Inspired Filth: Working Blue in Vaudeville America

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Fall 9-1-2022


The common law long held that words could be punished if their utterance might cause a breach of the peace. This article thus exam- ines a seemingly simple question: When did American law transform this long-standing rule as it pertained to vulgar, filthy, or "blue," words and begin to consider the simple utterance of those words as criminal actions in and of themselves? To answer that question, we looked to stand-up comedy and discovered a tradition of regulating filthy words that reached back to the post-Civil War era. There, the regulation of words as obscene coincided with the emergence of sani- tized entertainmentspaces, epitomized by vaudeville and the increased presence of women and children in public spaces. On these stages "blue" words were illicit; resistancefrom performers such as Sophie Tucker and Russell Hunting would only confirm the prevalence of this legal regulation. These performers and their regulation invite us to observe a post-war legal transition that was not just about citizenship and individual rights and to recognize that filthy words also under- pinned a new legal order. A century before George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Brucefamously pushed the boundariesof comic ex- pression, "blue" language stood at the center of efforts to separateor- dinary people from their words; the legal protectionsfor speech were made contingent on their capacity to protect, and even generate, the profits of owners, managers, and investors. This post-war transfor- mation offilthy words from common law to statute reminds us that the right to speak has long been subject to an economic hierarchy in which the interests of the wealthy are paramount. As vaudeville reveals, in modern America access to this right has been strongest when words reinforced this hierarchy and weakest when they threatenedit

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University of Memphis Law Review

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