Homer: You mean, like medical testing?
Barney: Yeah, medical, military, chewing stuff.
When a character is short on cash, he or she might consider getting hired by a drug company or some other institute as a test subject, usually for various experimental drugs or a new device.
Depending on the setting, the character will either experience really annoying but otherwise mundane side-effects at the worst possible moments, which are often Played for Laughs. Or the character might gain superpowers or some other fantastical phenomena occurring. When Played for Drama however, the effects of the drug could be disastrous. And in a superhero story, it could make for a nice origin story.
Truth in Television, at least once animal trials are complete and the pharmaceutical companies are reasonably sure it won't kill people. Still, there are lots of rules and regulations when it comes to human testing, and companies usually want test subjects that match the products target audience, so not everybody can just volunteer. Of course, a Mad Scientist or Corrupt Corporate Executive may not care much about these rules. In that case, a Disposable Vagrant is likely to show up. It can also happen that the test subject was forced to participate in the trial by someone else so that person can claim the money.
- Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen: This appears in a comic about Jimmy first coming to Metropolis. On his arrival, he takes a job as a test subject for an experimental time machine, which sends him back to Krypton before the explosion. On his return, the time stream messes with his head, leaving him unable to remember the adventure. To add insult to injury, he doesn't even get paid because the time machine appears not to work.
- The Pitiful Human Lizard: Lucas Barrett rented himself out to a pharmaceutical company to get money for his next Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu session (his Sensei informed him his credit card was declined when he tried to pay with that). The company had him try out a new painkiller pill they've been developing. It sent him into a more-than-an-hour-long puking session and made him lose consciousness for a while... it also gave him a Healing Factor that allows him to reattach lost limbs.
- Spirou and Fantasio: The plot of "Machine qui Rève" starts as Spirou is asked to investigate a laboratory by passing as a paid test subject.
- In the 2005 remake of Fun with Dick and Jane, the suddenly destitute Dick and Jane Harper are forced to take up a series of menial, low-paying, or degrading jobs just to make ends meet. In one scene Jane joins the human trial for a botox-like injection, ending up one of the unfortunate test subjects with gross facial swelling and a rash.
Scientist: This is a new drug in the same family of botox — we don't expect any problems. Your check for fourteen dollars is waiting for you at the front desk, and we think you all are going to look beautiful. Now, if you can begin by filling out those forms, those are insurance waivers...
- In The Invisible Woman (1940), Kitty Carroll answers Professor Gibbs' newspaper ad offering $300 to anyone willing to participate in an invisibility experiment. He wasn't expecting a female applicant, but he hires her anyway.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid: In The Third Wheel, a down-on-his-luck Uncle Gary takes a painful job as a test subject for pepper spray.
- In Stephen King's Firestarter, a pair of college students, Andy McGee and Vicki Tomlinson (the future Mrs. McGee), agree to participate in an experiment conducted by a psychology professor at their school, involving what's supposedly a harmless low-grade hallucinogen (Andy very explicitly doing so in order to earn money to supplement his income from scholarships and teaching assistant jobs). The experiment's actually being conducted by a sinister U.S. intelligence agency nicknamed "The Shop", the "harmless low-grade hallucinogen" is an extremely dangerous Psycho Serum that causes horrific psychotic reactions in a number of the students...and gives the survivors varying degrees of psychic and telekinetic powers. The eventual daughter of Andy and Vicki winds up with even more powerful pyrokinetic abilities.
- "The Good Rat", a short story by Allen Steele, is set in a world where animal laboratory testing is forbidden. The people who hire themselves for testing are called "rats" and the narrator is one of them.
- In the Hc Svnt Dracones novel Fate's Fangs, Nadia has a side job getting inoculated with and distributing supposedly benign viruses that carry radioisotope tags so that Reveidolon, the medical corporation that owns her home city, can study the spread of potential pandemics. After one of her clients in her primary job drops dead mid-session, suspicions are raised.
- The Mercy Men: A man is desperately hunting the man who murdered his father. He learns that the man has entered a secret medical experimentation program that pays test subjects huge sums of money but often harms or kills the subjects. In order to find the man, he enters the program himself, taking the risk of dying.
- Placebo Junkies: The protagonist is a professional test subject who earns all her money by participating in various medical trials.
- The Supernaturalist begins in an Orphanage of Fear where the kids are hired out to companies to have products such as creams and medicines tested on them.
- Andy Richter Controls the Universe: Wendy the receptionist needs money to pay for her grandmother's cosmetic surgery. After losing out on a bonus, she signs up to test a new drug for her giant company. The most noticeable effect is that it deepens her voice to the point that she sounds like Darth Vader, but to her boyfriend's delight it increases her sex drive and enlarges her breasts. Shame he can't get past the voice thing.
- 3rd Rock from the Sun: Sally nearly signs up for a study where solvents would be rubbed in her eyes. She also states that she might volunteer for the hornet-sting study ("But I didn't bring a bathing suit."). Ultimately averted when Mary offers to hire her as a research assistant, though notes that it doesn't pay hornet-sting money.
- The Big Bang Theory:
- "The Porkchop Indeterminacy": Raj becomes fed up with his selective mutism around women and signs up for a field trial for an experimental drug that boosts confidence and self-esteem. They work and he happily converses with every girl he comes across, but he experiences side-effects including uncontrolled, repetitive hand gestures. He later tries to ask Sheldon's sister Missy out, where he's the only person she shows interest in, but predictably his medication runs out at that point and he ends up whining like a puppy.
- "The Wildebeest Implementation": Raj gets offered a new drug that's supposed to be "the next big thing" for sufferers of social anxiety. They decide to test them out and are delighted to find they work when Raj charms a girl in a coffee shop, but they work a little too well as Raj's libido has skyrocketed and he starts taking off his clothes in public until he's completely naked!
- The Boys: Superheroes, which are sponsored by the Vought Corporation, are said to have been created by God to protect mankind. In reality, VoughtCorp. looks for pregnant women, who are then paid to be treated with Compund-V, so that they can give birth to super-powered babies, who are told that they were divinely gifted with their abilities and become superheroes/cash cows for Vought.
- Caroline in the City: One episode has a B plot where Cloudcuckoolander Charlie ropes Del into being a "bio-slut" as they both need extra cash. After getting side effects, Del decides to quit, until both of them see an ad for volunteers for another study.
- The Drew Carey Show: DrugCo tests its products on Lewis but eventually hires the characters to test various drugs on them. One episode deals with the humorous side effects of various drugs as the character struggle to carry on their day while high as kites.
- Flodder: In the spin-off television series' season 5 episode "Bijwerkingen" ("Side Effects"), Toet and Henkie sign up Grandpa Flodder as a test subject for a new experimental medicine to get money for a new video game. Since Grandpa is mute and wheelchair-bound, he can't object. However, the laboratory turns out to be an unsupervised, illegal operation and is closed down by the police before the 2 kids can get their money. Grandpa still takes the medicine, and it works miraculously, restoring his speech and ability to walk until he drinks a beer which undoes the effects.
- Friends: Joey does this between acting jobs. Some examples:
- In "The One Where Rachel Finds Out", he's participating in a fertility study requiring him to abstain from sex during the duration.
- In "The One With Unagi" he needs money again, so he considers returning to medical experimentation. However, the only study open at the time is being conducted on identical twins. Joey tries hiring a lookalike to pretend to be his twin brother, but it doesn't work.
Joey: I used to get paid for all kinds of medical stuff, remember? Let's see, uh... well, I don't want to donate sperm again. [aside, to Ross] I really prefer doing that at the home office, y'know? [Ross nods] Ooh-ooh, maybe they want like some of my blood or — or spit or something, huh?
- The Golden Girls: For a while, Rose works as a production assistant for a television consumer reporter and often brings home products to test, sometimes using herself as a test dummy. In one episode, she tries some ridiculous weight-loss products, wearing some large inflated pants called "vacuum slacks" and using electricity on herself to shock away fat deposits. She ends up gaining four pounds despite these treatments.
- House: One of the patients of the week in "Adverse Events" is making a living by being a test subject for multiple different drug trials. The drugs he's taking turn out to be accumulating in a mass in his stomach, causing multiple various baffling symptoms.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: "Trials" partly deals with clinical trials, as a foster mother takes her temperamental son there for experimental ADHD medication. Several of the other testees there are college-aged teens and adults who just want some extra cash and don't care about potential side effects. One even admits to being part of multiple trials, even though it would throw off the results of each one.
- Malcolm in the Middle: In one episode, Reese decides to become the test subject for multiple experimental drugs to make money. Naturally, he ends up in a pretty bad state after ingesting all these different types of drugs at the same time.
- Millennium (1996): A doctor intentionally induces psychosis in an experimental group for a new mood stabilizer in the episode "Walkabout."
- My Family: One episode involves Nick signing up to test a new drug that turns out to induce memory loss as a side effect, something which Michael quickly takes advantage of as Nick keeps forgetting he's already paid him back for the money he borrowed. By the end Nick has to resort to carrying photos of his family around to remember who they are (and include essential information to never eat Susan's cooking and to never trust Michael about money).
- Stranger Things: Eleven's birth mother Terry volunteered to be a test subject in Project MKUltra, not realizing that she was pregnant at the time. It's implied that the experiments somehow gave Eleven her telekinetic abilities.
- Testees was a short-lived show about a pair of slackers who get through life being paid for being human test subjects. This tends to lead to Amusing Injuries and borderline Body Horror, though it's always played for laughs. One episode has them test out an appliance instead, which still had negative consequences because A.I. Is a Crapshoot.
- In an episode of the sketch comedy show TV Funhouse, the puppets endure scientific experiments for cash. Later, they're attacked by fundamentalist suicide-bombing puppets against the idea of animal research.
- Two and a Half Men: Played for Laughs in one episode. Charlie has run low on money and the pair risk having to sell the house. A panicking Alan volunteers as a test subject for some new pharmaceutical drugs in return for money, and mistakenly believes himself to be in the placebo group. He eventually realizes he was wrong when his hair begins falling out.
- Years and Years: A cash-strapped Stephen Lyons volunteers as a "lab rat" to test various experimental drugs, including one which ends up giving him minor seizures.
- Woyzeck: The titular character earns extra money for his family by agreeing to take part in medical experiments conducted by a doctor. At one of these experiments, the doctor tells Woyzeck that he must eat nothing but peas, which causes his mental health to break down and he begins to experience a series of apocalyptic visions.
- One of the job cards in Chez Geek is "Professional Research Subject". They can't use Weed, Shrooms or Booze cards to gain Slack.
- Fallout 4:
- Killer Instinct: In the first game, Ultratech needs human guinea pigs and offers money or favors to get them:
- First seen with TJ Combo, a famous boxer who went to Ultratech to get titanium arm implants, but was discovered and removed from boxing federations. He entered for revenge and to regain his past fame, but barely survived when he fought Riptor.
- Later seen with a prisoner who was offered freedom if he became their guinea pig for an experiment where he got converted in a kind of "Human Torch" renamed as Cinder, being recruited for the tournament to defeat the ice alien Glacius.
- Persona 5: This is how the protagonist forms a relationship with Doctor Tae Takemi, a disgraced but brilliant physician. She develops her own medications that are stronger than typical ODC drugs and offered to sell them to the protagonist if he became this. She was kidding, but after the protagonist obliged by drinking the chemicals she gave him, she held up her end of the deal. And we soon find out that all of the research is helping her develop a treatment for an otherwise incurable disease. And if you max out the Confidant link, she succeeds.
- Portal 2 reveals that as Aperture Science's fortunes declined after The '60s, they had lost access to high-grade test subjects like athletes and astronauts and have resorted to bringing in the homeless from the streets and to paying them in food to continue their experiments.
- Project Princess: One of the jobs available for your ward is to become a Test Subject.
- The Sims: The science career track begins with your Sim becoming a paid test subject.
- In one of Majima's substories in Yakuza 0, he discovers a flier looking for clinical trial subjects for a fat 10 million yen. He decides to check it out, and the clinical trial involves him ingesting three different kinds of drugs that end up doing the total opposite of its intended effects, but also fight a bunch of goons-for-hire while under its effects to gauge its side effects. In the end, he still gets the payout.
- In The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The DVD", Gumball and Darwin sign up for various forms of medical and cosmetics testing to help pay off the late fees. Gumball has a severe allergic reaction to the makeup, and the the medical experiments are deemed to be too horrific to continue. Because they were paid for time served, they only made enough for the bus fair.
- American Dad!: Reginald's backstory, which is explained through song, reveals that he was a down-on-his-luck hobo who saw a wanted ad in the paper that promised a free meal as payment. Next, he knows he's hooked up to an operating table, zapped with a laser, and had his brain switched into the body of a koala. Now, he's one of the CIA's top operatives, because he can play the cuteness factor for all its worth and nobody ever suspects a cute little koala.
- Classic Disney Shorts: In "Runaway Brain", Mickey Mouse needs money for a Hawaiian vacation to make up for forgetting his and Minnie's anniversary, so he answers an ad. Unfortunately, he has unwittingly volunteered for a Mad Scientist's experiment to switch minds with a Frankenstein's Monster.
- Downtown: Alex, Goat, and Fruity all sign up for a study in which they're asked questions about how much they've retained from high school. Although it doesn't involve any drugs, it still has an effect on each of them: Alex, who gets all the questions right, starts to question whether he's squandering his intelligence at his dead-end job; Goat develops paranoia about being followed or watched by the researchers; and Fruity can't decide how to spend his $100 stipend. In the Creative Closing Credits, the "pig men" from Goat's delusions are shown actually watching him.
- Family Guy: In "Family Gay", Peter becomes a human guinea pig to help pay for damages caused by his mentally-challenged racehorse, leading to the main plot where he's injected with a "gay gene".
- The Simpsons:
- In "HOMЯ", Homer is (again) having financial troubles and Barney suggest that he be a human guinea pig like himself. When Homer asks Barney if that isn't dangerous, Barney admits that there have been some side effects, and proceeds to show he has 5 ears growing on his chest. Homer is convinced however and signs up for some tests, during which the scientists performing the tests find out Homer has a crayon stuck in his brain, kicking off the main plot.
- Another episode showcases that Homer once accepted being injected with an experimental serum by the military to dodge a meeting with his Obnoxious In-Laws. The side-effects of this serum are (one of many, thanks to Multiple-Choice Past) reasons he's the bald dumbass he is nowadays.
- In "Lisa the Beauty Queen", Homer needs money to enter Lisa into a beauty pageant and decides to sell his Duff Blimp ticket to Barney, who happens to be loaded with money. When Homer asks where he got the money from, Barney said it was from scientists, and when he turns around, surgically attached wires can be seen protruding from his head.
- Robert Rodriguez did this in order to fund his first big movie, El Mariachi.
- Clinical trials often offer to pay participants for their time as a way to get more test subjects into the study, and it's not unheard of for people to sign up for studies multiple times. So-called "professional guinea pigs" take this to an extreme, signing up for so many studies they can actually earn a decent living just by having drugs tested on themselves.