As one of most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, H.M.S. Pinafore is one of those most commonly referred to in popular culture. It’s difficult to say, however, whether H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado receives the most cultural references.
Perhaps the most popular cultural reference is that which was made in the film, Star Trek: Insurrection, in which Captain Picard and Lieutenant Worf distract a malfunctioning Lieutenant Commander Data by singing with him, “A British Tar.”
Everyone’s favorite lines may be when Picard asks Worf if he knows Gilbert and Sullivan. Worf responds, “No sir, I have not had a chance to meet all the new crew members since I’ve been back.” Some have wondered about Picard’s response referring to both Gilbert and Sullivan as “composers.” Gilbert would, no doubt, take exception to that description. It should be noted that none of those singing got either the tune or words quite right! To his credit, however, it has been reported that it was Patrick Stewart who suggested the reference to H.M.S. Pinafore rather than the originally scripted reference to King Lear. We are all, no doubt, grateful for his suggestion!
In the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons, Bart stalls his would-be killer, Sideshow Bob, with a “final request” that Bob sing him the entire score of H.M.S. Pinafore.
Writer, Producer and Actor Aaron Sorkin is a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan fan. In The West Wing, his series about the lives of President Bartlet’s White House staff, the episode titled “And It’s Surely to Their Credit,” included the story of Republican attorney Ainsley Hayes who was asked to join the otherwise Democratic staff, much to the chagrin of the man who was to be her supervisor, White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey. While, no doubt, a brilliant attorney, Lionel appears to have a somewhat incomplete knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan …
The best line in the argument over whether “He is an Englishman” is from H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or Iolanthe, of course, is when Ainsley states, in regards to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, “They’re all about duty!”
Later in the episode, after Ainsley has had a rough first day on the job, her colleagues kindly surprise her with a Gilbert and Sullivan themed welcome to the White House team.
In addition, the West Wing included a number of other Gilbert and Sullivan references. While attending college, Sam Seaborn, Deputy White House Communications Director, had been the Recording Secretary of the Princeton University Gilbert and Sullivan Society.
In the Lord John Marbury episode, White House Press Secretary C.J. Crege describes Lord John as “the Earl of Sherbourne, he is the great great grandson of a former Viceroy and for thirteen years served as the Queen’s minister to either India or Pakistan. Lord Marbury is here to counsel the President, and if you think this is all starting to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, I don’t blame you a bit.”
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 3, Episode 12, titled “Alienation of Affection,” broadcast on January 8, 2012, family law attorney, David Lee, is served with the complaint against the partnership while he is performing in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at the Yale Club. It appears that he was playing the role of H.M.S. Pinafore’s Sir Joseph Porter, as he is in a British Navy dress uniform. When he returns to the office, still in his costume, one of his colleagues asks, “David, not to pry, but did you enlist?” David’s character is an irritable, acid-tongued lawyer in the Gilbert mold and he is probably keeping the costume on all day as a demonstration of his oversized self-confidence. When another colleague gives him a curious look, he says, “I thought I’d dress up for this lawyer.” He later introduces himself to a visitor as “Captain David Lee.”
In the 1981 film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones’s Egyptian friend Sallah has assisted Jones in rescuing the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi’s and securing it aboard a tramp steamer, bound for London. As Jones and Marion depart, she kisses Sallah goodbye. In response he sings “A British Tar.”
The 1981 film, Chariots of Fire includes multiple Gilbert and Sullivan references. The protagonist, Harold Abrahams, is a devoted Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Abrahams and his friends at Cambridge University sing “He is an Englishman” in a college production of H.M.S. Pinafore.
Chariots of Fire also features “With Catlike Tread,” from The Pirates of Penzance, “The Soldiers of Our Queen” from Patience, “Three Little Maids from School Are We” from The Mikado and “There Lived a King” from The Gondoliers.
In 1966, during the second season of the Batman television series, Batman, under the mind control powers of the evil Black Widow, sings, “I’m Called Little Buttercup.” We all know that the Batman television series was campy … but really!
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, H.M.S. Wakko / Slappy Goes Walnuts / Yakko’s Universe and included a song, “Pirate Captain Mel,” sung to the tune of “I Am the Captain of the Pinafore.” The episode also includes a parody of “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” and numerous musical allusions to The Pirates of Penzance.
The Family Guy was an adult animated sitcom that has aired from 1999 to the present. The show centers on the Griffin family, including parents Peter and Lois, their children Meg, Chris, and Stewie, and their anthropomorphic pet dog, Brian. The show’s humor includes cutaway gags that often lampooned American culture. In season 3, episode 1, titled The Thin White Line, the character of Stewie sang a parody of “I Am the Captain of the Pinafore.”
The first few minutes of the 2003 film version of Peter Pan features the Darling family singing “When I Was a Lad” together in their parlor, with Mr. Darling singing the verses, Mrs. Darling accompanying on the piano and Wendy, Michael and John singing the chorus.
In a Season 2 episode of Leave it to Beaver titled, The Boat Builders, first broadcast on January 15, 1959, Wally and a couple of his friends build a kayak in the Cleaver’s garage. Later in the episode, Beaver volunteers to test the kayak on a nearby pond, but falls into the water when the kayak capsizes. Wally and the Beaver spend the rest of the episode trying to hide the fact that this happened from their parents. During this first portion of the episode, whenever there’s a reference to the kayak, “We Sail the Ocean Blue” can be heard in the incidental music.
Hart of Dixie is a comedy-drama series that aired on the CW from September 2011 to March 2015. It tells the story of Dr. Zoe Hart, a new physician from New York, who comes to the small town of Bluebell, Alabama to take over a medical practice and struggles as a New Yorker to fit into the quirky Southern community. In Season 1, Episode 19, titled Destiny & Denial, first broadcast on April 23, 2012, the town stages a musical revue comprised of Gilbert and Sullivan songs, including, “I Am a Pirate King,” “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” and “Three Little Maids from School.”
During the Christmas at the 53rd episode of Car 54, Where Are You?, broadcast in December 1961, in which the police officer put on a Christmas review, Officer Francis Muldoon joins Captain Block in singing “The Captain Of The 53rd”. Many will better remember Officer Muldoon actor, Fred Gwynne, from his role as Herman Munster, in The Munsters television series that ran from 1964 to 1966. It should be noted that Al Lewis, who played Grandpa in The Munsters can be seen singing in the front row of the chorus in the role of Officer Leo Schnauser
Allan Sherman was a comedy writer and television producer who became famous as a song parodist in the early 1960s. His biggest hit was the 1963 single “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 each from H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado.
In 1963, in his My Son, the Celebrity album, Sherman sang “When I Was a Lad I Went to Yale,” in a Dixieland arrangement of “When I Was a Lad I Served a Term.” about a young advertising agent. At the end, he thanks old Yale, he thanks the Lord, and he thanks his father “who is chairman of the board.”
Sherman sang a parody to “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” called “Little Butterball,” in his 1964 album, Allan In Wonderland, in which he jokes about his own corpulence.
The 1964 film Of Human Bondage, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel, stared Kim Novak, as Mildred Rogers, and Laurence Harvey, as Philip Carey. The film tells the story of Philip’s unsuccessful years pursuing an art career in Paris, after which he decides to study medicine in London. He meets and falls in love with Mildred, a low-class waitress who takes advantage of his feelings for her. Early in the film, Philip takes Mildred out for an evening and they attend a D’Oyly Carte Opera Company production of H.M.S. Pinafore. On stage, the company performs the end of “We Sail the Ocean Blue” through nearly of all “I’m Called Little Buttercup.” During this time, Mildred uses her opera glasses to find and flirt with men elsewhere in the theater, including an aristocratic-looking gentleman in one of the boxes. Soon afterwards, Mildred leaves Philip to marry another man.
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!”