Offenbach's first commercially performed dramatic work, the opéra comique Pépito, premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Variétés on 28 October 1853. This article examines it from historical and musical perspectives. First, I argue that its production at the Théâtre des Variétés is an example of what Mark Everist has called ‘the politics of genre’, in this case the attempts by managers of Parisian boulevard theatres to circumvent the hierarchical system of genre imposed on them by the government. Offenbach may have been directly complicit by offering an opéra comique to a theatre that was legally not allowed to perform the genre and by supplying a musical element – ‘local colour’ – as part of the political strategy by which the manager of the Variétés sneaked the opéra comique past the authorities. The subterfuge did not work, however: I argue that Pépito was recognised by audiences as an opéra comique primarily through the character of its music. A discussion of the score, and the musical competence of the original cast and orchestra of the Variétés, allows a partial reconstruction of the actual sound of the first performance of Pépito. Finally, I consider the later history of Pépito, and in a postscript suggest that a faint memory of Offenbach's Spanish opéra comique may have resurfaced twenty-two years later when Georges Bizet, who became part of Offenbach's circle in the late 1850s, was composing his own Spanish opéra comique, Carmen.