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Podcast / Sawbones

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"Sawbones is a show about medical history, and nothing the hosts say should be taken as medical advice or opinion. It's for fun. Can't you just have fun for an hour and not try to diagnose your mystery boil?"

Sawbones is a podcast about the oft-misguided history of medicine, hosted by the wife and husband duo of Dr. Sydnee McElroy and Justin McElroy. According to a 2018 interview about their book, it is currently the most downloaded medical podcast in the world.

Sawbones provides examples of the following tropes:

  • A Day in the Limelight: Pliny the Elder, the recurring "character", is usually mentioned entirely because he wrote about everything (and was wrong about most of it), and so is brought up mainly for his views on the episode's topic to get dunked on by Sydnee and Justin. However, he got an entire episode, 140, about him; it was in New York and ended with a short song in his honor.
  • A Rare Sentence: Many, exaggerating the faulty logic of pre-modern medicine. From spontaneous human combustion (episode 54):
    "This woman was poisoned by firebread!"
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Sydnee generally sounds vaguely amused at Justin's jokes, or occasionally giggles, or sighs in exasperation. However, from episode 138, "Kombucha".
    Sydnee: There was a physician named 'Kombu' can see where this is headed...
    Justin: They were like, "Did you make this tea?" And he was like "Cha!"
    Sydnee: (laughs) That was good. I like that one.
    • After a bit of dry wit in episode 102, "Birds" (a live show), which largely consisted of him co-opting her “peach of a fungus” joke, Sydnee tells Justin:
      Sydnee: That's my favorite joke you've ever told.
    • Subverted, of all things, in episode 221, "Ambulances". Talking about doctors making house calls, Justin implies she doesn't do it anymore...and she bursts out laughing, which seems an odd overreaction to what appears to have been, at most, a joke about how doctors don't do house calls anymore. Then there's a music sting, and Justin explains that newborn Cooper pooped the moment he'd asked the question.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: From episode 223, "Bee Therapy": Doctor Bodog F Beck.
  • Berserk Button: In general, any medical quackery that has since fallen out of favor gets amusement from Sydnee and Justin. If it's still in use in some circles and it's for something serious, however, they can get...intense. (Justin, who usually hasn't researched the topic, often has a sharper reaction as it's a surprise to him.)
    • Justin in particular tends to have an incredibly strong reaction to autism "cures."
  • Brand X: Cigarette brand cigarettes.
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  • Captain Obvious: Even when Sydnee doesn't ask him a rhetorical question, for comedic effect Justin usually goes with this. From episode 245, "Anatomical Illustration":
    Sydnee: Which one is BBC Four?
    Justin: Well, it's not BBC One...
  • Catchphrase: As they often have to note when dealing with remedies old and new:
    Justin and Sydnee: Cure-alls cure nothing.
    • When something particularly intense is discussed, Justin will frequently exclaim "Hachi machi!"
  • Cliffhanger: At first, Sydnee would take Justin to the billing department (i.e do the ad section of the show) in the middle of a story, and he would be annoyed or frustrated. Eventually, even though she kept making it a cliffhanger of sorts, he instead replied with an enthusiastic "Let's go!"—but sometimes, in particularly intense, suspenseful, or weird episodes, the old irritation at having to wait for a resolution flares up (such as in Ghostwatch, episode 159).
  • Courtroom Episode: Played with in episode 121, "The People vs. The Spleen". Justin, having asserted the spleen is completely unnecessary (to Sydnee's protest) in the previous episode, puts the spleen on trial, with Sydnee as the defense. Much of Sydnee's defense consists of noting that for much of human history medical practitioners had no idea what it did, which Justin noted did not help her case. However, with the final revelations, he ends up declaring a mistrial.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: "Sunburns", episode 93, has Sydnee discussing how ancient Greek Olympic athletes tried to protect themselves against the sun—by oiling themselves up. She understandably gets stuck on the thought of a lot of athletic men covered in oil glistening in the sun.
    • In ep 106, "Aah, Real Monsters!", about diseases that might have lead to the rise of Halloween-related myths (zombies, werewolves, vampires), Sydnee and her sister Rileigh (subbing in for Justin again) discuss Edward vs. Jacob. (Sydnee is very much Team Jacob, to the point that Rileigh has to drag her back on topic.)
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Episode 77, on chocolate, points out that at one point, religious groups thought that chocolate was sinful, and believed that if you were using it without a doctor telling you to (chocolate having been used as medicine at points in the past), you were giving in to temptation. Both Sydnee and Justin liken this to medical marijuana.
  • The Everyman: When not being deliberately stupid (see Idiot Ball), Justin is the stand-in for an uninformed but curious audience, so that Sydnee isn't just talking into a microphone for 30-40 minutes.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Justin's thrilling novel about jail, "Jail Book."
  • Eye Scream: The episode on cataracts, especially when Sydnee explains in detail how cataracts were historically removed.
  • Framing Device: Almost every episode starts with a staged conversation that pretends to concern a mundane topic before it segues to the episode's actual subject. Some do this more gracefully than others.
  • "Freaky Friday" Flip: The Framing Device for the "The Teen Girl" episode. Justin was off covering E3, Sydnee's sister Rileigh filled in as co-host. The "story" of the episode was that Justin and Rileigh had switched bodies, Rileigh-in-Justin's-body was living it up at E3, while Justin-in-Rileigh's-body asking about teen girl stuff, because he's new to this whole "being a teen girl" thing. For her part, Rileigh channeled dummo layman Justin very well.
  • Guest Star: Laura Kate Dale turns up for episode 192, "An Incomplete History of Gender Confirmation", to lend her perspective on the topic.
  • Idiot Ball: Aside from some historical medical figures, Justin is usually holding the idiot ball for comedic effect. (However, see O.O.C. Is Serious Business)
  • Insane Troll Logic: Noted in episode 183, "Fluoride". Conspiracy theorists' list of things caused by fluoridating water include lead poisoning and tooth decay.
    • Subverted in episode 225, "The Ghastly Gauntlet". At first it seems such when Sydnee decides that correctly answering the question "do vaccines work?" is worth 100 points, on a quiz where most questions are worth 3 points, and the quiz in total is about 150 points—meaning you could be otherwise perfect and still get a failing grade if you said no. But then she points out, if you can't get that one correctly, you really shouldn't get a passing grade, and all the rest is relatively obscure medical trivia.
  • Insult of Endearment: When Sydnee teases, plays dumb with, or otherwise gently antagonizes Justin, he'll often respond by calling her "Smirl" (her maiden name) in an exasperated tone.
  • Mythology Gag: In episode on the tetralogy of Fallot, when the procedure was developed the doctors who pioneered it brought a child afflicted with the heart defect (which normally results in, among other things, fatigue and weakness) who had undergone the corrective surgery came on stage, healthy and energetic and happy. In episode 255, a live show, they did the same thing, with a child who really had had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (the subject of the episode) but had been cured, and who came out on stage in much the same happy and energetic way. It was Griffin.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: From episode 252, "Jilly Juice". Jillian Mai Thi Epperly is an antivaxxer and a naturopath and a snake oil salesman and a homophobe, among other things.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Justin will occasionally say something to the effect of "I'm going to stop being a doofus for a minute" when he wants to give actual information, such as during the C-sections episode, where he and Sydnee got serious near the end of the episode to talk about patient choice vs. convenience and efficiency for doctors where non-medically-necessary C-sections are concerned. (Given this happened in the last couple of weeks before Sydnee gave birth it was obviously a subject that was on their mind even beyond the choice of episode.)
    • Similarly, rather than mocking the history of vaccines, Sydnee noted that inoculation and vaccination were always good ideas, it just took a while to get the knowledge to act on them. The subject was so important to them, aside from Sydnee's occupation, because as about-to-be new parents, they were worried that it was (at the time) 2014 and there were still measles outbreaks at schools.
      • Taking off from that, they try not to be too judgmental about old medical practices, given how they mostly cover people trying to figure out medicine without modern medical equipment, but they feel very strongly on the subject of vaccines and the anti-vaccination movement. So much so that Sydnee, after the measles outbreak at Disneyland, decided to sneak in another episode about vaccination, wrapped in an episode about measles, wherein they made no bones about how there are not two sides to the issue. This turns up periodically in later episodes, such as chicken pox; whenever the topic comes up, they reiterate: there is one side, and it is "vaccines are great".
  • Panacea: Deconstructed: the duo note that when a substance is used for a wide variety of maladies, this is usually a sign that it has no curative properties at all, summed up in the Catchphrase, "cure-alls cure nothing".
  • Recurring Character: Pliny the Elder pops up in a lot of episodes, usually to be wrong. Though as Sydnee notes in later episodes, as the show has worn on he's almost become a family friend.
  • The Roast: In the rare circumstance when Sydnee, and not Justin, is the one who (unintentionally) says something silly, ignorant, or obtuse, a delighted Justin will pounce. With extra delight for live shows.
    Sydnee: It was the, like, Encarta, of their time?
    Justin: Hold. On. The. Phone. Encarta?
  • Rule of Cool: From episode 223, "Bee Therapy": Justin loves the idea of nanobees so much he's surprised that they're real and actually do what they're supposed to.
  • Running Gag: Several.
    • During the wrap-up, as Justin plugs other Maximum Fun podcasts and does other credits for the show, he usually "forgets" My Brother, My Brother and Me, allowing Sydnee to chime in with it, which he thanks her for. When Sydnee and Rileigh started their own podcast, Still Buffering, he sometimes did the same for her.
    • In episode 31 (Pregnancy Tests), Justin invented a character complimenting someone on their cooking, and asking what their secret was (the "secret" having just been revealed to the audience as the food in question having been used in some sort of pre-modern pregnancy test).
    • In episode 122 (Zika Virus), they try to avoid making too many jokes, as it's about a current event, rather than history. However, Justin does decide to make one joke—repeatedly. As they talk about the role of mosquitoes in disease spreading, he often says how the topic "bugs" him.
    • Starting in 156 (Hemorrhoids), Sydnee will occasionally use the word "exquisite" to describe pain. Justin teases her by talking like a Cenobite in response. (A listener might think she means excruciating; however, exquisite actually is used by medical professionals to describe certain types of pain.)
    • Justin notes how, in live shows, Sydnee gets a lot more positive reception during the introductions at the start.
    • The fecal-oral route, "Sydnee's favorite route".
  • Signing Off Catchphrase: From episode 1, fittingly enough about trepanation, they settle on the show's sign-off:
    Justin: Don't drill a hole in your head.
  • Something Completely Different: Episode 55, rather than being the history of some disease or medical technique, instead has Sydnee and Justin telling the long and somewhat scary (but ultimately happy) story of the birth of Charlie, their first child and elder daughter. It's also significantly longer; most episodes of Sawbones are 30-40 minutes, but "Our Birth Story" is almost an hour. They did it again for Cooper, their second (and presumably last, given that Justin got a vasectomy soon after) child and daughter, with "Our Second Birth Story", less intense but perhaps funnier, for episode 220, mostly to avoid Cooper being envious when she was older. Finally in 233, they tell "Our Mental Health Stories", as a way of demystifying and destigmatizing talking about it (though, as ever, they note they can't give medical advice and if a listener wants real help for such issues they should contact someone who can).
    • Episode 257, "A Medicine Called Christmas", is a live reading of a parody "Hallmark"-style Christmas movie for the annual Candlenights special, a story about a big-city Christmas-careless doctor named Tabitha Bigcity who does a doctor exchange with a small town called Poinsettia Point, where they do things a little bit different...
  • Spoof Aesop: The moral Justin takes from episode 125, "The King of Quacks", is that the man in question contributed to research in the Mojave Desert (because his properties and buildings there were seized by the federal government when they finally caught up with him and ended up being used by a desert research foundation to this day). Sydnee is...less than impressed.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: In episode 197, "Opiod Addiction", Justin is aghast at how the cure for opioid addiction in the past was usually other narcotic substances. e.g., Opium was treated with morphine, which was treated with cocaine, which was treated with heroin...
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: After a whole episode of mocking Pliny the Elder's consistent wrongness about all things medical, the hosts do this in their closing song.
    But he helped to pave the way, and died a hero in Pompeii
    There are much worse things than to be wrong.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Justin reveals in the episode on the Dancing Plague (episode 76) that he has exactly one European accent. It gets about this reaction from Sydnee.

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