Netflix’s History Of Swear Words lets Nicolas Cage have the time of his effing life

The Oscar-winning actor is a goddamn delight as the host of Netflix's limited series about the evolution of profanity


HISTORY OF SWEAR WORDS (Funny Or Die/B17 Entertainment). All six episodes now available to stream on Netflix. Rating: NNNN


I’m not sure we needed a six-part Netflix series about the origins and evolution of swear words from the people at the comedy website Funny Or Die. But I’m positive we needed a six-part Netflix series about the origins and evolution of swear words from the people at the comedy website Funny Or Die hosted by Nicolas Cage.

Set in a studio replication of an eccentric millionaire’s study, Cage offers etymological monologues on English-language profanities: the F-word, the S-word, the B-word, D-word, the P-word and another, less dangerous D-word.

The stories Cage tells about where a given word came from, and why it holds the power it does, are annotated by a slew of linguists and lexicographers and illustrated by actors and comedians like Sarah Silverman, London Hughes, Joel Kim Booster, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. (whose various deliveries of the word “shit” as a corrupt politician on The Wire made him a cult icon) and Nick Offerman.

Structurally, it’s nothing new; the show follows the tried-and-true format of those E! shows from the early 2000s that did deep dives into superficial fads from decades past. There’s some animation, zippy pacing, a burbling musical underscore, a production design that leans heavily on green-screened backgrounds and bright colours. There are a lot of shows like this.

But History Of Swear Words has two things the other shows do not. One of them is the subject matter, which can be engaging and even riveting when it’s not cutesied up for effect; profanity is fascinating, and it’s fun to go down the rabbit hole with the experts assembled. (Kory Stamper, a former editor for Merriam-Webster, has the best grasp on how silly all of this is while also managing to engagingly deliver facts and context in limited screen time, episode after episode.)

The other thing is Nicolas Cage, and he is – to use the parlance of the series – the fucking shit.

As a host, Cage is the juice, the wild card, the alchemical straw that stirs the drink. Alone in this obviously artificial space (possibly because he’s been locked in there after losing an argument), Cage revels in the opportunities of being able to engage with the camera, and it’s just a pleasure to watch him figure out his line readings and posture choices.

Cage has always been in on his own joke, but here he’s performing a version of himself that’s erudite, engaging and just a little bit silly, like a memory of a favourite teacher. He is having the time of his life, even if he never cracks a smile, delivering every one of his lines with a phony gravitas perpetually on the verge of exploding into musicality.

And every time he pops up, History Of Swear Words becomes that much richer. This could have been nothing more than a goof – that show where an Oscar-winning actor delivers a monologue of memorable F-bombs designed to go viral on social media. But it’s more than that. It’s pretty damn engaging.

@normwilner

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