As one of most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, The Mikado is one of those most commonly referred to in popular culture. It’s difficult to say whether, however, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado receives the most cultural references.
There were multiple references to Gilbert and Sullivan in the Frasier television series.
In Leapin’ Lizards, the fourth episode of the third season, which aired on October 31, 1995, Frasier receives a phone call at home in which he is asked to sing a verse from “Three Little Maids”. Frasier sings a verse in falsetto. It turns out that the caller was Frasier’s fellow broadcaster and sometime nemesis, Bulldog, who was playing a practical joke on Frasier, broadcasting Frasier’s singing as part of a stunt to promote ratings.
In They’re Playing Our Song, the thirteenth episode of the seventh season, which aired on January 13, 2000, Frasier proposes a new theme song for his radio show.
Although it’s not included in the video, Daphne Moon comments on Frasier’s theme song with the response, “It’s like Gilbert and Sullivan, only frightening.“
In Fathers and Sons, the twenty-second episode of the tenth season, which aired on May 6, 2003, Frasier, Niles, and Leland Barton sing “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” together, leaving Martin to wonder if Leland, his wife’s research assistant, could be his boys’ father.
Later in the episode, Martin, who is reassured that Frasier and Niles are his sons, enters their home, sees the two together at the piano and proudly says, “My boys.” Then, when they begin singing “Tit Willow,” in exasperation, Martin puts on his headphones and turns on the television.
The Good Wife is a legal and political television drama which focuses on the character of Alicia Florrick, the wife of a Chicago state’s attorney, who returns to her career in law following a series of scandals involving her husband. In Season 7, Episode 21, titled “Verdict,” broadcast on May 1, 2016, family law attorney, David Lee, is listening to “I’ve Got a Little List” on his phone with headphones, oblivious to the fact that the firm’s offices are being torn down around him. These moments can be seen at the episode’s 8:00 and 12:20 minute marks.
The 1981 film, Chariots of Fire includes multiple Gilbert and Sullivan references. The protagonist, Harold Abrahams, is a devoted Gilbert and Sullivan fan. In the course of the film he attends a D’Oyly Carte Opera Company production of The Mikado in a scene that features “Three Little Maids from School Are We.”
During the “interval” Abrahams asks out Sybil, the woman playing Yum Yum, and by the end of the film … yes, he did go and marry Yum Yum (Yum Yum)!
The film features “He is an Englishman” from H.M.S. Pinafore, “With Catlike Tread” from The Pirates of Penzance, “The Soldiers of Our Queen” from Patience, and “There Lived a King” from The Gondoliers.
Family Guy was an adult animated sitcom that has aired from 1999 to the present. The show centered on the Griffins, a family consisting of parents Peter and Lois, their children Meg, Chris, and Stewie, and their anthropomorphic pet dog, Brian. The show’s humor included cutaway gags that often lampooned American culture. In season 6, in episodes 5, titled Lois Kills Stewie, the character of Stewie sang a parody of the “I’ve Got a Little List.”
The first season of The Muppet Show, episode twenty, broadcast on November 20, 1976, featured Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle singing “Tit Willow”
The Animaniacs was Steven Spielberg’s animated comedy television series, which aired on from 1993 to 1998. Featuring three main characters, Yakko, Wakko and Dot, it was a variety show, with short skits, music, character catchphrases, and humor directed at an adult audience.
One episode from the first season was titled, Hello Nice Warners / LA Behemoth / Little Slappy From Pasadena, presented a version of Three Little Maids used as an audition piece, at the 3:00 minute mark.
In Mel Brooks’ comic 1968 film, The Producers, failed Producer Max Bialystock and his partner “Leo” Bloom scheme to stage a Broadway musical that’s so awful, it’s guaranteed to fail. They’ve realized that they can make more money by staging a failure than a success. They select as their piece, the horribly tasteless musical, “Springtime for Hitler.” Their attempt at failure, of course, is a failure! “Springtime for Hitler” is a Broadway hit!
In 2001, Brooks adapted his 1968 film as an actual Broadway musical, which in turn, in 2005, became a film based on the musical, based on the original film. There is almost something Gilbertian in that chain of events!
In both versions of the film, during the auditions for “Springtime for Hitler,” a tenor attempts to audition for the show by singing “A Wandering Minstrel, I.” Bialystock cuts him off with a “Thank you!” after he’s barely sung a line! The following video is from the 2005 film.
In the 1978 film, Foul Play, Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase race to the San Francisco Opera House in order to foil a plot to assassinate the Pope, who is attending a performance of The Mikado. The scenes of their mad dash to the opera house are intercut with momentary scenes from the operetta, conducted by Dudley Moore.
Allan Sherman was an comedy writer and television producer who became famous as a song parodist in the early 1960s. His biggest hit the 1963 single was “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” a comic novelty in which a boy describes his summer camp experiences to the tune of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Sherman also parodied Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, including a couple from H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado.
Sherman sang a samba accompanied parody to “I’ve Got a Little List,” called “You Need an Analyst, a Psychologist,” in his 1964 album, Allan In Wonderland, in which he details reasons why one might want to seek psychiatric help.
In 1963, in his My Son, the Celebrity album, Sherman sang “The Bronx Bird Watcher,” to the tune of “Titwillow” in which the bird sings with a stereotypical Yiddish accent. Sherman is so impressed by the bird’s singing that he takes him “down from his branch”, and home “to mein shplit-level ranch,” His wife, “Blanch”, misinterprets the gift and fricassees the bird, whose last words are, “Oy! Willow! Tit-willow! Willow!”
Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, includes references to four Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, including Trial by Jury, Iolanthe, The Mikado and Ruddigore.
The Mikado reference occurs in Chapter 8. Jean Louise Finch is deeply disturbed by the evidence that her father, Atticus and her boyfriend Hank, belong to a white supremacist group. She argues with her Aunt Alexandra about what she suspects. The narrative goes on say, “when Jean Louise became apprehensive, expectant or on edge, especially when confronting her aunt, her brain clicked to the meter of Gilbertian tomfoolery. Three spritely figures whirled madly in her head. Hours filled with Uncle Jack and Dill dancing to preposterous measures blacked out the coming of tomorrow with tomorrow’s troubles.” As she walked to town, her steps kept time to the absurd jingle running through her head. “Here’s a howdy-do, if I marry you, when your time has come to perish, then the maiden whom you cherish must be slaughtered too. Here’s a howdy-do.”
Isaac Asimov was a devoted Gilbert and Sullivan fan and the author of I, Robot, a collection of nine science fiction short stories about the interaction of humans, robots and morality. The stories, originally published independently, were compiled into a single book and woven together by a framing narrative. The second story in the collection, titled “Runaround,” takes place on Mercury, in a mining facility. Robot SPD-13, nicknamed “Speedy,” is missing after having been sent out on a mission. The two men responsible for the facility, Powell and Donovan, go out in search of him. Eventually they find “Speedy” who is obviously malfunctioning. He is running around in a circle, weaving and appearing to be drunk. When they try to speak to the robot, he responds, “I’m Little Buttercup, sweet Little Buttercup,” and then says “There grew a little flower ‘neath a great oak tree.” One of the men asks the other, “Where did he pick up Gilbert and Sullivan?” As the story goes on, “Speedy” continues to quote fragments of Gilbert and Sullivan, including, “I’ve made a little list … the piano organist … all people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,” and “lover’s professions when uttered in Hessians.” At one point Speedy” says, “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is tabooed,” to which Powell murmurs, “Iolanthe!” Later in the story, “Speedy” and Powell are watching each other “without a word of Gilbert and Sullivan gibberish as a greeting” and Powell thinks to himself, “Thank God for that!” In a subsequent story in the collection, the characters of Powell and Donovan appear again and are confronted with another malfunctioning robot. In response to the situation, one of the men says to the other, “Well, at least he’s not quoting Gilbert and Sullivan!”
Science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, referred to the “Little List” song in his Hugo Award-winning novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. In chapters 11 and 12 of the novel, when Jubal Harshaw discovers the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith’s, ability to make objects and people disappear when he perceives them to be a threat, Harshaw considers the benefits of such a skill, thinking of those he’d like to see disappear and muses to himself, “I’ve got a little list … they never will be missed.”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s award winning science fiction trilogy, “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” envisions the colonization of Mars. In chapter 12 of Red Mars, the narrator describes the creation of genetically engineered plants to aid in Mars’ terraforming. He describes the process of synthesizing organisms, using various DNA strands with desirable traits. As the final step in the process, the selected cells receive a “short, sharp, shock” of electricity to bring them to life. In chapter 3 of Blue Mars, the socially inept, but brilliant Martian colonist physicist Saxifrage “Sax” Russell reflects on the fact that he has acquired a large following of young scientists who have been called “Saxi-clones,” all of whom admire him as “the very model of the modern Martian scientist.” Are these intentional quotes from The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance or are they simply phrases that Mr. Robinson had heard … somewhere? Either way, they stand as a testimony to Gilbert and Sullivan’s pervasive influence in popular culture.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s light-hearted mystery series, “The Cat Who … ,” includes twenty-nine mystery novels and three related collections, and features a former newspaper reporter, James Qwilleran, who solves mysteries with the help of his two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum.
Gilbert and Sullivan references can be cleverly or unexpectedly placed in modern contexts. Sometimes they’re just silly. In that spirit, we give you the Daleks singing selections from The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance.