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Medicine Show

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A traveling wagon show that presented various entertainments between pitches for miracle medications or other products. They were most common in the Nineteenth Century and very early Twentieth Century, moving from town to town in the Midwest, South and Western United States.

These productions were usually sponsored by some sort of elixir or panacea, or "snake oil" to critics, that purportedly would cure a wide variety of ills. In addition to a Snake Oil Salesman, common acts included freak shows, stage magic, musicians, stand-up comedy and flea circuses. In many ways, the Medicine Show was the direct ancestor of commercial radio and television shows, free entertainment interrupted at regular intervals by advertisements.

Naturally, the visit of a medicine show was a highlight of the year for many isolated communities, and a certain number of sales were just made in an effort to get the wagon to come back the next year. (Others were based on the rather heavy alcohol content of most snake oil remedies.) As communications and entertainment options advanced and new truth in advertising laws were passed, the medicine shows in their traditional form dwindled away, finally passing away in 1951 with the end of the Hadacol Caravan in scandal, the last of three traveling medicine shows.

However, the two that survived further on, Chief Thundercloud and Peg-Leg Sam, and Doc Scott's Last Real Old Time Medicine Show (originally Doc Chambers Medicine Show), were kept alive by the novelty, as they were seen as a relic of a more innocent era, in contrast to the modern age of television, with the actual snake oil product being relegated to The Artifact (in fact, Herb-O-Lac, the product of the latter, changed its name to just Snake Oil). Chief Thundercloud's medicine show ended in 1972 when he died unexpectedly and Doc Scott's ended after 1990, overlapping with the early years of the modern internet (began in 1981 with Usenet).

Medicine shows sometimes appear in stories about The Wild West and similar areas of the time period—often there will be a comical bit where a shill in the crowd buys the snake oil and pretends to be cured of whatever ails him, but then must vomit up the foul stuff or otherwise dispose of the unswallowed medicine. Many fictional depictions will have the townsfolk being extremely gullible about the Snake Oil Salesman's pitch and the protagonist being the only one who sees through the deception. For the wagon itself check out Mobile Kiosk.

Not to be confused with shows about medicine.


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    Audio Plays 
  • In the album Everything You Know Is Wrong by the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, the recording's narrator plays a wire recording of a medicine show featuring a "Dr. Firesign" promoting "Chief Dancing Knockout's Pyramid Pushover Paste" and "Don Bruhaha's Inca Hell-Oil Tonic".

    Comic Books 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In High, Wide and Handsome, a medicine show helps the people of Titusville, Pennsylvania fend off a Railroad Baron who wants to take their property.
  • Danny Kaye works for one for a while before being mistaken for The Inspector General.
  • There's one in Pete's Dragon (1977), the proprietor of which is determined to capture Elliot the dragon to use as an ingredient in making more effective patent medicines.
  • Little Big Man: Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) spends part of his adolescence working for Mr. Merriweather's Medicine show.
  • The 1956 movie version of The Rainmaker has a Medicine Show prologue to establish Burt Lancaster in the role of the Snake Oil Salesman.
  • Road to Singapore has Hope, Crosby and Lamour playing ocarinas and selling bottled soap as a miracle stain remover.
  • In More Dead Than Alive, showman Mark Ruffalo runs a variant, in that he doesn't hawk any medicines, but runs the Shooting Shoe & Death Display: essentially a miniature wild west show with marksmanship and trick shooting displays and an exhibit of items of dubious provenance purporting to be connected with the deaths of various famous denizens of The Wild West.
  • In Outlaw Women, Uncle Barney arrives in town with a medicine show selling his patent Blackfoot Balm. After Iron Mae steals his Lovely Assistants away from him to her organization, he winds up working as bartender for her.
  • In Hangman's Knot, undercover Confederate army agent Captain Peterson is posing as a patent elixir salesman and traveling in a medicine show wagon. After he is killed, Major Stewart and his men use the wagon for their own cover while traveling.
  • The Kid Brother: The men of the medicine show are criminals who steal the money for the dam.
  • Stars in My Crown: A "Professor" Jones comes barreling into town (a town in rural Tennessee in the late 1860s) with a medicine show where he does magic tricks while the rest of his little troupe sings and plays music, followed by Jones hawking some kind of quack medicine. It's portrayed as good fun for the townsfolk.
  • In Silent Tongue, The Alcoholic Eamon McCree is the owner of the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show.

  • Doctor Erazamus K. Thornett's Superior Elixir show in Apache Rampage by J.T. Edson.
  • In Old Tin Sorrows, the exorcist Doc Doom self-promotes by traveling with one of these. Unlike many examples, he actually does have legitimate skill in curing (supernatural) ills.
  • Water Margin suggests that the core concept of the Medicine Show is at least as old as Song-dynasty China. A few of the heroes are first encountered giving martial arts demonstrations in the street, trying to attract a crowd that they can sell invigorating medicines to. The source and efficacy of the medicine is not really addressed, as the point is generally to show that these genuinely skilled men have fallen on hard times before the plot gets them into some real gallantry.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Forever: In "Fountain of Youth," the flashback opens with Henry and his good friend James watching one of these, promoting a new Sanitarium. Henry lists several crackpot "cures" they advertise and bemoans the fact that people who need the help of real medicine will end up going to the charlatans instead. James is at least willing to entertain the thought that some part of their offerings could someday turn out to actually help, given how rapidly medical care is advancing.
  • The Goodies performed a scene as part of "The Goodies Travelling Medicine Show" in the episode "Hospital For Hire". The scene included a plant from the audience (Tim) being pulled from the audience to 'prove' that the mystery elixir cured all ailments. Ironically the elixir really does work, putting all the hospitals out of business.
  • In Good Eats, Alton does one of these while promoting celery water (water infused with celery seed, sweetened with "simple syrup") which really was touted as a Spice Rack Panacea at one time.
  • There was an episode featuring this in the TV show, Little House on the Prairie - with a mistreated mute boy roadie, who Jenny Ingalls helps to escape.

  • "Medicine Show" by Big Audio Dynamite refers to this.
  • "Gypsies, Tramps, And Thieves" by Cher.
    I was born in the wagon of a travellin' show
    My mama used to dance for the money they'd throw
    Papa would do whatever he could
    Preach a little gospel,
    Sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good.
  • "Your Song" by Elton John. "If I was a sculptor, but then again, no / Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show"
  • "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson features this in the Music Video.
  • "The Incredible Medicine Show" by Moxy Früvous. This song criticizes the cosmetic and beauty industry by comparing it to a carnival of salesman promising to restore youth with their products. It characterizes the customers as Plastic Bitches terrified of aging.
    We can correct what nature supplies
    'Cause beauty is something money buys.
  • Old Crow Medicine Show isn't an actual Medicine Show, but their music wouldn't be terribly out of place at one. Except for the one about Vietnam. And maybe this one (but then again, two medicine shows did overlap with The Vietnam War so even then it would work, albeit just technically).
  • "Step Right Up" from Small Change by Tom Waits is an entire speech given by a medicine show host about some miracle cure he wants to sell.
  • In "Eyesight To The Blind", Tommy repurposes Sonny Boy Williamson II's lyrics as the cry of a hawker advertising one of these.
    Well you talk about your woman, I wish you could see mine
    You talk about your woman, I wish you could see mine
    When she gets on to lovin' she brings eyesight to the blind

  • Pirelli from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street travels around hawking his Miracle Elixir via singing and feats of barbering. The primary ingredient is human urine.
  • "The Carnival Song" from the semi-musical play Say, Darling, including a bit where a shill takes a swig of the product and bursts out into a dance.

    Video Games 
  • There's a fair at the start of BioShock Infinite that has a few stages with presenters of this variety. Unlike most examples, the products are genuine (said products are drinks that give you elemental powers), but the guy who owns the company that distributes them still falls into the sleazy snake oil salesman personality.
  • In Oregon Trail II, there's Dr. Brogan Cavanaugh, an NPC who shows up randomly in towns selling his brand of snake oil. You can't actually buy it, of course, and the "show" is very limited. He also shows up on a "Wanted!" Poster.
  • In Kingdom of Loathing, we have Doc Galaktik's Medicine Show, though this is always in the same space, all the time (except during the Zombie Slayer challenge path). Unlike most snake oils, Dr. Galaktik's products actually work - despite the ingredients being fraudwort, shysterweed, and swindleblossoms. Perhaps it's the placebo effect?
  • You're forced to help out one of these guys in Red Dead Redemption, to the point where it becomes an Overly-Long Gag because it always ends with you driving away from the scene with a posse of angry people in hot pursuit, shooting at you.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons do this in "Grandpa Simpson vs. Sexual Inadequacy". It backfires when the townspeople notice that the shill — Homer — is shown in a massive portrait on the front of the bottle. Homer notes that the townsfolk didn't start chasing them until Grampa started playing a tape with some getaway music. Ironically the product is completely genuine, they just end up convincing the townsfolk otherwise. Springfield itself has ground to a standstill because all the grownups are at home taking advantage of the product.
  • One episode of Adventures of the Gummi Bears featured a medicine show cast in a rare sympathetic light: the proprietor is genuinely trying to make his elixir do exactly what he says it will, but his efforts inevitably end in failure (and plenty of angry customers). A well-intentioned Tummi tries to help him by slipping some Gummiberry Juice into the mix, which gives the man's customers temporary super strength and attracts Duke Igthorn's attention. In the end, the man finally finds the success he's been looking for when he inadvertently discovers that his normal elixir makes plants grow like crazy — he makes his fortune selling it as fertilizer. (Could be a Stealth Pun, considering what one might call the claims made by the usual salesmen.)
  • The Thundercats get involved with a medicine show in the ThunderCats (2011) episode "Recipe for Disaster".
  • The premise for the Betty Boop cartoon "Betty Boop, M.D.".
  • When Flim and Flam, the twin unicorn con-artists from season 2 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, return in the season 4 episode "Leap of Faith", they've given up their former cider-racket to instead run one of these.
  • The Pink Panther runs one in the cartoon "Vitamin Pink". The "Pep Pills" he sells actually work, which gets him in trouble when one of his customers uses his newfound strength to rob banks.
  • A variant is used in Kaeloo, where Mr. Cat sells people medication that doesn't actually work for large sums of money through spam advertisements he puts on the internet.
  • In Clone High, Gandhi and Abe try selling their ill-conceived "knorks" by way of a medicine show, with Abe playing various audience plants. Things immediately fall apart when Abe ends up mutilating himself with the coal powered monstrosity.