Allison Page knows this can only end in tears.
Ya know how when you’re a kid and you swear it’s a really big deal? You’re 12, you just came in from playing outside. You still have a lot of energy and you’re running around a little too much. Mom is dusting her collection of trinkets shaped like elephants. Suddenly you stub your toe on the coffee table and yell “SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!” and it’s all over for you. Mom drops the feather duster like it’s 1880 and you’ve just shown your ankles. She gasps in horror. “WHERE DID YOU HEAR THAT WORD?!” she shrieks. You don’t give an answer; you know the answer doesn’t matter. You’re gonna get it, my friend. SWEARING IS OFF LIMITS.
Cut to 7 years later. You’re swearing all the time. You’re a regular sailor stereotype. You can do whatever you want. You’re edgy. You’re cool. You and your friends have had some Bacardi, like the rebels you are. You’re young and carefree. No one gives a shit if you say “shit”, stubbed toe or not. SWEARING IS ON, BABY.
Cut to 13 years later. That’s 32 years old, for the non-mathletes. You’re an adult. You’re upwardly mobile. You’re sophisticated. Maybe you wear a tie. Maybe you wear a pantsuit. You can’t swear; you work for The Man. HR says The Man doesn’t like that sort of talk. For shame, young professional…for shame. SWEARING IS OFF LIMITS.
Cut to 47 years later. You’re 79 and you don’t give a fuck. SWEARING IS ON because you’re too old for anyone to tell you what to do.
For most of your life, there are people you can’t use those words around. So those words hold some mysterious meaning for you. They mean you’re throwing caution to the wind. They’re likely to grab someone’s attention. They’re reserved for sudden injury or rage or drunken jokes. But some of us…some of us fucking love to swear. I swear when I’m me, I swear when I’m improvising or acting, I swear in my writing – I swear. If I’m writing a piece of dialogue in a play, and someone is swearing, it can be for any number of reasons. But I’ve never had a character swear because they’re stupid.
Recently a string of comments was filled with people whose opinion is that if you swear, you’re unintelligent. (I’ll mention that the best part of this is that some of their explanations were so poorly spelled and lacked all available rules of grammar that I laughed really, really hard.) One woman even said that people who swear should “Go back to school.” – HA!
To me, swearing is a creative choice. I was in a comedy duo for a couple of years, specifically formulated as a throwback to performance duos of yesteryear, like Nichols and May. (I’m obsessed with Nichols and May – this is important.) We did not swear at all.
It was an aesthetic choice. We purposely kept ourselves from swearing. We also dressed in snappy 60’s-ish formal attire. It was pretty fabulous. At the same time that Wegent & Page was performing, I was also in an improv troupe called Clean Sanchez. I’m sure you can guess that we didn’t hold back, not with that name. Lots of swearing and general mayhem. They were both wonderful in completely different ways. Neither of them being the last definitive word on my intelligence or lack thereof. And I’ve never viewed characters I’ve played who swear a lot as stupid. That seems…well, stupid. David Mamet’s plays are famously littered with swearing, so much so that he is the user of something called the Cluster F-Bomb. It’s basically just a lot of “fucks”; an entire sentence composed of words with “fuck” shoved in the middle of them. Naturally, Glengarry Glen Ross is not being performed at children’s theaters worldwide.
But what is it with our desire to shut the words out? George Carlin famously said this about the “7 Words You Can Never Say on Television” –
“Those are the heavy 7. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. Wow. And tits doesn’t even belong on the list, ya know? It’s such a friendly sounding word. It sounds like a nickname!”
Can we all just take a second to admit that George Carlin was not stupid? He just wasn’t. He was an intelligent dude. And the fact that he pointed all of that out and freely said those words thereafter doesn’t mean he was unintelligent. That’s pretty absurd. I love comedy for a million reasons, but one of them is that it’s there to point out the eccentricities of humankind; the absurdity of it all. There’s a cool little book called “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing” with incredibly interesting tidbits on people’s hang-ups about words over time. It says the ancient Romans laid the groundwork for modern day F-bombs. And in the Middle Ages people thought certain words would actually injure the ascended body of Christ – but those were only phrases like “by God’s bones” or “by God’s nails”, they didn’t give a shit about the actual obscene words, like sexual or “excremental” words. And people in the rising middle class use less profanity in an attempt to class themselves up a notch, even though the people on the top of the ladder (aristocrats and the like) say whatever they want because they have a secure position in society. It’s all a sort of self-imposed issue, of course.
I like the art of swearing. I use it in my dialogue and am happy with it. It also leads to more creativity on my part when I can combine things to make up a new word. My favorite example is “giggityfuck”, which I wrote into a monologue a few months ago. It was used in this sentence: “What the giggityfuck am I going to do with a boat, anyway?” Naturally, it got a pretty big laugh. That’s a silly word. But the real issue, to me, is that I don’t like to limit my ideas.
That’s not to say that everything I write is obscene, sometimes it isn’t at all, but I like to make that decision myself. I like to have every word in the world available to me and then pick and choose what to use and what’s appropriate for that particular piece of work. In my real life, I don’t like to swear in order to hurt people. When I have a conflict with someone, I stop swearing. It has a tendency to spark emotions, and when there’s a conflict I like to lean on the side of logic. But that’s exactly it – it DOES spark emotions. That’s why swearing works its way into dialogue – because it sparks emotions. Both negative and positive. Swear words have history behind them. They have cultural and historical stigma. They have feeling and gusto. They’re used by smart people and by people who might not be so smart. They’re common. They’re blue collar and white collar. They’re not to be over-used, either. It’s not like using “the” too many times in a play will ever get noticed. But drop a lot of F-bombs and people will remember. You have to use them like you use salt – to get the flavor you want. Don’t overdo it, unless you’re trying to get the feeling that delivers. Sometimes I don’t want a lot of salt, and sometimes I want my theatrical stew to be really damned salty. Swearing is fucking awesome sometimes…but you still don’t get to do it when you’re 12. Sorry, kid.
You can catch Allison next with Killing My Lobster in Sketchfest February 3rd. There will probably be swearing.