As the host of Netflix’s new comedy series History of Swear Words, Nicolas Cage sits in a set designer’s idea of a fancy, upper class study, with an ornate wooden globe that doubles as a liquor cabinet by his side. Dressed in a classic suit that recalls both John Wick and whatever ska band you liked in high school, Cage showily ruminates on our most potent profanities, saying each fuck and bitch with such passion and tenderness that it sounds like he’s sending his child off to college. His intros and voice-overs are the framework for a show that explores these bad words from a historical perspective and with an eye for their everyday usage, alternating between interviews with lexicographers and scientists, and I Love the ‘90s-style clips of comedians remembering that these words exist. Hosting a show like this is probably a great gig during a pandemic, considering it’s a small set with no other performers. Still, it’s probably not quite what Cage fans expected from the actor back in 1996, when he was fresh off an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and starring in one of the biggest action hits of the decade in The Rock.
I’m not here to slander Netflix’s History of Swear Worlds. It’s a perfectly fine way to kill 20 or so minutes, a breezy overview of how a half-dozen of the most popular cuss words have been used throughout their history. And Cage is a lot of fun in it—he commits as thoroughly as he does to all of his projects, ostentatiously hosting the show in full overblown camp mode.
It’s hard to watch it and not dwell on Cage’s downward trajectory over the last two decades, though. Once a huge star, and still a mesmerizing actor, Cage is now most often seen in straight-to-on-demand thrillers and low-budget action films. For every Mandy—his best live action role in many years—there’s a half-dozen movies like Jiu Jitsu and Kill Chain. Cage hasn’t just fallen into that weird nexus of unknown movies with names and premises so generic that they sound vaguely familiar, alongside fellow ‘80s / ‘90s leading men like Bruce Willis and John Cusack—he basically innovated it. So despite being one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, and a major box office draw at the peak of his career, hosting a quickly produced Netflix show like History of Swear Words is actually a step up for Cage in terms of prominence. Unlike most of his new movies, which just unceremoniously appear in cheap DVD sets on grocery store end caps after forgotten on-demand rollouts, here’s a new Cage project that’s accessible to tens of millions of Netflix subscribers, and is also being actively promoted by one of the biggest companies in entertainment.
If History of Swear Words focused more on the history and etymology of these words—the stuff it does well—maybe Cage’s presence wouldn’t feel quite as egregious. Even though some of the comedians that pop up throughout the series are hilarious—Patti Harrison, Joel Kim Booster, Sarah Silverman—the whole “mid ‘00s VH1 clip show” feel makes the series seem both prematurely old—like this was dug up from 2007 and just released today—and also unsure of itself. Instead of having confidence in the context provided by talking heads like lexicographer Kory Stamper, author Melissa Mohr, and cultural critic Elvis Mitchell, or in the humor of Cage’s narration, the show devotes half of every episode to jokes and anecdotes that can be funny but don’t add anything else to the show. Cage’s performance, and the tone of his narration, are funny enough to earn this show its “comedy series” tag; it doesn’t need rapid fire drop-ins from comedians. A comic docuseries about how language has changed over the centuries wouldn’t seem as beneath an actor of Cage’s talents as a cheap, snarky, VH1 clipfest does.
Cage’s financial troubles have been very well-publicised over the last couple of decades. Presumably that’s what’s driven him to his career as a leading man in instantly forgotten genre films, instead of taking smaller roles in more respectable pictures. After burning out his box office appeal through a series of high profile mid ‘00s flops, he could’ve depended on his acting talent to excel in indies or as a big name character actor, if he hadn’t been in such dire financial straits. I have no idea what he got paid for History of Swear Words—it can’t be too much, especially since he could’ve knocked out his shoots and voice overs in an afternoon—but despite being so obviously beneath his talents, at least it’s still more enjoyable and far more informative than most of the movies he makes these days. Still, hopefully we’ll see more projects like Mandy in Cage’s future, movies that just let him fully indulge in his manic devotion to a role, and less quickly banged out gimmicks like History of Swear Words.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.