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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, 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 dwindled away, finally passing away in 1951 with the end of the Hadacol Caravan in scandal.
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.
- One issue of The Muppet Show Comic Book has the Muppets doing a travelling show, complete with Rowlf's "Dr Bob" character as a Snake Oil Salesman, hawking a "Medicinal Compound" that comes from cats.
- 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, 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Referenced in "Your Song" by Elton John. "If I was a sculptor, but then again, no / Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show"
- Featured in the music video for "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson.
- Referenced in the Big Audio Dynamite single "Medicine Show".
- 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 obscure semi-musical play Say, Darling.
- 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.
- And 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.
- 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.
- One episode of 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 elixir makes plants grow like crazy - he makes his fortune selling it as fertilizer.