The Operators Must Be Crazy

John McClane: Mayday, Mayday! Anyone! Terrorists have seized the Nakatomi building and are holding 30 or more hostages!
Dispatcher: Sir, this frequency is for emergencies only.
John McClane: No fuckin' shit, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?

Phone operators are mysterious people. Completely faceless and dedicated to following the correct protocol to reroute calls to the proper addresses when the person can't reach it on his own. Although they are humans, to some people, they can seem closer to machines.

Except when they aren't. For some reason, the operators in this work don't want to do what they're supposed to, and they rebel against the system any time they're reached. At their worst, these operators will harass the calling people and verge on sounding like prank callers themselves, and it's hard to imagine that they'll keep their jobs for a particularly long time. Even those that aren't flat out crazy and abusive will come across as an Obstructive Bureaucrat.

This trope actually is Truth in Television. In fact, one reason that telephone companies began hiring young women instead of young men was because the young men that they hired had a bad tendency to get into arguments with the callers. It eventually led to the invention of the automated telephone exchange.

Can overlap with Mistaken for Prank Call. As phone operators become increasingly replaced by machines, this trope has become more and more displaced by For Inconvenience, Press "1". However, the Operator from India is still a common subtrope.


  • A series of Discover credit card commercials: "Thank you for calling USA Prime Credit. My name is Peggy..."
  • David Spade played a very unhelpful operator in a series of Capital One commercials.
  • In the late 80s and early 90s Cliff Robertson did a series of ads for AT&T. One featured frustrated former Ma Bell customers dealing with one of the competition's Operators, whose snide "Well, you're not dealing with AT&T anymore!" became something of a meme/Catch Phrase at the time.
  • One pre-gecko Geico ad featured a young man telling an Operator that his name was Bob Wehadababyitsaboy in order to save long distance rates.

Anime and Manga
  • Ah! My Goddess, Keiichi gets a direct line to the Goddess Help Line, when he's trying to order a meal.
  • Digimon Adventure
    • The show loved to use jokes based on this. For instance, in one of the movies, when Tai is desperate to reach any of the other kids, but the phone lines have all been tied up by Infermon, a computer virus, he reaches a phone operator over and over who keeps telling him that the lines are busy in an increasingly frazzled tone until finally screaming at him "Did you hear me?! IT'S BUSY!!!!!"
    • After the kids first reached the Digital World in the original Digimon Adventure series, they ran into a bunch of payphones and, overjoyed, desperately tried to call their homes. Unfortunately, when they tried, all they got were a variety of non-sequiturs from the operators, including "The number you are currently dialing exists only in your imagination" and a weather forecast of "partly cloudy with a slight chance of ice cream".

  • In Dilbert, Dogbert answers calls with "How may we abuse you?" when he is acting as a phone operator.
  • An old horror comic had a man buried alive in a coffin with a telephone in it. Desperate to call for help, the man tries contacting the operator again and again, even as his air runs low. When the man finally makes a connection, the operator instead lectures him on tying up the phone lines as the man suffocates and dies.

  • Transformers had that one operator who first demanded a credit card number for a long-distance call, then asked that the guy speak very clearly, then started offering premium service packages, while on the other end of the line was an embattled soldier trying to call in an airstrike.
  • Die Hard had a police dispatcher give John McClane a hard time when he radioed in the terrorist attack.
    Dispatcher: Sir, this frequency is for emergencies only.
    John: No fuckin' shit, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza???
  • In Small Soldiers, Alan tries to call Globotech to complain about the Commando Elites coming to life and wrecking his dad's toy store, but the operator is actively unhelpful to the point that he ultimately asks to be transferred to a machine - right before the operator gets his gender wrong.
  • In the Chevy Chase film Funny Farm, the protagonist is desperately trying to contact the sheriff's department on the phone (because there is a dead body in his back yard). He only has a normal phone, but apparently all phones in this region are pay-phones and the operator refuses to connect him unless he puts a couple of dimes into the nonexistant coin slot.
  • In Air Force One, President Marshall finds a satellite phone in the luggage of the plane and tries to get through to the Vice President, but the White House switchboard operator refuses to believe the caller is the President, until Marshall is found by one of the terrorists.

  • From Mostly Harmless:
    ...the third event, which was a rampaging mob of long-distance telephone operators who had got so twisted with having to say, all day and every day, "Thank you for using BS&S" to every single idiot who picked up a phone that they had finally taken to the streets with trash cans, megaphones and rifles.
    In the ensuing days of carnage every single window in the city, rocket-proof or not, was smashed, usually to accompanying cries of "Get off the line, asshole! I don't care what number you want, what extension you're calling from. Go and stick a firework up your bottom! Yeeehaah! Hoo Hoo Hoo! Velooooom! Squawk" and a variety of other animal noises that they didn't get a chance to practice in the normal line of their work.
    As a result of this, all telephone operators were granted a constitutional right to say "Use BS&S and die!" at least once an hour when answering the phone and all office buildings were required to have windows that opened, even if only a little bit.

Live-Action TV
  • Lily Tomlin's Ernestine.
    "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the telephone company."
  • Abbott and Costello has a skit about a particularly bizarre and abusive operator in the episode "Who Done It."
  • Nichols And May - does a sketch about a bizarre and difficult operator. See the link here.
  • Gilligan's Island had one where an undersea cable washed up on the island and they tried to rig up a phone to tap into it, getting a very uncooperative operator who did things like ask them to insert ten cents without listening when told there's no place to put money in an undersea cable.
  • Shows up a few times in Mystery Science Theater 3000.
    • The Screaming Skull: The movie opens with a bizarre message from the studio, warning that the film could kill viewers from sheer terror, and promising to provide a free coffin for anyone who dies. Halfway through watching the film, Crow calls the studio to scam a free coffin off them by claiming that Tom Servo died of fright. The operator is so completely professional about the proceedings that Crow begins to have second thoughts, and when she starts demanding personal information so the coffin can be delivered, Crow decides to abort. But before Crow can hang up, the operator announces that the coffin has already shipped, and if they want to return it they'll have to pay shipping both ways.
    • Overdrawn at the Memory Bank: As the film's credits roll, Mike and the 'bots decide to call the movie's toll-free help line to complain about it. The operator reads a list of painfully obvious troubleshooting tips ("Are you certain you're watching Overdrawn at the Memory Bank? We get a lot of calls from people who thought they were watching Overdrawn at the Memory Bank but were actually watching a different film."), then tries to tell Mike that he can't judge the film without watching it all the way to the end (even though all that's left is a minute or so of ending credits). Finally, when Mike is unable to give her the registration number from their copy of the film, the operator says that this is violation of the terms of service and she has no choice but to report them. Mike hangs up in terror at this point.
  • The Carol Burnett Show played with this trope in one sketch; Carol plays a hotel phone operator who winds up fielding calls from multiple guests to a local tart played by Vicki Lawrence, and can't resist the urge to get creative.
  • Carrascolendas, a bilingual Edutainment Show, had a Running Gag where an operator greeted each caller with a corny joke.

  • Inadvertently invoked in Ruiner Pinball; the loading screen for "Tower" reads
    Welcome to Hell. Please Hold...

  • Fibber McGee and Molly's Myrt, who was never heard, but always got sidetracked telling Fibber the latest gossip and never put the call through
  • Gertrude Gearshift and Mabel Flapsaddle of The Jack Benny Program, who were too busy making wisecracks and infuriating Jack to put the call through.

Tabletop Games
  • Paranoia supplement HIL Sector Blues. IntSec Communications Central operators were stupid, hard to understand, surly and uncooperative.

  • A sketch in Pleasure at Her Majesty's has Alan Bennett attempting to dictate a telegram to an operator through the phone, only to have his conversation continually drift into 'a kind of redundant intimacy' (to use his words) as a result of her interjections and questions.

Western Animation
  • A Running Gag on The Simpsons for a time was phone hotlines having extremely inappropriate hold music;
    • In "Tree House of Horror III," Marge tries to let the toy company know a Krusty Doll is attempting to drown her husband as she speaks. She holds and gets Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "Everybody Loves a Clown".
    • In the episode where Maggie goes missing, Homer's on hold with the police department waiting for word on Maggie, and the song he hears on hold is "Baby Come Back", causing him to start sobbing.
    • Homer also tears up in the episode "Saturdays of Thunder" when he's on hold with the National Fatherhood Institute and "Cat's in the Cradle" starts playing.
    • In the famous Michael Jackson episode, Marge is also driven to tears by the Patsy Cline song "Crazy" while being placed on hold with the Springfield Mental Hospital.
  • The Looney Tunes Show, "Customer Service": Cecil Turtle is a customer service representative in a cable company and savors the sadistic glee this job can provide him. He disconnects Bugs' cable service on purpose, then pretends to be voice mail when he calls, tells him that he can't reconnect his cable (even though he only needs to click on a single button on his computer to do so), makes Bugs wait all day for a house call - and waits until he goes to the bathroom to leave a note on the door, and other indignities... all For the Evulz. Finally, Bugs declares "Of course you know, this means war!" and proceeds to give Cecil a taste of his own medicine, resulting in Bugs getting his cable back and then some, with Cecil still being fired.

Real Life
  • In Real Life, if you've ever called a company of which you're not a direct customer (for instance, a doctor's office calling a patient's insurance company), don't expect a sweet, "customer is always right" attitude. The operators know they don't have to worry about losing anyone's business.
  • The soldiers in Grenada who called in their situation from a civilian telephone, and had to give a credit card number before the call was relayed (after which a gunship came in to save them). This is certainly the inspiration for the Transformers example, and was depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Heartbreak Ridge.
  • What motivated the first automated switchboard design? According to legend, an undertaker believed that one of the local operators was routing calls to her husband, his competitor.
  • This happened to broadcaster Herbert Morrison immediately following the Hindenburg tragedy at Lakehurst, New Jersey. As he and assistant Charlie Nehlsen were about to leave, he got to a pay phone to call NBC in New York, and the NBC switchboard operator refused to put him through to the newsroom "because a terrible disaster has just happened". When he told her who he was and what he was doing, she said "What would a WLS reporter be doing in Lakehurst?" and hung up on him.
  • Cracked compiled a disturbing list of "5 Horrifying Tales of 911 Incompetence", showcasing a range of unhelpful emergency services operators, from those who are simply apathetic to those who are actively obstructive.