Follow TV Tropes


The Operators Must Be Crazy

Go To

John McClane: Mayday, mayday! Anyone copy in channel 9? Terrorists have seized the Nakatomi building and are holding at least 30 people hostage! I repeat, unknown number of terrorists, six or more armed with automatic weapons, at Nakatomi Plaza, Century City. Somebody answer me, god damn it!
Dispatcher: Attention, whoever you are, this channel is reserved for emergency calls 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 or Funny Phone Misunderstanding. 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.


    open/close all folders 

  • 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/catchphrase at the time.
  • David Spade played a very unhelpful operator in a series of Capital One commercials.
  • A series of Discover credit card commercials: "Thank you for calling USA Prime Credit. My name is Peggy..."

    Anime & Manga 
  • Ah! My Goddess, Keiichi gets a direct line to the Goddess Help Line when he's trying to order a meal. At least he got a goddess as a girlfriend out of it...
    • Much later, making another phone call he gets a direct line to the Earth Help Center - that is, Goddess Help Line's competition. He's not amused.
  • 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.
    Dogbert: Dogbert tech support, how can I disconnect you?
    Wally: What are your options?
    Dogbert: We have the brutal disconnect. Simple, gets the job done.
    Wally: I had that last time, do you have anything else?
    Dogbert: There's the Kavorkian disconnect. We keep you on hold with bad music until you lose patience and hang up yourself.
    Wally: (phone playing lousy hold music) Oh, he's good.
  • 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. The operator's not just being a sadist, though - it's December 7, 1941, and the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • 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 orders her to do her damn job and trace where the call is coming from. When she finds out it's coming from Air Force One, she transfers the call in a hurry.
  • A Running Gag in Arsenic and Old Lace has Mortimer frantically trying to call the Happydale Sanitarium while an unhelpful operator fails again and again to connect him.
    Mortimer: It's just across the river, I could swim it faster!
  • As seen in the page quote, Die Hard has a police dispatcher give John McClane a hard time when he tries to radio in a terrorist attack. This is a slightly more justified example than usual, as he's well outside his own jurisdiction and breaking into the police frequency with a civilian radio set, and the dispatcher has no idea who the hell he is and no particular reason to believe this isn't some crackpot with a ham radio and an overactive imagination. In addition, John's previous attempt to get emergency services to respond (pulling a fire alarm) was successfully called off by the terrorists as a false alarm, leading the dispatchers to believe the whole thing is a scam. They eventually decide to send a patrol officer to check it out anyway, at least when they pick up a sudden burst of gunfire from the terrorists.
  • 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 nonexistent coin slot.
  • 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. The higher-ups do eventually get to hear about it after he says the magic word -"Lawsuit!"- but they don't take it terribly seriously until the shit really hits the fan.
  • 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. This scene was based on stories that the film's military advisor told Michael Bay about real soldiers who went through almost identical issues when trying to contact their superiors at the Pentagon while in the middle of intense firefights.
  • The Abbott and Costello film Who Done It features a scene where Lou tries to put through a call to a building across the street that could win him $10,000. The operator proceeds to torment him mercilessly.

  • 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.
    • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish has Ford Prefect attempting to call Arthur, and having to convince an incredulous operator to put him through. The reason for the difficulty is he's calling from outer space.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Abbott and Costello has a skit about a particularly bizarre and abusive operator in the episode "Who Done It."
  • On Bear in the Big Blue House the Woodland Valley telephone operator is a blue-footed booby named Lois who is chronically hard-of-hearing and regularly comically misunderstands what people are saying. Now how could this go wrong?
  • 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.
  • Doctor Who. In "Resolution" the Thirteenth Doctor tries to call UNIT to warn of an alien who wants to Take Over the World, only to get an operator on the UK Security Helpline who has no idea what UNIT is (turns out UNIT has been shut down due to lack of funding).
    Doctor: UNIT is a fundamentally vital protection for planet Earth against alien invasion!
    Operator: (scoffing) Yes, but when did that last happen?
    Doctor: Now! Right now!
  • In Father Ted, Ted calls a convent to request the services of a nun to help him and his fellow priests keep their Lenten vows. They put him on hold, with "Ave Maria" as the background music. Cut to the convent, where we see that the song's actually being sung live by the nun he'd been talking to.
  • Get Smart. Given the Shoe Phone Running Gag, Maxwell Smart naturally runs into this trope from time to time.
    Operator: "What number are you calling?
    Max: I'm calling Control, Operator.
    Operator: You have dialed incorrectly. Give me your name and address and your dime will be refunded.
    Max: Operator, I'm calling from my shoe!
    Operator: What is the number of your shoe?
    Max: It's an unlisted shoe, Operator!
    • In one episode he's using an actual payphone that turns out to be a Drowning Pit, but he doesn't have the coins to call for help.
    Max: Operator, this is a matter of life and death!
  • 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.
  • In Green Acres, switchboard operator Sarah is shown to be very inept, particularly when she calls people in the middle of the night. On several occasions, whenever Oliver tries to get a call through, there are other party members on the line due to Sarah plugging in more than one at a time, which tends to lead to Funny Phone Misunderstandings as the others either think that Oliver is calling them or that Oliver's recipient is talking to them.
  • Lily Tomlin's Ernestine on Laugh In.
    "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."
  • 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.

  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • Pajama Sam 2: Thunder And Lightning Aren't So Frightening: Sam can use the phone in the lobby to call several departments of World Wide Weather as part of a set of Easter Eggs. The Suggestions Department can either been fairly reasonable or pretty snarky, the coffee cup running the Complaints Department complains at Sam, and the phone that acts as operator constantly mishears what he says.
  • In the second Road of the Dead game after the soldier protagonists realize the city is about to be nuked they try to radio for evac. After much struggling they manage to reach the nervous overburdened female dispatch. When requesting her to put them through, her only response is weepy "Please hold". Twice.

  • In Prequel, summoning daedra from the Soul Cairn involves dealing with CairnCorp®'s skeletal receptionists, who require new callers to fill out a 350-page questionnaire before being entered into the system as official customers. Fortunately for Katia, they also seem quite willing to offer alternative advice on how to deal with her predicament, and upon learning that none of it is relevant because of just how desperate the situation is, they escalate her call all the way to "corporate", aka the Maker® of the Soul Cairn®, who in turn finds her situation fascinating and, after offering even more suggestions, finally expedites the signup process. By entering her name as "Slutty Meatbag", which absolutely cannot be changed because it's already been filed alphabetically.
  • xkcd strip #1438 "Houston" posits what would happen if mission control acted like indifferent telephone service operators during the Apollo 13 disaster; the operator doesn't care about their emergency, makes snarky comments when they try to explain their plight, and brushes them off in favor of a call from his mother.

    Web Video 
  • Hiring Homestar Runner to provide tech support for his internet service is one of the 99 ways Bubs rips his customers off. Homestar sticks to his script—by which we mean, he reads randomly off various pages of his script rather than even trying to find something relevant to the situation—and even sings the hold music himself as he searches the clearly-empty office for someone to transfer the call to.
  • Neebs Gaming's series on the singleplayer game Subnautica uses this to incorporate the rest of the group. Appsro is the one stranded on Planet 4546B, and calls the tech support department at Alterra for help, staffed by Neebs, Simon, and Thick. The series was so popular, Unknown Worlds asked them to record a scene as Alterra personnel for use in the final version of the game (they're the ones who send rocket schematics to the Aurora while arguing about sandwiches).

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In The Smurfs episode "The First Telesmurf", the overgrown smurfmelon vines that become part of the telesmurf invention also reach as far as Gargamel's hovel, and Brainy becomes the telesmurf's official operator. When Gargamel follows the vines straight to their source, and curses as he gets tangled up in the vines at one point, he gets sassed by Brainy for using bad language on the telesmurf. Gargamel complies and covers his mouth as he continues his struggling.

  • This was a key component of the Touch-Tone Terrorists, a group of characters voiced by Pete Dzoghi that were featured on a series of CD albums and occasionally on the television show Crank Yankers. The key to the gag was that Dzoghi would buy out numbers that were one digit off from the customer service numbers of places like UPS, etc. That was when the fun began, as the frustrated callers would be sucked into the world of the crazy characters, such as Joe, who pretends to be nice, only to then transfer them to the nutjobs...
    Blade: I'm sorry, I just had a little too much to drink.
    Customer: A little too much to drink... on your job?!
    Blade: It's Saturday, man, I get to party.
  • The Jolly Roger Telephone Company is an online service that provides bots which are designed to waste the time of telemarketers by responding with various pre-written routines and otherwise saying stuff like "sure," "uh-huh" and "right" to make them think that there's someone responding to what they're saying. One of these is a "biz-bot" designed for cold-callers to businesses that is actually a pair of two bots. One of these is a male bot who after a few minutes will say that they're not the right person for the caller and transfers them to an incompetent female receptionist. This receptionist will admit that it's first day on the job and she's not really the real receptionist, insist that the caller go slow as she types what they're saying into a text, and then start talking to someone else, saying that all her lines are flashing and she doesn't know who she's talking to.

    Real Life 
  • 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.
  • Flash flooding near Tucson, Arizona in 1963 had an Arabian horse breeder in Illinois calling her colleague Bazy Tankersley near Tucson to ask if their horses were okay. She got a snotty operator who declaimed "Ma'am, perhaps you aren't aware that that area has been thoroughly isolated and there are no telephone calls in or out." (They were fine.)
  • A Canadian example: when a tanker truck full of fuel crashed on a highway and burst into flames in a gigantic inferno, multiple 911 calls were placed by crashed motorists from a nearby retirement home where they found refuge to report this fire. They were all hung up on after the operators noticed where the calls were coming from and told the callers "the fire is only exploding inside your head!" believing them to be senile. There were several fired 911 operators the following day when the news had a field day with this story.
  • In Madison, WI, a victim of burglary had to call 911 three times in order for police to be dispatched. They finally arrived EIGHT HOURS after the first call. Also, they mistakenly dispatched cops in Verona (a suburb) when a call was made about a suicidal woman trying to buy knives in the city itself. Even worse, a UW student called, and was hung up on when the operator didn't hear anything coherent, only screaming. The operator never dispatched officers, and the student, who had been stabbed, died of her injuries before being found by police sent to perform a welfare check. The murder remain unsolved for years until DNA match is found
  • Inverted in a case where an off-duty FBI agent was shot by two home invaders. Suffering from blood loss he tried to call the police, only for them to assume he was a drunk from his slurred speech. The duty sergeant has just ordered the officer taking the call to hang up when the 911 operator who originally transferred the call broke in on the line and convinced them the call was genuine.
  • In 2013, when Amanda Berry escaped from the Cleveland house of horrors where she'd been held prisoner since being kidnapped ten years ago and called 911, she got a very bored sounding operator who talked to her like he was reading from a script, dismissively told her to just "talk to the police when they get there," and hung up on her before police arrived, in direct violation of one of the most basic rules for 911 dispatchers (he was disciplined but not fired). One of her rescuers, Charles Ramsey, also got frustrated with the operator who took his call at the same time, finally shouting at him, "She been kidnapped! Put yourself in her shoes!"
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat forms of this often have less to do with individual operators and more to do with the call centre equivalent of Executive Meddling. As a rule, call centre operators are very tightly monitored and in many places can get fired for going even slightly off-script, even if they know with certainty that the information is wrong, leading to them giving incorrect advice with a straight face because their livelihoods depend on it. It doesn't help that a lot of them have low wages and unreasonable quotas to meet that are set by the same Pointy Haired Bosses that wrote the faulty scripts.


Video Example(s):


Strong Bad Email #152 - ISP

Hiring Homestar Runner to provide tech support for his internet service is one of the 99 ways Bubs rips his customers off. Homestar sticks to his script—by which we mean, he reads randomly off various pages of his script rather than even trying to find something relevant to the situation—and even sings the hold music himself as he searches the clearly-empty office for someone to transfer the call to.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / TheOperatorsMustBeCrazy

Media sources: