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Rochester as seen through seven decades of popular culture

Rochester as seen through seven decades of popular culture

David Letterman described it as a medical Vegas. Richard Pryor said it was like visiting the “f—ing North Pole.” And as an adolescent, John F. Kennedy reportedly referred to it as the “goddamnest hole I’ve ever seen.”

The place, of course, I am referring to is none other than the Miracle in the Cornfield; the places where presidents and kings come for care; where ‘the needs of the patient come first’; the Med City; Rochester, Minnesota.

From the turn of the 21st Century, the outside has been trying to understand what goes on here. What’s the ‘secret sauce,’ they wonder, that makes this otherwise ordinary Midwest town anything but?

If you ask acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, he will tell you it’s Faith, Hope, Science. For the writers of The Simpsons, it’s actual sauce — or at least a condiment — that holds the town together.

Below we have compiled 10 of our favorite pop culture references to Rochester and/or its largest employer. And because this is just for fun, we have included everything from film to music to late-night television.

The Simpsons

Writers of The Simpsons have certainly had some fun over the years spoofing Rochester’s famed hospital. In this first clip, Homer imagines a Mayo Clinic in which Miracle Whip is the real hero. “I’ll save him like I’ve saved a million lunches,” says the ‘mayo’ surgeon, before popping his cap open, reaching in with a knife, and applying the sandwich-saving dressing.

In a separate episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns travels to the Mayo Clinic for a checkup. The doctor tells Mr. Burns he has “everything,” including “several diseases that have just been discovered” in his body.

Grey’s Anatomy

Fans of Grey’s Anatomy can probably remember character Cristina Yang’s short stint at ‘The Clinic.’ The long-running medical drama featured scenes from a fictionalized Rochester in season nine. As it went, Cristina struggled to fit in here, and ultimately returned to Seattle, where the show is primarily set. And it was no wonder why. In one scene, a male physician man-splains to Cristina how the hospital operates: “… the fact is we work as a team here. Nobody here is a superstar. Our hospital is the superstar; and our patients, they’re superstars. We pride ourselves on that. No ego. No proprietary attitudes. No competition.” One can only assume the Mayo PR machine was glad to see the script move on from that plot line.

Late Show with David Letterman

Count David Letterman among the disciples of Mayo’s approach to medicine. The legendary comedian and late-night host once stumbled across a clip from the local paper during a sketch on the Late Show. His first reaction: “Ohhhh, I have been to Rochester.” Letterman, a Mayo patient, went on to compare the Med City to the Sin City. “You drive down the main street of Rochester, it's like Las Vegas ... one giant hotel after another," Letterman said. “There must be two dozen giant hotels in Rochester… It's like an outpatient deal... all they need is casino gambling."


“Alright, give me Hamm on 5, hold the Mayo.” In 1980, the film Airplane! pulled Mayo Clinic into the world of slapstick comedy. In this scene, Captain Clarence receives a call from a physician regarding a patient on the plane headed to Mayo Clinic for an organ transplant. The live heart for the transplant can be seen bouncing on the doctor’s desk. 

Some Like it Hot

If the Mayo Brothers were alive during the 1959 release of Some Like it Hot, you can imagine they would have been flattered to hear Marilyn Monroe softly say their name on the big screen. The first mention of the Mayo Brothers begins at about 3:36. The mention from Monroe comes later.

Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor is among the greats of stand-up comedy — so much so that he was able to find humor even in his experience visiting Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Following the diagnosis, Pryor continued to do what he did best — make people laugh. During a routine in California in 1992, the LA Times quoted Pryor saying this of a recent trip to Rochester: “You know this sh— is bad when you gotta go to the f—ing North Pole to find out what’s wrong with you.”

The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Let’s shift gears here and turn to a recent example of hometown pride. In April 2018, Mayo orthopedic surgery residents Elvis Francois and William Robinson appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show. It was the pair’s viral rendition of the song “Alright” — which they performed in their scrubs — that landed them a slot on the Emmy-winning television program.

Ken Burns film

Though it has already gotten significant attention of late, I would be remiss not to include on this list the recent Ken Burns documentary, Mayo Clinic: Faith-Hope-Science. The two-hour film tells the story of how an unlikely partnership between the Sisters of Saint Francis and W.W. Mayo laid the foundation for what would become one of the world's greatest medical organizations. In other words, it’s a better telling of the story we have all heard before — now streaming around the world on Netflix.


There has been a well-intentioned effort in recent years to change Rochester’s outdated flag design. Those efforts have not been lost on me, though I think we should take it one step further and designate an official city song. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “I.B.S.” from Cam’ron:

Had to go low, The Mayo Clinic, Minnesota
I couldn't get cake, a rock in a hard place
For me, that's a odd place, I'm only here by God's grace
Like a lab rat, them tests dishonor Cam
Ultrasound, MIR, CAT scan, sonogram
Laranoscopy, endoscopy, I be stressed (I be stressed)
The prognosis, diagnosed, IBS

‘Oh, that’s the robber’

In December 2015, reporter Adam Sallet was on the scene of a bank robbery in northwest Rochester, when during a live broadcast, the robber returned to the bank for a second attempt. The suspect was soon arrested, and within 24 hours, Sallet’s "Oh, that's the robber!" live spot became a viral hit. Numerous news outlets, from BuzzFeed to BBC, ran stories on the incident; late-night host Jimmy Kimmel made it the second part of his opening monologue; and Fox and Friends interviewed him on national TV.

Do you have a favorite pop culture reference we did not include on our list? Head over to our Facebook page and share it with us in the comment thread.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

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