Swearing, profanity, cursing, blaspheming — whatever you want to call it, certain four-letter words will always have a place in our vocabulary. Not everyone approves of them, but others understand their value. These colorful words can illustrate frustration, express joy, denounce your enemies, or even act as the punchline to a joke. Over the years, these powerful terms have become more prevalent in pop culture, reaching a fever-pitch with this year's Sausage Party. The animated film starring a talking hot dog (Seth Rogen) isn't shy about letting the expletives fly; though, with a scant 160 uses of the f-word, Sausage Party isn't even close to the top score. That honor goes to The Wolf of Wall Street, which holds the record (for a non-documentary film) of having 506 uses of the 'f'-word — over three times as many as Sausage Party. However, watching the animated raunch-fest, I couldn't help but feel bombarded and borderline offended by its use of flair (so to speak). With Wolf I didn't mind and was simply caught up in the majesty of the film. The different responses I had to films' uses of language, coupled with the disparity in number — 160 vs. 506 — got me thinking: is there an art to cursing?
To get started, let's look back at the first show I remember being aware of utilizing cursing lyrically: Breaking Bad. The tragedy of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is not stranger to swearing, but saves the strongest word for its most powerful or thematically appropriate moments, giving true meaning to the term "f-bomb." Walt trots it out in moments of rage, desperation or to assert his power; Skyler (Anna Gunn) uses it to hurt her husband (remember her tryst with Ted?); and Jesse (Aaron Paul) is just Jesse, who probably earns the most uses out of every character. Every time the word is used its as if the writers are adding emphasis to the story, underlining important and shocking moments with a word that stings and lingers. The swearing serves the story and the characters to build something deep and darkly beautiful.
Another avenue for swearing is the adult cartoon, South Park being a prime example. Before adult cartoons were prevalent, South Park was the even dirtier alternative to the king: The Simpsons. The freedom of airing on a cable network gave Trey Parker and Matt Stone the ability to use four-letter words as much as they wanted, much to the pleasure of young children who may have come across this show late at night. Similar in gratuity to Sausage Party, South Park's satirical nature lends more depth and meaning to the curse words on display. The episode "It Hits the Fan" and its 162 uses of "shit" and its variations (all in a span of 23 minutes) end up stripping the word of its meaning. This is gratuity at its finest, hitting hard and fast to make the statement that these are just words. We give them meaning and decide they are taboo. Their status as unacceptable speech is a social construct. South Park shows us this the only way it knows how: with a lot of "shit."
On the other end of the animated obscenity spectrum is Netflix's Bojack Horseman. At first blush it would seem as though an adult cartoon about a man/horse hybrid who is haunted by the demons of his past success, but also revels in absurd hi-jinks, would be littered with f-bombs. Animals cursing just screams comedy, right? In fact, Bojack Horseman is rather reserved for a show of its type, choosing to hit hard with just three uses of the f-word. That's one for each season. Limiting the usage of the word turns its use into a gut punch of epic proportions. In the first season, Bojack's (Will Arnett) former friend and creative partner, Herb, uses it when trying to get Bojack out of his house after his attempt at an apology goes horribly wrong. In Season 2, it comes from Charlotte, Bojack's former flame, after he almost sleeps with her daughter. And in the most recent season (spoiler!), after Todd and Bojack get into a huge (friendship-ending?) fight, Todd says it to him out of exhaustion — exhaustion towards the situation and their fractured friendship. This utilization lets the viewer know that what is happening on screen is incredibly serious. Watching Bojack Horseman makes me feel like a little kid again, hearing the word for the very first time. It's haunting.
Looking at these examples of profanity within visual entertainment it is clear that there are tasteful and artistic ways to include foul language. These words aren't there for pure shock value, but add depth to characters and sometimes drive the story forward. Even the narrative film with the highest f-count makes the case for its excess in that it matches the excess of the characters' lives. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) of The Wolf of Wall Street seems to do more drugs than he eats regular meals and appears to be under the influence of something for the majority of the film and his life. The characters spend money as fast as they make it and wreck sports cars and yachts all to the tune of 506 f-bombs. There is a lyrical quality to the profanity as it rolls of the tongues of these awful human beings. It matches their rude and crude lifestyles; it fits the characters. There are so many movies and shows that have found artistic and appropriate ways to swear. However, one recent film gets it all wrong: Sausage Party.
Usually I have no problems with the comedic stylings of Seth Rogen and company. Superbad, The Pineapple Express, and This is the End are three of the best comedies of the last ten years. This time, however, something just felt off. These comedians have always been raunchy, but in a funny and endearing way. Their characters usually do drugs and swear in service of the story and the characters. In Sausage Party it seems as if every line has a swear for no reason, which comes off as lazy. Anthropomorphized food cussing is not a suitable replacement for jokes. None of the expletives service the story or characters in any discernible way. The previous examples use colorful language to add depth and make a point. Sausage Party feels like swearing for the sake of swearing. It's not fun and it's distracting. I felt myself become aware of the over-swearing in the theater, wishing it would just stop. It wasn't funny and only made me feel uncomfortable. If cursing is an art form, Sausage Party skipped class.
I hope more movies and television shows decide to use swearing in creatively satisfying ways. Language should inform the plot and fit the essence of the characters. If there is one thing to remember it's this: saying "fuck" isn't always funny.
What did you think of Sausage Party?