October 13, 2005

Playing One 2

My e-mailbox overflows with offers of information about the origin of the Play One snowclone.  What seems pretty clear now is that the model was "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."  But then we have to distinguish who first said this publicly and whose use of it caused the quote to take off as a popular formula.  As historical linguists put it, we have to distinguish between actuation -- first uses -- and spread.  And then we have to confront the fact that some of the information on the net is, surprise surprise, not entirely accurate.

I have heard so far from, in order, Ben Zimmer (three times), Don Porges, Rob Malouf, Benita Bendon Campbell, Sean Williford, Carrie Shanafelt, Ken Callicott (three times), Mike Albaugh, Cody Boisclair, and Jim Toth.  I've been offered accounts from the everything2 site, the IMDB, and the Wikipedia.  All these sources say that the line was first uttered, in a 1980s commercial for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup, by the actor Peter Bergman, who played Dr. Cliff Warner on the soap opera "All My Children" (and then moved in 1989 to the non-medical role of Jack Abbott in "The Young and the Restless").

There is no question that Bergman did utter the line in that commercial, but as Zimmer discovered, he was not the first actor to utter it in that commercial.  That, it turns out, was Chris Robinson (in 1985), who played Dr. Rick Webber on "General Hospital".  When Robinson was convicted on income tax evasion, he was replaced by Bergman (in 1986).

In any case, the Formula 44 commercial -- a clever device to defuse the criticism that viewers might take its advice to be coming from a real M.D. -- seems to have been what triggered the spread of the catchphrase, which was then riffed on in various ways ("parodied in many pop culture references", as the Wikipedia article on notable events of 1986 puts it).  But was this the first use?

The Wikipedia article says no.  It tells us that the phrase was "first used in the early 1970s by Robert Young of 'Marcus Welby, M.D.' fame".  This is entirely plausible, but the article provides no citation to back up the claim.

Two of my correspondents remembered (but without much assurance) the TV commercial as being for a pain reliever rather than a cough syrup, an idea echoed by philosopher Michael Connelly in his webpage on informal fallacies, where under "Appeal to Authority", he refers to

the commercial for a 'popular' pain reliever which is endorsed by an actor who is "not a doctor, but I play one on TV"

Another correspondent recalls the commercial as being from the early 60s rather than the 80s, but I've found no evidence for this.  Memory is a tricky thing.

Finally, Shanafelt locates the commercial in the 80s, but recollects, in some detail, a "dentist" rather than "doctor" version of it:

Isn't this snowclone derived from that terrible Oral-B commercial in the 80's? The original script had a guy in his bathroom, facing the camera, saying, "I'm not a dentist, but I play one on TV." He then went on to explain his preference for Oral-B toothbrushes. The oddest thing was that I didn't remember the actor ever having played a dentist on television, or there even being a television character who was a dentist. I never even figured out what the guy's point was about playing a dentist and knowing anything about toothbrushes.

This specific a recollection is hard to dismiss out of hand.  And Connelly seconds Shanafelt's report, in a passage that maddeningly assumes that his readers know what he's talking about:

the Oral-B toothbrush ad- the fellow in the towel may well be a dentist- but who knows if most dentists believe the claim?

I haven't been able to google up any other references to such an Oral-B commercial.  It seems to lack the fame of the Vicks Formula 44 commercial.  Maybe it was a second-generation take-off on the cough syrup ad, in which case it wouldn't have been necessary for the actor to be someone who played a dentist on TV.

There is, however, at least one significant television character who was a dentist: Jerry Robinson (played by Peter Bonerz) on "The Bob Newhart Show".  But I can't find any evidence that Bonerz appeared in an Oral-B commercial, or indeed in a commercial for dental products of any sort.

[Updates: Don Porges points out Jerry Robinson's predecessor in situation-comedy dentistry, Rob Petrie's neighbor Jerry on the "Dick Van Dyke Show".

And...  Rob Malouf notes a website that describes the "Rob the Dentist" Oral-B commercial from the 80s: "The ad featured a man in his towel with his back to the camera and a John Laws voice over with the memorable tagline 'The toothbrush most dentists use'."  The campaign was launched in 1982 and lasted for nearly ten years.

So my current guess is that Shanafelt blended two 80s commercials, the Vicks ad (actor facing camera and disavowing being a doctor) and the Oral-B ad (actor with back to camera and presented as a dentist).]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 13, 2005 02:35 PM