Further Ethical Musings on Ko-Ko’s Little List’s “Eliminationist Rhetoric”: the Duty to Fight the Insanity

The more I think about the controversy over the Montana production of “The Mikado,” which I discussed in the previous post, the more it bothers me.

The fact that some conservative Missoulans were disturbed by Sarah Palin’s inclusion on the iconic “little list” carried by the fictional Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic musical comedy “The Mikado” is disturbing. The fact that the Missoula Community Theater actually caved-in to ignorance and hypersensitivity and removed the lyric is more so.  but the fact that some sensible commentators, like the Wall Street Journal’s usually perceptive and witty James Taranto, have had their brains addled by the current attempt at language, metaphor and humor purging by politically correct hysterics is genuinely terrifying.

Here’s what Taranto wrote about the Missoula production of “The Mikado”, in which Sarah Palin’s name was inserted into Ko-Ko’s patter song list of people “who never would be missed” as political figures have been in literally thousands of production of the operetta over more than a century:

“… like much of what we have been writing about in the past few weeks, this incident is shocking but not surprising. For all the bogus accusations being thrown at Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, genuinely hateful political rhetoric is commonplace in the art world, even in art that is not overtly political.”

Genuinely hateful? Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian wits responsible for “I’m Called Little Buttercup”, “Tit-Willow,” and “Poor Wandering One” encouraged future productions to engage in what Taranto and others call “eliminationist rhetoric” by providing a space in a song specifically for productions to add recognizable political figures???? Am I really reading this nonsense?

In “The Mikado,’ Ko-Ko first appears with an excutioner’s axe that is usually cartoonishly huge, and, pointedly, never uses it. It has always been recognized as a comic prop and a metaphorical symbol, as has his famous list of proposed victims, which, again, has long been understood to be a satirist’s “hit list” of “people we are annoyed by or sick of hearing about.” His song, “I’ve Got A Little List” was an instant hit in 1885—you read that right—and has been parodied, added to and adapted ever since. The practice of ending the song with impressions or references to famous politicians began while lyricist W.S. Gilbert was still alive: no fool he, the author knew that the more contemporary the song remained, the more organizations would continue to present his show—and he was right.

In 1967, when I first portrayed Ko-Ko at the age of 17, I was given a version of the song that dated from the 1930’s. The political figures arrive in the last verse, where Gilbert wrote…

“…and apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,

Such as whatchamacallit…thingamabob…and likewise..(well, never mind)

And tut-tut-tut and what’s his name, and also “You know who!”

But the task of filling up the blanks, I’d rather leave to you!

For “whatchamacallit” and the rest, Ko-Ko traditionally pauses and either strikes a posture or utters a phrase that calls to mind a current political figure who is familiar to the audience. There are six, with each theoretically being funnier than the previous one. In the 1939 version that I was shown, the “list” included Fiorello LaGuardia, Mussilini, Father Coughlin, Franklin Roosevelt, ELEANOR Roosevelt, and as a grand finale, Hitler. This production was presented in Arlington, Massachusetts, at Arlington High School. Amazingly, no one complained. When I sang the song, I re-wrote the final verse so that I was portraying, in order, then Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Alabama Governor George Wallace, Bobby Kennedy, Bob Dylan, President Johnson and—wait for it—Richard Nixon. Hold your arms up with “V” signs, and wait for the big laugh. A sure thing.

Even though I was, theoretically, advocating the “beheading” of the President and Vice-president as well as the brother of a martyred President and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in Kennedy country, plus a prominent Republican figure, nobody complained or was shocked, or thought this song (which got two encores, by the way) was sinister or provoked violence. When Robert Kennedy was shot a year later, nobody blamed it on my song, either.
Do you know why? Because people were sane. Because they hadn’t been so confused by politically correct and legally ignorant rants comparing satire and similes to “shouting fire in a crowded theater” that they could no longer recognize an obviously non-political joke for what it was. Because they had not been made so suspicious of ideological motives for everything that they had jumped on the bandwagon to Self-censorship Land, a bleak,  joyless and inarticulate place where people are afraid not merely to say things that are offensive, but are hesitant to say or write anything that anyone, including fools, dolts, illiterates, scolds, the humorless, or cynical partisans trying to stifle legitimate political debate might possibly say they found offensive.

Often society learns new ethical principles through collective experience, and it makes us wiser and society better for everyone. Sometimes, however, we become deranged by bad logic driven by strong emotions, manipulated by cynical and wrongheaded opinion leaders. This is one of those times. The sane among us  recognize that when Dobie’s long-suffering father said, in virtually every episode of the great TV comedy, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”, “I’m going to kill that boy; I’m really going to kill him,” he wasn’t really going to kill his son. It was funny, and still is.

And we understand that when Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, the deranged duo on the immortal “SCTV” satire show, blew up Freddy Fender, Randy Newman, Patti Smith, Helen Reddy, the Village People, Dustin Hoffman, Bernadette Peters, Meryl Streep, and other celebrities on the show, the stars didn’t really didn’t blow up, and “SCTV” wasn’t inciting crazies to blow up famous performers. It was a running gag, and was funny then and is now.

The sane among us also still comprehend that when an obviously comic executioner in a 125-year-old British operetta says that Sarah Palin (among many others) is on his “list” and belongs there, he is not calling for the beheading of Sarah Palin, nor is the performer, nor is the producer, director or author. It’s been a joke for 125 years, and still is.

If the insanity of societal self-censorship can infect a mind as grounded in common sense and irony as James Taranto’s, then none of us are safe—and neither is humor, satire, wit, colorful language and Gilbert & Sullivan. We have understood the difference between genuinely hateful speech and everything else for generations, and now, thanks to the cynical efforts by some to inhibit thought and expression for political gain, abetted by the misguided support of many whose gentility is warped by an absence of perspective, we are in danger of unlearning the wisdom of centuries, and scarring our democracy in the process.

I think we have a duty to fight the insanity. This old Ko-Ko is getting into his kimono, and grabbing his snickersnee.

7 thoughts on “Further Ethical Musings on Ko-Ko’s Little List’s “Eliminationist Rhetoric”: the Duty to Fight the Insanity

  1. I’ve already written on one of the W.S. Gilbert posts. But here’s an idea, you morons… Why don’t we ban Jonathan Swift, one of Britain’s most brilliant satirists, because he wrote “A Modest Proposal?” If you don’t know this piece, LOOK IT UP.

    Free speech, indeed.

  2. Good post. Really.

    I get satire, I do. I like G&S, though I’m not the expert on them that you are. But it’s light-hearted enjoyable fun, and good fun music.

    I’d like to know who the other five names were in the MCT production. Do you know? Or how to find out?

  3. Jack, I’ve agreed with you—often— before (and sometimes disagreed) but never more than on this issue. You are dead right (OMG, did I just say that!) on this one. The people who truly won’t be missed are those who want to censor speech because they think that speech is OK so long as it provides a hurt-free inner child. I need to go calm down now but, Jack, you keep on fighting the good fight (oops!).

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