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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

play one on TV

(1990’s | advertese | “know something about it,” “fake it”)

The “one” in this fixed phrase refers most often to doctors or lawyers, although it has any number of possible antecedents. It is used mainly as a disclaimer by ordinary people, normally in the negative, as in “I’m not a _______ and I don’t play one on TV.” That sentence signals that I lack genuine expertise, however well-informed I might be in general. Sometimes it is used to accuse another person of faking or pretending; in this sense the speaker appeals to the deception inherent in acting, taking a puritanical view. An early example comes from comedian David Steinberg, who described Ronald Reagan as not a president but someone who played a president on television. And sometimes the expression is used, specifically by actors, to claim authority to talk about the topic at hand. In this sense, it emphasizes the preparation and commitment required to play a dramatic role convincingly. The idea follows, in a backhanded way, from the disclaimer cited above; if not even being able to impersonate an M.D. is yet more proof that you are not an expert, then impersonating an M.D. ought to confer some expertise, however evanescent it is in practice. Less often, the phrase is used to describe someone who really looks the part, when used with “could” (a successor of the old expression, “sent from central casting”). The phrase is used quite literally a surprising percentage of the time, of or by television actors, but it has a strong ironic tradition as well. The hipness that came so naturally in its early days has persisted.

LexisNexis and Google Books (and TV Tropes) agree that “play one on TV” didn’t exist before 1984, when a commercial pitched Vicks Adult Formula cough syrup with actor Chris Robinson (Dr. Rick Webber on General Hospital) narrating. A couple of years later, he was replaced by Peter Bergman (Dr. Cliff Warner on All My Children) — the Bergman version can be found here. The noteworthy point about the commercial is that it made explicit use of the premise that you should not trust an actor playing a doctor for medical advice. Like many ad agency products, this one packs a lot of aporia into thirty seconds, so I will take the liberty of summarizing it. The narrator notes that if your child were coughing, you would go to the doctor and get the best medicine, but when the harried mother has a cough, she rummages through the medicine cabinet (“playing doctor at home,” putting your unqualified self in place of the doctor, just like the narrator, get it? and with a bonus reference to titillating children’s games) and grabs the kids’ cough suppressant rather than one specially formulated for harried mothers. It’s a dizzying ride: first the actor suggests that you shouldn’t take his word for it — he just plays a doctor on a soap opera, after all — and that taking the wrong cough medicine is as dumb as listening to an actor spout medical advice. But by the end of the commercial, by gum he’s given you medical advice: you are supposed to rush out and buy Vicks Adult Formula. Don’t listen to me; do listen to me. The disclaimer carefully planted at the beginning softens up your defenses and primes you to trust the fake doctor at the end.

When critics in the eighties talked about this commercial, they tended to miss most of the ambiguities but did latch on to the idea that it takes a lot of chutzpah to trot some guy out there who doesn’t know anything about medicine to tell you which cough syrup to buy. That reaction still erupts when an actor claims special competence derived solely from playing a certain role. We are smart enough to know that we shouldn’t trust advertisers, but most of us are not smart enough to figure out all the different ways we are being manipulated, and sooner or later we succumb.

One oddity courtesy of LexisNexis: This phrase comes up in the search results almost exclusively in U.S. publications, very rarely in Australian, Canadian, or British sources. Such a pattern is very unusual in the kind of expressions I look into. Most new expressions circle the globe quickly and turn up in English-speaking sources in Asia, Europe, and North America, but not this one. I’m not sure why that should be, and it may change over time. It may suggest no more than the truism that American culture is steeped and pickled in television to a degree not seen elsewhere, or it may just have to do with our standards of truth in advertising.

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