The Greatest Show on Earth?

When I was very young (maybe 6 – 8) my family went through a phase during which we went to the circus every year. There are a lot of traveling circuses, but by far the biggest and probably most impressive is Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey. They began each multi-hour performance with music and loud speakers blaring an announcer’s voice,

Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! Children of All Ages! Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!!!!

This was the circus we visited every year.

Much later I realized that the ‘Barnum’ in the circus’s name was for P.T. Barnum. Perhaps the most well known showman, promoter, and maybe conman in American history. Barnum was good at making money by creating a scene and getting publicity. He might have been one of the first to put the principle ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ to work making money.

When he bought a beloved elephant from the London Zoo P.T. Barnum made people in England angry. It was big news. Barnum didn’t care that people in London printed bad things about him. He knew that all the hype (good or bad) would make people want to see the elephant. After the elephant died he gave it t the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, which was more publicity for Barnum.

And there is the story of the Cardiff Giant, in which P.T. Barnum plays a small but important part. [Warning: The story of the Cardiff Giant contains one instance of crude language; Skip this if you think it might offend you]

I want you to read the intro to his Wikipedia entry to get an idea what kind of a person he was. Also you can (if you want) read the chapter on him in History of US: Book 7.


I most often think about Barnum today when people talk about reality TV shows and extreme game shows. We get entertainment out of spectacles. Like Barnum many TV producers have found a way to get us to pay for/watch shows just to see how strange/shocking the outcome is. Tempting as it is to think that we’re more sophisticated than people back in Barnum’s day, the truth is that we’ll still stare at someone who yells really loud and puts on a show. It doesn’t really matter what the show is.


  • You’re only assignment in connection with this is to find a TV show or live performance that you think represents the kind of money making, sort-of dishonest, showmanship that Barnum would have practiced.
  • Find a clip or a webpage and email me the link along with your ~1 page typed explanation of how the show you picked fits the requirement and what your opinion of the show is.
  • This assignment is due by Tuesday, April 14

You must email this assignment to me at  

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