Gilbert & Sullivan’s enduring operetta The Mikado is funny because it skewers Victorian British society by allowing us to laugh at the absurdities of the fictive Japanese town of Titipu, where flirting is a capital offense, according to the autocratic rule of the emperor (Mikado).  Nanki-Poo loves Yum-Yum, who is pledged to Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, an enfeebled big-talker who cannot execute himself for his own conviction of flirting; Pooh-Bah (Lord High Everything Else) plots and schemes; and hilarity ensues.

Trigger-happy Millennials and Democrats may have a hard time understanding this, but here goes: Despite the fact that, in the 19th century, every white man save Abe Lincoln was a racist, W.S. Gilbert was not actually commenting on Japanese culture, and he understood his inventive nomenclature to be exaggerated for comedic effect.  Also, Gilbert chose the vehicle of Japanese culture not because he despised it and wanted to sneer at it, but because Londoners were at the time obsessed with all things Japanese, including a commercially constructed Japanese village on which they showered their shillings.  Furthermore a Japanese emissary was disappointed when he wasn’t afforded the chance to see The Mikado during its first run.

The dilemma for Theater People (not typically a conservative lot) is this: The Mikado is brilliantly written, compositionally exquisite, and wildly funny.  This makes it attractive for both performers and paying audiences.  Yet within the politically constructed unreality of today, it is wildly, brutally, and irredeemably racist.

Maybe: After all, it is fun, and I like it.  Can something be racist if I like it?

Thus we have the Quest for the “Guilt-Free Mikado,” as the San Jose Mercury stonefacedly put it.  California’s Lamplighter Music Theatre solved the problem by recasting the entire operetta in the setting of Renaissance Italy, butchering all of the names (the farcical Titipu became “Tirmisu,” a non-cognate that has all of the comedic flare an eighth-grade librettist could muster), and calling it The New Mikado—Una Commedia Musicale.  Apparently, Californians have decided in the affirmative the question of whether Italians are white people, and thus they are fair game for racist ridicule.

Ko-Ko’s—mi dispiace, Coco’s—“little list” now includes “the fool who voted BREXIT and then googled ‘What’s EU?’” as well as “millennials who really want us all to ‘feel the Bern,’ but now refuse to vote at all—democracy they’ll spurn!”  And of course, there appears one particularly identifiable man of Renaissance Italy who never would be missed, described as “that ranting demagogue, the xenophobic billionaire . . . the ego with the hair.”  This is acceptable.

In 2014, Seattle learned what is not acceptable when its Gilbert & Sullivan Society attempted to stage the unaltered original, and the Seattle Times blasted what came to be known as “the Mikado fiasco” with “yellowface, in your face.”

Last year, New York City’s Gilbert & Sullivan Players scuppered their planned and rehearsed performance of The Mikado thanks to similarly fomented preemptive outrage.  So the company spent the better portion of the now-infamous year 2016 imagining how to stage it without destroying the script, California-style.

The answer (now playing at Hunter College, as I write) was to make The Mikado the fever dream of a haplessly racist “Gilbert” (Joshua Miller), who, amid an amended Act I, finds himself at the Japanese market where, amid the revelries, he is struck on the head by a brick.  The Mikado is his concussion.  Gilbert’s nomenclature is explained by portraying the pre-concussive playwright confusedly hearing a woman saying that something is “yum-yummy” and a man struggling to pronounce the word “nincompoop.”

The New York Times has offered a cautious blessing: “Is ‘The Mikado’ too politically incorrect to be fixed? Maybe not.”  Maybe.

This is essentially the technique used by Stephen Colbert on his Colbert Report, and other alumni of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, as well as Sarah Silverman and a host of comedians who want to garner laughs by saying politically incorrect things: Create an avowedly “racist” character who coincidentally shares your own name but who says whatever he wants.  Another version of this was found in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, where, coincidentally, Walt called Eggroll’s love interest Yum-Yum.  We are allowed to laugh, because even though we’re laughing at the “racist” jokes, we may always demur and say we are laughing at the fact that those people still think such things.  Still . . . get ’em, Arch!

Humor is now virtually impossible in American society thanks to the elevation of unreality to the realm of the sacred.  By “elevation of unreality,” I mean the compulsory rejection of forms—man, woman, child, marriage—and historically grounded cultural identities in favor of political constructions, things like “gender identities” and “trigger warnings.”  Not to get too philosophical here, but forms exist in the invisible and immaterial realm, find their expression in the physical world, and are accessed by the imagination.  But political constructions are purely imaginary—like the emperor’s new clothes.  We bow and scrape before political constructions because we’re forced to: Pretend the emperor’s bare bod is exquisitely adorned, or face his wrath.  Except here in Titipu, we also have to strip down and live in a nudist colony while singing the praises of the ideology of our Mikado.