We can't be silent
—They Might Be Giants, "They Might Be Giants"
A band founded in 1982 by John Linnell and John Flansburgh who initially became famous as a part of a wave of Alternative Rock bands to find success between the 1988 creation of Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart and the Grunge explosion of 1991-1992 (other likeminded bands that became successful during this time include The Pixies, XTC, Midnight Oil and The Church).
The band is named for the 1971 film starring George C. Scott as a man who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes, and Joanne Woodward as his psychiatrist, a doctor whose name happens to be Watson. The name of that film is a reference to Don Quixote (that's why he attacked the windmills, you know)... which was itself a sideways reference to The Bible.
The official unofficial band of tropers everywhere.
They often perform songs attributed to animated projects, or other forms of television entertainment. They sing the theme songs to Malcolm in the Middle and Higglytown Heroes. Some older readers may remember the videos made for two songs from their 1990 album Flood, "Particle Man" and their cover of The Four Lads' song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", on Tiny Toon Adventures. Others might remember their late '90s Shout-Out to the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog. More recently they worked with the creators of Homestar Runner, resulting in an official music video for "Experimental Film" starring the H*R cast, as well as some jam sessions with the Homestar puppet. As well, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" appears in an episode of Pushing Daisies. Their cover of "Dog on Fire" (originally performed by their friend, Husker Du guitarist Bob Mould) has been the theme song of The Daily Show ever since Jon Stewart took over.
And finally, the Coraline movie was initially meant to be a musical featuring TMBG songs specially written for it; the only ones released so far, "Careful What You Pack" and "The Other Father's Song" (which made it into the movie), could be seen as an indicator of What Could Have Been. Although The Other Father is voiced by John Linnell while singing his above-mentioned song, he is otherwise voiced by TMBG frequent collaborator John Hodgman, discussed below.
The band's 1987 music video for their single "Don't Let's Start" was the first ever video by a band on an independent label (Bar/None Records) to go into regular rotation of MTV outside of its alternative block 120 Minutes (which was only created the previous year).
Parodied by the Discworld dwarfish band "We're Certainly Dwarfs". They are also partially responsible for Foul Ole Ron's Catch Phrase "Millennium hand and shrimp" in the same setting, by way of Terry Pratchett dumping a Chinese restaurant menu and the lyrics sheet for Particle Man into a travesty generator. Unsurprisingly, Pratchett is confirmed as a fan.
In 2004, they started the Venue Songs project, whereby the would go on tour and write a new song for every venue they played. Venue Songs was released as a CD/DVD combo, the DVD consisting of videos to the songs, with host segments featuring John Hodgman (author of the Complete World Knowledge series) as The Deranged Millionaire, a mysterious figure who had set the band with this challenge. If they failed, they would be forced to give up their magical songwriting talisman forever, leaving Brooklyn vulnerable to attack from The Deranged Millionaire's roving baseball gangs and monstrous creatures. Luckily, they won, and the Millionaire was therefore indebted to do an interview in one of their podcasts. It's one of the funniest things ever recorded.
- They Might Be Giants (1986)
- Lincoln (1988)
- Flood (1990)
- Apollo 18 (1992)
- John Henry (1994)
- Factory Showroom (1996)
- Long Tall Weekend (1999)
- The first album ever exclusively released over the internet
- Mink Car (2001)
- The Spine (2004)
- The Else (2007)
- Join Us (2011)
- No! (2002)
- Here Come the ABCs (2005)
- Here Come the 123s (2008)
- Here Comes Science (2009)
- Istanbul (Not Constantinople) -- assuredly the version that the tropers had in mind when it was named.
- Hell Hotel
- Actually Pretty Funny: The videos for Particle Man and "Istanbul" on Tiny Toon Adventures were never "official" videos, but the band loved them so much they were included on the band's 1999 video compilation, Direct from Brooklyn.
- All Love Is Unrequited
- And There Was Much Rejoicing: "When Will You Die?"
- Anti-Christmas Song: "Santa's Beard," "We Just Go Nuts At Christmastime," and Mono Puff's "Careless Santa" all fit the bill.
- And for those looking for an Anti-Hanukkah song, they also have "Feast Of Lights."
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair"
- Big Applesauce: They do several songs referencing their base in New York City.
- Brand X: To avoid a lawsuit, the song "Nyquil Driver" was listed as "AKA Driver" on the track listing for John Henry, and it is still to date the only album track that does not have its lyrics listed in the liner notes. Avoided in the song itself, however.
- In the song E Eats Everything to avoid saying "Coke": H burns food so horrible/all I tastes is smoke/J just likes drinking juice/and K drinks only soda
- One more for Coca-Cola. The band did a series of bumps to advertise Coke. Flansburgh later took one of his bumps and expanded it to the song "Poison Flowers" for his side project, Mono Puff. However, the line "Who's going to wear my sandals stained with Coca-Cola?" was changed to "cherry cola" for the album version.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "Lesson 16" starts out as a fairly standard language learning recording, before revealing that the narrator killed your father.
- Closer Than They Appear: In "She's Actual Size": "Squares may look distant in a rear view mirror, but they're actual size, actual size to her."
- Concept Album: "They Might Be Giants vs. McSweeney's", which was (mostly) by the band and meant to accompany McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #6.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: "Kiss Me, Son of God" is written from the viewpoint of one of these.
- Crapsack World: Their song "The Shadow Government"; the chorus consists primarily of "It's a bad, bad world", and the last non-chorus verse is: "Crawling out of the flophouse/I saw the mayor stealing my junk/I doth protest, citizen's arrest/Now my body's in his trunk." Yeah, and the point of the song is that the oft feared Shadow Government is preferable to the state of affairs in their world. Yeah.
- "Pencil Rain" implies a Crapsack World too: "And none who have witnessed all/ Can speak of a nobler cause/ Than perishing in/ The pencil rain."
- Cute Kitten: "It's your kind of kitten".
- Defictionalization: Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch. They also sold blue nightlights as promotional material for Flood, but they didn't really look like canaries.
- Educational Song
- Excited Show Title!: No!, and its title track.
- For Science!
- Fun with Palindromes: "I Palindrome I" is full of variously palindromic stuff; see the trope page for a full listing.
- Genre Busting
- Giant Squid: Apollo 18 has one battling a sperm whale on the cover.
- Intentionally Awkward Title: "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," among several others.
- "Kiss Me, Son of God" makes a few folks squeamish.
- James K. Polk: A whole song about him.
- Jerkass: Johnny in "Can't Keep Johnny Down" on the four advance tracks from Join Us.
- KaBlam!: Did two songs for the show.
- Karma Houdini: "Reprehensible"
- Last-Note Nightmare: "Hide Away, Folk Family", dear God.
- Lyrical Dissonance: At least a quarter of the songs on any given album will have it.
- Here's how "Turn Around", a very upbeat song, on the album Apollo 18 starts:
I was working all night in my office
Driving home from my meth lab...
- And later in the same song...
Now my body's in his trunk
- Must Have Caffeine: Lampshaded in the documentary about the band, Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns.
- My Name Is Not Durwood: People frequently get the band's name wrong. "There May Be Giants" and "There Must Be Giants" are some of the most common examples. Homestar Runner pokes fun at this by having both Strong Bad and Homestar refer to them as "The Super Giants" and "those Supreme Giants guys".
- Name's the Same: The band has done two different songs with the name "She Was A Hotel Detective" that have nothing to do with each other except the title and being TMBG songs. The version on the first album is "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" and the version on the Back To Skull EP is "She Was A Hotel Detective" (note the lack of parentheses). They also did a third song with a callback title, "She Was A Hotel Detective In The Future."
- New Sound Album: They moved up from "Two guys, an accordion, a guitar and a drum machine" to a full band for their fifth album John Henry.
- No Sense of Direction: While fictional, the song "They Got Lost" is about the band running into this problem (it doesn't help that one of the Johns apparently mistakes a fast food wrapper for a road map).
- One Steve Limit: Averted; the band currently consists of nothing but Johns and Dans (with one Marty, who replaced another Dan).
- Rainbow Motif: The song on their science album about the color spectrum is named after the common mnemonic "Roy G. Biv."
- Religion Rant Song: It wasn't intended as an anti-religion song, but "Science Is Real" was perceived as being one by some of the band's religious fans.
- Running Gag: Flansburgh has uploaded videos to the band's YouTube channel titled "[Location/Show] not going well", wherein he records the audience staring at the band silently and angrily.
- A recent video instead has the audience singing "Boring! Boring! Why are we waiting?"
- Rockumentary: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns.
- Science Marches On: Scientists used to think that the sun was a mass of incandescent gas, but now scientists believe that it's really a miasma of incandescent plasma.
- Not really, they just thought that the gas/plasma distinction was hairsplitting for a song targeted at 8-year-olds.
- Self-Titled Album: Their first.
- The band also did a Self-Titled Song. Just to keep things confusing, it's on the third studio album, not the first (self-titled) one.
- It was originally written when the songs from the first album were, but they decided to hold off releasing it for a few years.
- The band also did a Self-Titled Song. Just to keep things confusing, it's on the third studio album, not the first (self-titled) one.
- Shout-Out: Several, from I Love Lucy to Plato's Allegory of the Cave to Surrealist party games.
- Silly Love Songs: Very, very rare for them, but they do indeed have one straightforward love song: "Another First Kiss."
- Small Reference Pools: This one works both ways. While not the most common band misattributed, quite a few songs on file-sharing services are mistakenly labeled as being by They Might Be Giants ("88 Lines About 44 Women," by The Nails, seems to be the most common). On the flip side, some of their tracks are labeled as belonging to other bands, particularly remixes (you'll find some people distributing the Brownsville Remix of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" as a Weird Al song, although it was a B-side for the single for the original).
- Spin-Off: John Linnell's "State Songs" and "House of Mayors" projects and John Flansburgh's other band, Mono Puff.
- Spontaneous Human Combustion: The song "The Statue Got Me High" makes reference to spontaneous human combustion supernaturally induced by a humanoid statue.
- Subliminal Seduction: Several of their songs parody the "backmasking" phenomenon, ranging from an actual backwards message ("They Might Be Giants would like to include a verse about the suffering people of the world, but they couldn't figure out where to put it into the song" in one version of "Which Describes How You're Feeling") to an earlier part of the song reversed ("Subliminal"), to... John Flansburgh just singing nonsense syllables intended to sound backwards ("Hideaway Folk Family").
- Taken to a bizarre conclusion with "On Earth My Nina", which sounds like nonsense until you play it backwards, whereupon it becomes "Thunderbird", another of their songs. Even more bizarre, "Nina" was released first.
- They even got to do the 'Listen to something played backwards, mimic the sound, and then play that backwards so it sound forwards' process on "Dinner Bell"
Show-der, bicep, ew-bow, ahhhm! Foreahm, thumb, wrist, knuckle, pahhhhm! (etc.)
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "Kiss Me, Son of God" has one, two if you have a dirty mind and forgot the title.
- Time Travel: The song "2082" is about this. It's also an inversion of Never the Selves Shall Meet and Help Your Self in the Future, as the character finds and murders his elderly future self.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: "Spoiler Alert" consists of two overlapping stories: Flansburgh the tired trucker and Linnell the author who texts while driving. They most likely meet at the end.
- The Unpronounceable: The subject of "Unpronounceable".
- Villain Song: "Kiss Me Son of God", "I Palindrome I", and others depending on your interpretation.
- Vocal Tag Team: Linnell and Flansburgh each sing about the same amount in every conceivable way -- about the same numbers of songs singing lead, singing backup, and a smattering of full-fledged duets. In general, the one who wrote a given song will handle lead vocals.
- What Could Have Been: They Might Be Giants originally wrote an entire movie's worth of songs for the film version of Coraline. Only the "Other Father's Song" made the final cut. The director blamed Executive Meddling (although one planned song was never even written because the Johns decided the joke song the writers came up with for the scratch track was good enough), and he's expressed a desire to work again with the band to do a movie based on their music.
- They released the song "Careful What You Pack" over a year prior to the movie's release. What originally sounded like a metaphorical song about cautiously moving on in life turned out to be a direct summary of the movie/book's underlying themes.
- Joe Strummer was supposed to sing the bridge of "Cyclops Rock", but he was unavailible for some reason, so the band instead settled on Cerys Matthews, singer for Welsh indie band Catatonia because she just so happened to be in the same studio at the time.
- Elvis Costello was apparently supposed to produce Apollo 18 at an early stage.
- Who Writes This Crap?: "Who came up with Person Man?"
- WAT Band
- Word Salad Lyrics: Commonly. The most blatant example would be "On Earth My Nina", which has an odd genesis. While recording "Thunderbird" for the first time, John Linnell tried backmasking the lyrical part of the song, and thought he heard the lyric "On Earth My Nina". He then proceeded to fill in the rest of the song with random words that kinda-sorta sounded like the other lyrics of "Thunderbird" backwards.
- Other notable examples are "Stuff Is Way" and "Thinking Machine".
- Would Hit A Girl: The narrator of "Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel", apparently.
And the old man whose face you see in all their videos is named William Allen White. He was a famous journalist in Kansas from The Edwardian Era to World War II. The band were secretive of this for quite some time in case his surviving relatives were to sue them.