamie Blackstone, executive producer and showrunner agreed.
"I have to say, making it in that chaotic year was cathartic for me," she said. "My husband was always laughing at me because I'm like, 'f**k, d**k, p**sy.' It was easy to lose the intention of the word because they were just episodes at that point, but when you take a step back, you realize these words have power."
And, according to Blackstone, one of the most fascinating aspects of creating the series was dissecting the evolution of that power, and how it's changed as culture has developed. For viewers, those will likely be the most interesting parts of "The History of Swear Words," too, especially considering the resonance of those words in our most stressful times.
Hosted by Nicolas Cage, each 20-minute episode delves into the history and cultural impact of six different expletives:"F**k," "S**t," "B*tch," "D**k," "P**sy," and "Damn." The guiding questions that run through each episode really are "How did that four-letter (or five-letter) word become 'bad,' and what do people actually mean when they use them today?"
Cage essentially plays an exaggerated version of himself, with a dapper suit and "Masterpiece"-style background and, according to Blackstone, he was at the top of the list for potential hosts. "He brought so much to the table in terms of how he approached it as a character," she said. "He's a student of language and of his art."
And as a character, he plays up that "just short of completely unhinged" vibe he's spent years perfecting. Just after the camera focuses on Cage, he launches into several iconic lines, "F**k it, we'll do it live," and "I've had it with these motherf**kin' snakes on this motherf**kin' plane," delivered with such gusto that it seems like he's savoring the phrases.
This shouldn't be a surprise. Early in the "F**k" episode, it's revealed that the F-word, and its seemingly endless variations, make up 70% of the actor's onscreen curse word usage. "F**k" is a multipurpose swear: It can have sexual connotations, or denote really bungling something up, or as a kind of point of emphasis. Cage demonstrates himself, again and again, as a master of its usage.
Adding some color to the series is a sort of who's who of celebrity profanity: comedians like Sarah Silverman, Nikki Glaser, Nick Offerman and Zainab Johnson, and actors like Isiah Whitlock Jr., (whose distinctly drawn-out utterance of the word "s**t" in "The Wire" and Spike Lee films is now iconic).
Their contributions are fine, if underwhelming. As the series establishes, certain "sentence enhancers" can lose their flavor once they're overused, so after a while, watching celebrities shout swear words and then titter and giggle as if they've done something shocking loses its punch (Johnson is the exception — she's a consistent delight).
Where the series distinguishes itself, however, is in its succinct linguistic exploration of the words. Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and Merriam-Webster dictionary consultant, needs her own show stat, with frequent guest appearances from Melissa Mohr, the author of "Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing," and Benjamin Bergen, author of "What The F." Together, these three experts give viewers a smart overview of swearing, from past to present.
Take "damn," for instance. Of the words explored in the series, it's probably considered the mildest in a modern context (you can say "damn" on public radio, for instance, and Salon doesn't censor it), but it used to be just as shocking as "f**k" or "c**t."
"But the more we dove into the word, the more we were blown away by how generally offensive and egregious it was back in the day and how much material there was on that one word alone," Meagher said. "I think once we saw 'Damn' come together as an episode, we felt very confident about all the other episodes."
Each word has its own trajectory, though there's a thematic interest in the points of intersection between profanity, racism, homophobia and sexism — and what it means when that language is reclaimed by members of marginalized communities. As such, once you've binged the series, which can be done in just over two hours, you'll have a lot of insightful tidbits for your next Zoom cocktail party, like, "Despite urban legend, 'f**k' doesn't stand for 'fornication under consent of the king,'" or "Jonah Hill holds the record for the most swear words uttered on-screen," or "Here's why parental 'parental advisory' stickers actually may be racist . . ."
But I think the main, underlying appeal of the series — especially right now — is pretty succinctly encapsulated by Cage, who says, "There's something innately human about swearing," especially when feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.
"When you start to break down why we swear, and what motivates that, it is based in emotion," Blackstone said. "It's based in the fact that these words are so expressive, and express an emotion in the way that nothing else can. You can use them in a moment when nothing else will suffice."
And, as "The History of Swear Words" outlines early in the season, swearing can actually make you feel better when you're under physical or mental stress. This is demonstrated when the participating celebs are separated into two groups — one that can swear, one that can't — and asked to plunge their hands into freezing water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group that can swear, led by Nikki Glaser, far outlasts their silent compatriots.
It's intensely relatable, especially this week (or this past year — or, honestly, these past four years). And if you, like me, have a few select expletives that are getting more of a workout right now, "The History of Swear Words" gets behind why they feel so good and offers a couple of much-needed laughs along the way.
"History of Swear Words" is currently streaming on Netflix.