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In Mike and Molly episode “Peggy Gets a Job” (season 2, episode 8), when Peggy, Mike’s mother, gets a job at Molly’s school, she, as a support facilities personell, quickly accustoms herself with all the gossip, while acknowledging that she learned the whole truth about affair that Rebecca (Molly’s young blonde colleague and her prime competitor for vice-principal position) is having with the principal from the janitor.

At the same time, in iconic The Breakfast Club (1985), Carl, a school custodian, has the air of wizardly wise man, who also knows everything about everyone:

I am the eyes and ears of this institution.

Is it a direct reference, or is it a common archetype, a sort of a modern folk character? I have not attended American grade school, and not familiar with it first hand, but is it ubiquitous to think of school custodian this way? Are there other examples? Where did it originate in popular culture (film, literature, etc.)? Is it something that harkens to classic character of a lowly peasant who possesses knowledge and wisdom enough to advise the king?

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3 Answers

Consider first that the janitor has keys to every room in the building, so he sees things that are left lying around or thrown away. He may see evidence of trysts - things out of place and people not where they are supposed to be.

Second, culturally, the janitor stereotype is a person who is invisible to others. Because a janitor may come and go from a scene without interacting with others (he comes in, cleans up the spill, moves on), others may tend to disregard him, thinking he is not paying attention to whatever else is going on in the room. They take his silence to mean he is not listening.

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I think it is a good explanation of the character, but it does not answer the main part of my question — whether this character is just what it is, and included in films based on the described utility (and that assertion you could then indicate in your post), or “this trope has been around for a while”, as it were. –  theUg Jan 29 '13 at 5:54
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Cab Calliway plays a mystical all-knowing school janitor in The Blues Brothers (1980). Clearly, this trope has been around for a while.

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This is not a standard reference in American culture. The Breakfast Club character is just a minor brilliant invention, as far as I know.

The nearest parallel I can think of is in the movie Gosford Park, where the house is full of intrigues and secrets, and the only ones who understand the whole picture are a few of the servants. Especially Helen Mirren's character, who has an almost supernatural ability to anticipate what the upstairs people will do.

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