The Half Light: The Art of Cursing

TV Features

Two weeks ago, I read a profile of Armando Ianucci, the creator of HBO’s new comedy Veep, in The New Yorker. That’s where I learned that the British director had also made the film In the Loop, a fictionalized satire of the sketchy political maneuvering resulting in false intelligence that justified the Iraq war. The film, smart and funny and depressing, by turns, is populated with various self-serving and wholly disloyal characters. But the most memorable of all was Malcolm Tucker, a Machiavellian enforcer for the British Prime Minister.

Played with a lupine energy by Peter Capaldi, Tucker’s trademark was his swearing—vicious, comical, eloquent and delivered in a harsh Scottish brogue. With a sallow complexion and cruel, bloodshot eyes, he certainly looked the part, but his influence and power truly flowed from the tongue. Fair warning going forward: the excerpted Tuckerian dialogue that appears below is categorically not for the faint of heart, and especially not for the faint of heart who detest bad language. Trust me, if you become light-headed at the average curse word, Tucker’s language will have you laid out in a permanent coma before you reach the punctuation.

That being said, here are two of my favorite Tucker excerpts from In the Loop. Context shouldn’t be necessary:

Sir Jonathan Tutt: Let me tell you the process here, Malcolm, and why that’s not possible…

Malcolm Tucker: Just fucking do it! Otherwise you’ll find yourself in some medieval war zone in the Caucasus with your arse in the air, trying to persuade a group of men in balaclavas that sustained sexual violence is not the fucking way forward!


Judy: You should tell me about it, as it’s a scheduled media appearance by a member of this department and therefore it falls well within my purview!

Malcolm Tucker: Within your “purview?” Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!

I’m a person who is both familiar and comfortable with swearing. I can’t curse like Tucker, unfortunately, but the frequency of my impieties probably exceeds the national average. I don’t know why it appeals to me; I discovered it on the playground of my public elementary school in second grade, playing football. There was a boy named Pat in our year, a heavyset kid and a strong athlete with a bulldozing personality. He swore like a sailor at age eight, and he did it beautifully. When he said “fuck,” it was purposeful, jarring, and even charismatic. Larger-than-life, you could say. He made you want to say “fuck” too, and soon we were all doing it.

I knew enough to limit my swearing to certain situations, and I maintain that ability 20-odd years later. But the allure of a good curse has never worn off, and I take pride in the ability to do it with flair. There’s nothing more painful than watching an angry person swear as though they’re tasting some exotic intestinal food for the first time. It’s an awkward fate, and one I don’t covet for myself. When the bad situations arise (and here I’m talking about the miserable-but-not-tragic ones, as when a cloying customer service representative puts you on hold or the internet craps out when you have to submit something on deadline), I want to be able to lash out at the world with a crisp stream of unbroken profanity. It’s a psychic balm for all manner of nuisance, and it makes me feel better.

There are people who think cursing is barbaric. You might be one of them, and if you’re not, you surely know somebody who is. I’ve somehow managed to avoid the embarrassment of being asked to soften my language in public, since I refrain from letting loose until I know the company I keep. But I’ve seen it happen to others, and I can never quite understand the stiffness of the clean language crowd. Sure, I fathom their reasons well enough—I think swearing is harmless on the grand scale, while they see it as a virulent defect of character—but I can’t understand how they resist.

How do they release the trivial angers that beset us all? Am I wrong in thinking they’re a bit repressed? That all the sweet moments of relief they deny themselves become bottled up somewhere in the medulla—the part of the brain where anger is fomented—and coagulate into an unchecked fury mass, infecting quality of life?

Luckily, people who write television shows seem to share my love. Deadwood is the standard-bearer for cursing aficionados, a place where the great Al Swearengen delivers exchanges like the following:

Al Swearengen: I will profane your fucking remains, E.B.

E.B. Farnum: Not my remains, Al.

Al Swearengen: Gabriel’s trumpet will produce you from the ass of a pig.

The Wire, too, elevates swearing into art, such as when the street-wise Bubbles drops a line to his partner in crime like, “no offense, son, but that’s some weak-ass thinking. You equivocatin’ like a motherfucker.”

Artistic—that’s the rub. Cursing gets knocked as a crass substitute for more refined language, and in the mouths of neanderthals that’s probably accurate. But when bolstered by the power of intellect and used to make a broader point—comedic, usually, but not always—it can become poetic in its concise reflection of the harsh realities facing human kind.

And that’s why I think the anti-cursing crowd is doing more than just putting a moral ban on a few bad words; they’re trying to whitewash the human experience. Swearing was not created in a vacuum. The words were not brought forth by the devil from the bowels of hell to be employed by evil men. They were crafted by people, in every culture and in every language, as a mode of expression. Ignore swear words, and you might as ignore the idea of even recognizing basic existential elements like injustice or heartbreak or suffering. It’s no coincidence that the people who grow uncomfortable in the presence of cursing are often the same ones who never want to talk about politics or war or anything less anodyne than the color of the clouds on the horizon. And their life becomes a cloistered Victorian novel, with petty concerns between people with no real problems.

Stepping down from the soap box for a moment, let’s return to Malcolm Tucker. From the New Yorker article, I learned that he first appeared in a show called The Thick of It on the BBC. Much of that show is available on YouTube, and I’ve spent the last two weeks watching it in its entirety. Like In the Loop, its progenitor qualifies as brilliant political satire where everyone is either cutthroat or incompetent, and nothing meaningful is ever accomplished. Ian Martin, one of Ianucci’s writers, is responsible for most of Tucker’s ecstatic swearing spell, and he admitted in the New Yorker that he has “a talent for a certain kind of stupid, overblown, bombastic, baroque swearing.”

That’s evident throughout the series, and especially in one of my favorite moments from a special called “Spinners and Losers.” As tensions rise in anticipation of a new election, Malcolm stimulates the hopes of a PM candidate named Ben Swain in order to muddy the waters and secure the current prime minister’s position. When his play succeeds and Swain is hung out to dry, it’s up to Malcolm to let him know that he won’t be standing for the position and will, in fact, be in everyone’s bad graces for the misguided attempt. Despite the fact that he helped encouraged the disloyalty, Malcolm won’t cushion the blow:

Malcolm Tucker: The Tom wobble; it’s over.

Ben Swain: So what does that mean?

Malcolm: Well it means that the rats are now returning to a very bouyant ship… and they’re playing deck tennis. So that’s lovely isn’t it?

Ben: What does that mean for me, then?

Malcolm: I guess that means that you’re standing in the chamber of the House of Commons with your big flaccid dick hanging out with a ‘Vote For Me’ sticker on the end.

Ben Swain: But you said I had a chance! About half an hour ago you said I was in with a shot!

Malcolm: Well, half an hour ago you were in with a shot. This is half an hour hence! We’ve fucking time traveled, yes? We’re in a weird and wonderful world where everything is different! Maybe outside the polar ice caps have melted, maybe there’s fucking robots knocking about and Davina McCall’s the new pope. Maybe you can download rice! I want you, right now, to think about your future, okay? Think about what you are doing! Get yourself back on the train to fucking Tomsville, yeah?

The curse words are just a part of Tucker’s wonderful energy; with Capaldi’s intensity and the gripping political intrigue playing their part. But they are a critical component, and without them, Tucker wouldn’t be so quite so interesting. He also wouldn’t be himself. Cursing is integral—to Malcom, to me, and to the broader swath of profane humanity. And if that’s the case, we might as well do it with some fucking style.

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