Sometimes, it would be really great to get a doctor or other medical authority to say something nice about your product and or service on TV. However, for some reason — FDA approval, budget, truth-in-advertising laws prohibiting advertisers from passing non-doctors off as doctors, etc. — it will not be possible to actually get a real doctor to do this.
The solution: dress an actor up in a white lab coat, and give them a stethoscope. Even if he is a dentist. If possible, put them in a set that looks like a waiting room, pharmacy, or hospital. As long as you don't say they're really a doctor, you aren't going to get in trouble, and you still get the subliminal boost in believability that comes from associating the trappings of real medicine with your product.
Trope named for a commercial from the 1980s in which Chris Robinson, who played a physician on General Hospital, opened his pitch for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup with this very line, which became a pre-Internet Memetic Mutation. (How does playing a doctor on TV give someone any authority to prescribe actual medicine?)
- Subverted in a Jack in the Box commercial where a guy in a lab coat rattles off a bunch of preposterous health claims about cheesy fries on a TV screen being watched by the Jack character and a suit. When Jack asks the suit where he found this guy, the suit replies, "Tobacco company."
- Someone at the Old Spice marketing department looked at this page and went "Hey, I think I have an idea..."
- Dr Pepper ran an advertising campaign where they were endorsed by Julius Irving, Neil Patrick Harris, and Gene Simmons... also known as Dr. J, Dr. Doogie Howser, and Dr. Feelgood (nickname from playing basketball, TV role, and hit song, respectively). They exhorted you to trust them, because they were "real fake doctors".
- Retired American football player Michael Strahan has been doing "Trust me, I've sent people to the doctor".
- Many Male Enhancement ads combine this with Hot Scientist. According to her, 66% of men can't satisfy! Wait but she's not a doct- hey boobs.
- From July to August 2009, Australian television has ads for some functional food. At first, a female doctor is introduced, saying that as a doctor, a healthy diet is important to her - then the camera in one fluent motion moves to a second, similar woman (although with different hair color) who will continue where the other woman left off in mid-sentence and happily endorse a specific product. Probably because a doctor may not be allowed to endorse a product directly on tv.
- Played with in a Venezuelan commercial for a headache/flu medication, where two animated mosquitoes say that the medicine in question can't work in dengue patients and the two models dressed as doctors are not of trust because they "only play as doctors on TV". Cue the "doctors" saying that the medicament indeed works even on that disease, and the narrator saying "Even TV doctors know it; [Brand Name], your best choice to relief even in suspected dengue".
- One commercial for Trivial Pursuit had the game being played by a series of celebrities, including DeForest Kelley, the actor who played Dr. McCoy on Star Trek: The Original Series. When asked a medical question by one of the other players, he answers, "How should I know? I'm An Actor, Not A Doctor!"
- Bizarrely, Daniel Tosh from Tosh.0 has appeared in sports commercials wearing an atrocious wig and calling himself a professor. It's like they wanted him to help get them attention, but they also didn't want people to know that it's him.
- Alec Baldwin in a Capital One Venture Card commercial assures (an actor playing) a pilot, "Don't worry, I've played a pilot before," when attempting to take over the controls.
- A UK commercial for the supermarket Aldi (part of a series in which someone explains that a brand name product and an Aldi product are just as good, then gives an amusing punchline) has a man in a white coat saying that Aldi washing powder is just as effective in cleaning his coat and that people assume a man in a white coat is a doctor.
Patient: You're not my doctor!Man: I'm not anyone's doctor!
- Health services organization Cigna and its "TV Doctors of America" campaign. Actors from established medical shows — Alan Alda (Hawkeye from M*A*S*H), Lisa Edelstein (Cuddy from House), Donald Faison (Turk from Scrubs), Patrick Dempsey (Derek from Grey's Anatomy) and Noah Wyle (Carter from ER); later commercials added Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) and Kate Walsh (Grey's and Private Practice) — tell the audience that they actually have no idea what they're doing medicine-wise, and that they should see real healthcare providers.
- Played with in a commercial for an early electronic keyboard called the Optigan. Actor Carl Betz, known for his roles on The Donna Reed Show and Judd For The Defense, opens by saying "I've played a doctor and a lawyer, but never a musical instrument... until the Optigan." In this case it's specifically his lack of expertise being used as a selling point (and a groanworthy pun).
- Parodied on Pokémon - Ash is disguised as a Mr. Mime for a circus act and gets kidnapped by Team Rocket who aren't aware of this. Upon revealing his disguise to them, Ash says "I'm not a Mr. Mime, I just play one on TV."
- This being Pokémon, this could easily be a complete coincidence.
- Dr. Wattage from Wildguard is not a doctor, but the name sounds cool.
- In the 1990s Superboy series, Kon reacted to a couple of medical emergencies with "I'm not a doctor! I don't even play one on TV!"
- Subverted in advertising for the DC Comics Edutainment book Flash Facts, which has Mayim Bialik explaining "Not only did I get to play a neuroscientist on The Big Bang Theory, but I am one in real life too."
- Used as a plot point in the David Fincher movie The Game (1997): Michael Douglas' character sees the CRS representative that signed him up for The Game in a drug commercial and realizes he's an actor. He then makes a series of phone calls pretending to be a guy interested in hiring him so he can get his whereabouts.
- One of the cut-away commercials in RoboCop (1987) parodies this type of advertisement with an advert for an artificial heart.
- In Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!, Pandora — who is a stripper who dresses in a Naughty Nurse Outfit — is bandaging the arm of a man who has been bitten by a zombie. He asks her if she even knows what she is doing and she replies:
"Of course. I own a nurse's outfit."
- Parodied in the episode "Fallen" of Stargate SG-1, when Teal'c said that he wasn't the First Prime of Apophis as he was introduced to the nomads.
Khordib: He is Jaffa.
O'Neill: No. But he plays one on TV.
- Quantum Leap: Sam Beckett leaps into a TV-Doctor who gets kidnapped by an insane fan who believes him to be the character he plays on TV. He forces her to admit he is not a real doctor by having her husband fake a heart attack while he acts like he is about to perform Open Heart Dentistry on him. (Interestingly, Sam actually was a doctor himself, and presumably could have performed the procedure if necessary.)
- Johnny's new gimmick, once WKRP in Cincinnati changed to a rock and roll music format, is this.
- In Community episode "Epidemiology" the study group starts to seek help on the plague from a young man dressed up as a doctor before asking the doctor dressed up as a banana.
- An episode of The Puzzle Place in which the characters spend all day watching TV featured a commercial for the "Global Express" credit card in which one of the show's own puppeteers cameos As Himself. He opens with "Hi. I'm not a puppet, but I play one on TV." The fact that all of the characters on this show are puppets, and everything they've been watching stars live-action humans, makes this either particularly surreal or brilliant.
- In the early Seinfeld episode "The Heart Attack", Jerry's stance toward "alternative medicine" is made clear when he thinks "you're not a doctor, but you play one in real life".
- The sitcom The Grinder is based on this trope. An actor who played a lawyer on a long-running TV series decides to take up the practice in real life, without ever having gone to law school, much to the chagrin of his brother, an actual lawyer, whose case he hijacks in the process.
- In one episode of Friends Joey is on a date with a Loony Fan who thinks he actually is his character on Days of Our Lives when someone at the restaurant starts choking, they ask for a doctor and she announces him much to his fear and embarrassment.
- Lampshaded a couple of times on Supernatural
- In "The French Mistake", Sam and Dean are thrown into our universe. On discovering he's an actor called Jensen Ackles, Dean quips, "Well he's not a Hunter, but he plays one on TV."
- In "Reading is Fundamental", Meg is posing as a nurse so she can take care of Castiel. She calls the Winchesters to inform them that Cas has woken from his coma but is acting strangely. When Sam wants a more detailed diagnosis, she responds with this trope.
- Spoken almost verbatim in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode "Ill Will" by Dr. Steve Hardy, one of three famous doctor charactersnote who Will is visited by in a nightmare sequence while in the hospital for an impending tonsillectomy.
Will: You're not a doctor!
Dr. Hardy: No, but I play one on TV.
- An odd variation on All My Children, when Isabella Santos is displeased to find her son-in-law Edmund chatting with a pretty waitress. When Edmund introduces the two, Isabella rather snootily declares "You're a waitress", clearly insinuating that she doesn't measure up to her daughter/Edmund's wife, who ironically, is a doctor. Realizing what she's trying to do, the woman snaps, "No, But I Play One on TV."
- Gilligan's Island: Ginger is a famous actress who once played a psychiatrist in a movie. More than one episode has had her step into character and try to psychoanalyze someone.
- Schitt's Creek: When Johnny ends up in the emergency room with chest pains, Moira assures that ER doctor that she will understand his medical diagnosis because she once played a nurse on M*A*S*H.
- A Kermit the Frog-themed parody of Five For Fighting's "Superman" that opens with the verse: "I can't stand to swim / Swamp soaks right through me / I'm not amphibian / I just play one on TV."
- Zork: Grand Inquisitor
Antharia Jack: "Oh, for the love of...Look, I'm not a real adventurer, I just play one on TV!"
- The SpongeBob Movie Game
- In the story mode of Mortal Kombat 9, this is Johnny Cage's reaction when Raiden and Liu Kang try to warn him that Shang Tsung's tournament is Not Just a Tournament, but part of Shao Kahn's plan to conquer Earth;
Johnny: Look guys, I'm an actor. I save the world for the cameras. If this emperor is really a threat, call the military.
- The Amazing Super Powers strip depicting a flight stewardess asking if there were any doctors onboard as the pilot had just had a heart attack. A man says "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV". The air stewardess replies "good enough". The last panel is a cover of a TV magazine mourning the tragic death of the star of the comedy series "Dr Oops".
- Parodied in the Duckman episode "A Civil War".
Man: I'm not an actor, but I play one on TV.
- The Stinger to the Sheep in the Big City episode "My, How Ewe Have Changed" has a man state that he isn't an accountant, but he plays one on TV. We then see him pretending to be an accountant while playing atop a television set.
- In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Truth or Square", Mr. Krabs appears in an old Krusty Krab ad dressed as a doctor endorsing Krabby Patties as healthy. He introduces himself by saying "I'm a doctor, as far as you know..."
- From "All That Glitters"
Doctor: I'm not a doctor, I'm an actor researching for a role.
- From "All That Glitters"
- George Clooney at one point in Celebrity Deathmatch runs into an operating room to assist in an operation. When one of the staff explains he's not a doctor, Clooney reminds them he plays one on TV; he's allowed to continue providing assistance.
- In The Hair Bear Bunch debut episode "Keep Your Keeper," Hair Bear dresses up as a doctor as a means to fool zookeeper Peevly that he has an ailment that affects only zookeepers and that he should take a six-month vacation.
- David McCallum (Ducky in NCIS) isn't a doctor, but has spoken at forensic conventions. He does the research.
- Same goes for Randolph Mantooth, who played firefighter/paramedic Johnny Gage on NBC's Emergency! from 1972-79. Furthermore, he was trained in the profession for verisimilitude up to the point where he could have taken the professional certification exam if he wanted to. He still speaks at firefighting and EMS conferences promoting safety in the fire service.
- David Tennant has and wears a T-shirt that says "Trust me, I'm a Doctor", given to him by Billie Piper herself.
- Royal Pains:
- The third season has lead actor Mark Feuerstein begin a heart disease PSA with "I'm not a doctor, but I—" before co-star Reshma Shetty cuts him off with "You're not really going to say it, are you?". He settles for "Take it from a guy who plays a guy who knows what he's talking about."
- Reshma Shetty was out shopping when someone nearby collapsed. She immediately went into "work mode" and started telling people to call 911, helping the guy out, getting his history, etc.. She was able to give a very good medical history to the EMTs who arrived and had to explain to everyone she wasn't a doctor but played a physician's assistant on TV.
- Similarly, when an extra collapsed from heatstroke while filming a scene on ER, actor Noah Wyle rapidly inserted an IV so that she could receive fluids, having clearly learned to do so after years of playing a physician.
- A more serious example shortly after the show began filming. The cast was having lunch at a restaurant, still in their "doctor" outfits, when a child began choking. Everyone promptly looked at all of them, expecting them to help, having clearly mistaken them for real physicians, given their clothing (the show hadn't even aired yet, so no one could recognize them as actors). Luckily, someone else helped the kid, who was fine.
- Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff once came to the aid of a woman injured in a car accident, keeping her airway open until the EMTs arrived. When they asked him if was a paramedic, he declared, "No, But I Play One on TV."
- In January of 1996, actor Mark Harmon pulled two teenage boys from a burning car, immediately putting a blanket over the one who had caught fire and extinguishing the flames. Aside from the multitude of times he's played a doctornote , Harmon worked as a lifeguard while in college and no doubt knew exactly what to do.
- Alan Alda was in Chile when he had a medical emergency and was rushed to the emergency room. When the doctor tried to explain in Layman's Terms the procedure they were going to perform, he immediately (and correctly) offered up the medical term for the procedure, much to the surprise of the doctor. He explained that he'd learned the terminology in his years on M*A*S*H.
- Marc Morano, former Republican political aide, the editor of the climate change denialist website ClimateDepot.com, and who has frequently appeared on TV shows arguing against the science of climate change, was once asked about his scientific credentials. Morano flippantly replied "I'm not a scientist, but I do play one on TV occasionally."