A Love Song to the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever, on the Occasion of Its 20th Anniversary

Last month Twitter became briefly good again because Conan O’Brien went on Hot Ones and fucking crushed it.

Gosh that’s a fun sentence to write.

This led to a lot of Hot Ones’ younger viewers discovering the joy that is Conan for the first time, seemingly. A swarm of GenX and Elder Millennial people dropped everything to share clips and indoctrinate the youth, which led to a cavalcade of Conan remembrances, which in turn apparently led to friends of his thinking he’d died.

Which is fucking hilarious.

I am a person whose tastes and television habits aligned perfectly so that when Conan took over from David Letterman he was my guy. (i.e. I was a weird night owl little kid who loved absurdity, didn’t sleep, and was way too invested in late night comedy by middle school.) The slightly queasy retro Depression-era furniture of Conan’s original set? My jam. Artie Kendall, Bigoted Ghost Crooner? Hitlery-hoo indeed! (And one of the inspirations for my novel, actually.) That whole amazing series of Fake Confirmation figurines? Obviously. Any given interaction with Sona Movsesian or Jordan Schlansky? Of course. The pitch-black existentialism of WikiBear? Sign me the fuck up.

But out of all of the years and iterations of Conan’s shows, the comedy bit that is still, to my mind, the funniest thing that anyone has ever done, is the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever.

Imagine my joy when in the midst of this Conanpalooza, I realized that it was the Lever’s 20th anniversary this past weekend, May 12. I thought I’d waste a minute of our time waxing rhapsodic about it.

First, some context! To my mind, the Lever was part of an important thread in ‘90s pop culture that spilled over into beginning of the ‘00s, best summed up with MST3K, Beavis and Butthead, and a lot of Adult Swim, in which writers took actual cultural items of a past era—Hanna-Barbera animation, cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies, pompous music videos—and overlaid ironic commentary. The gap between the sincerity of the original work and the irony of the program recycling it created a fun mental fizziness.

Conan’s style was a little different—he used a lot of trappings of 1930s and ‘40s culture in his set, his bombastic old school theme song, and his penchant for talking like a newsie, and mashed that up with humor that was either really absurdist or really, really dark.

With the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever, Conan and his writers applied that spirit of absurdity not to a piece of bygone pop cultural ephemera, but to a show that had just gone off the air a few years earlier, and was still running constantly in syndication. Which is an interesting choice! It’d be like if next year Seth Meyers introduced a remote control that played episodes of The Young Pope whenever he clicked it. Which, to be clear, he should do.

One of the fun things, looking back, is seeing that they threw a few more obvious things at the wall along with the Lever—the show debuted the “Axel F” Button (a large red button that played “Axel F”, the synth theme from Beverly Hills Cop), and the Knight Rider Chain (a chain that, when pulled, played random clips from Knight Rider)—but neither of them stuck the way the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever did. The other two gags offered a chance at nostalgia for the early ‘80s, which given the nostalgia-addled decade, you’d think one of those would have been a hit, too? But no, it was the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever that had staying power, to such an extent that Conan brought it out during live shows and revived it for his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour. The Walker, Texas Ranger Wikipedia page even has a subsection about the Lever.

The Lever itself is simple: a red pole with a yellow cap. It sits behind Conan’s desk so he can reach it easily, at an angle where the audience can see that it’s there, lurking. In later appearances we see that its base is slightly more ornate—like something you’d see in an arcade or a traveling carnival. For the first few days, the Lever was hidden beneath a black velvet cloth so it could have a dramatic reveal, but later in the series, the Lever is carried out to Conan, who comments on the fact that it’s clearly a prop and isn’t attached to anything. Here, as in so many sketches, Conan embraces the spirit of Brecht and invites us all into the artifice of the show.

That’s important, but I’ll come back to it. 

Conan’s attitude toward the lever is complex. He regards it, at first, as an indulgence, or even a nuisance. He stresses that he has “a lot of show to get through”, and that there’s no time for the silliness of the Lever. But then, inevitably, he’s drawn back. The Lever seems to call to him, and he either makes a big deal out of egging the audience on, so it’s their idea to pull the Lever, or he acts like pulling the Lever is clandestine, forbidden, a wild, inescapable urge. As the bit goes on, Conan will sometimes act as though the producers want him to move the show along, until he and the audience become a united front, screaming for more Walker, Texas Ranger clips against the wishes of The Man. (The Man being Conan’s producer Jeff Ross, who is presumably very much in on the joke.) 

Yes, many jokes are made about the various entendres of “pull the lever”. Yes, they’re stupid, and they make me laugh every time.

Conan tends not to comment too much on the clips themselves. Sometimes he dings the acting, but usually, endearingly, he responds like he’s just seen a clip from a documentary— e.g.: “That old chef is pretty tough!” about Walker’s mentor, Ranger-turned-cook C.D. Parker, or “I don’t know much, but I know you don’t hit a guy in a bear trap!” when Walker does, in fact, punch a dude who’s already caught in a bear trap. Sometimes he treats it almost as though he’s an anthropologist investigating a previously unknown culture, e.g. the “Kid Hits the Ground” clip: “The ones without Walker are the most scary in a way. He’s not there to make sure those things don’t happen…when you don’t see Walker in the clip you know something terrible is happening.”

His best form of commentary is purely physical: he’ll stand and applaud when a plane explodes, he’ll hide his face when something especially gruesome happens, he’ll stand and pace the stage if a child is hurt, or if a pigeon is kicked. He often invokes gambling, saying that pulling the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever is like sitting down to a table in Vegas: you have to quit while you’re ahead. Occasionally there are guest pulls: Andy Richter, Bruce Willis, and my personal favorite, a female audience member who’s invited up as an apology for a clip where Walker punches a woman in the face. When the ensuing clip sucks, Conan blames the audience member and sends her back to her seat.

The conceit in all this is that Conan is watching the stuff for the first time, and we’re seeing an instinctual reaction. This is how a sane, reasonable person responds when presented with the phantasmagoria that is Walker, Texas Ranger—horror and “I shouldn’t be enjoying this” inextricably tangled in fist-pumping adrenaline as each goon is roundhouse-kicked in the head.

You can often hear the audience laughing as soon as a clip starts, and I would guess that sometimes there are audience members who have seen the episode and know what’s coming. But Conan doesn’t seem to have any familiarity with the wider world of Walker, Texas Ranger. He often asks who the characters are after the clip plays, but he doesn’t seem to want an answer, and no one in the audience ever yells a character name up to him or anything—they just scream “Pull it!” a lot.

The ongoing joke here is the gap between the earnest absurdity of the clip and Conan’s shocked reactions. The core of the bit it that none of us know the show, and we’re all coming to it, together, as pure spectacle. We are offered a space to laugh at Walker, Texas Ranger.

The very first Walker, Texas Ranger Lever segment is made up of clips from “The Return of LaRue”, in which the villainous LaRue stalks D.A. Alex Cahill, tries to rape her, and dumps a bucket of scorpions on Walker to try to kill him. (Don’t worry, LaRue gets kicked out a window.)

Sometimes the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever was the star of the post-monologue, pre-guest liminal space. Once Conan actually moved the show along, he’d usually return to it at least once. One time, special guest Saddam Hussein requested more of the Lever. My actual favorite might be this one because it includes a clip from “A Matter of Faith” Walker, Texas Ranger’s batshit Christmas episode. When they attempted to retired the bit a month after it premiered, a series of accidents and coincidences ensured that the Lever would be pulled, implying that Fate Itself wanted more Walker, Texas Ranger clips. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most iconic clip, which doesn’t actually feature a Lever pull at all. It’s from a two-part episode, “Lucas Part 1” and “Lucas Part 2”, and it features Haley Joel Osment giving one of the greatest line deliveries in television history:

The scene is presented as part of a clip show, and the Lever isn’t actually onstage—Conan explains that they didn’t include it during the Lever’s actual tenure because they were afraid to show it. It demonstrates the segment’s power and lasting popularity that the clip is received with rapturous applause even though the Lever, in this case, is unseen.

All right, so, that’s the sketch. Now, why is it important? Aside from being really funny?

I think it might be that this skit is a giant shining symbol of everything that’s wrong with this country. 

As Conan explains in the first appearance of the Lever: NBC merged with universal, making them NBCUniversal. Because of this merger, Late night with Conan O’Brien, an NBC show, can now show clips from Walker, Texas Ranger, a Universal show, for FREE.

This is 20 years ago. 2004. This is an early entertainment merger—a harbinger, if you will. NBC, a giant at the time, home of The Tonight Show, sitcom juggernauts from Cheers to Golden Girls to Frasier to Seinfeld to Friends to Newsradio (the best one ever) and Law & Order, already in its four hundredth season, had Voltroned with Universal, home of E.T., Jurassic Park, all the Universal Monsters, Back to the Future, a theme park, etc.. This is bad. It’s bad when only a few companies become the gateway to cultural production. But rather than making a self-serious speech about why mergers are bad, Conan and his writers used it to their comedic advantage, by taking out of context clips from Walker, Texas Ranger and gleefully mocking corporate synergy by playing clips and crowing about how they didn’t have to pay for them.

But wait, there’s more.

Walker, Texas Ranger was part of a CBS stable that included Touched by an Angel, JAG, Diagnosis: Murder, Nash Bridges, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and assorted CSIs. These shows tended to, um, reinforce the status quo, let us say. They were retro in the opposite way to Conan’s show—rather than using any sort of irony gap to comment on the values of the past, they upheld the idea that we lived in an orderly universe, that some combination of law enforcement, military, or kindly elderly doctors (usually white, usually male) would step in to fix societal ills, and that if all of them failed, kindly female angels would step in as needed.

I have a theory on that. It’s anecdotal.

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I think a lot of people who loved Conan then were staying up ridiculously late to watch him, or taping him and watching the next day. A lot of these people were young, in middle school or high school, and they were subject to the tyranny of whomever they lived with—parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles (like Walker himself), group home house parents—whatever. If those adults were anything like a lot of the adults I knew (not my own parents, fortunately) Walker, Texas Ranger was appointment television each week.

The Walker, Texas Ranger Lever acted as a release valve for kids who were surrounded by an adult world that gave them ridiculous platitudes and couldn’t see the absurdity of, for instance, a Very Special Christmas Episode that was chock-full of explosions.

Walker, Texas Ranger’s whole conceit is its earnestness, its sincerity, and you’re mean to get emotionally involved. Walker, Texas Ranger acts like all revenge drama: show your audience a helpless innocent menaced or violated in some way, rile the audience up into a frothing rage at the injustice, and then use good violence to combat the bad so the audience is flooded with endorphins. In Walker’s case, legal or cosmic justice is then offered to the audience as a form of aftercare. Our heroes are Walker—a man of Cherokee and white heritage who is raised by his Cherokee uncle after his parents are murdered by white supremacists. He’s raised with Cherokee traditions, but he also becomes a Texas Ranger. He is the “cowboy” and the “Indian” in one man. He’s also a Vietnam vet who has PTSD flashbacks occasionally, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t criticize war in general or even that war in particular. His partner is James Trivette, a younger Black man, who is a former football star—the only thing that can match “war veteran cowboy” in this show’s vision of masculinity—and a huge fan of The Lone Ranger. The two dole out “justice” in the form of slow-motion physical violence, then release the bruised and unconscious bad guys into the actual justice system represented by Alex Cahill, a pretty, blonde, white, female DA, who also happens to be Walker’s love interest,  who also happens to have a traditionally masculine nickname.

There aren’t many jokes in Walker, Texas Ranger. There is obvious, sometimes slapsticky youth pastor humor, but generally things are taken straight. A sort of gooey “Native American spirituality” is honored, but the Christian God directly intervenes in the events of the show on at least two occasions that I’m aware of. Walker communes with wolves and a special relationship with his horse. People attend church solemnly, take vows seriously, respect their elders. Women are treated with that particular tone of awe and condescension that implies that they’re inherently better than men, but also need to be protected by men, usually from men.

You’re supposed to take it seriously. No matter how many times Walker dives from a plane into a car without hurting himself. No matter how many times helicopters are shot down from the sky.

What the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever does is give us space to laugh at the self-seriousness of it all. It pokes a hole in the endless cycle of injustice and violent vengeance.

Walker, Texas Ranger aired on CBS from September 1993 to May 2001—most of the Clinton years, and those first couple months under Bush II when most people thought life in the U.S. would continue unchanged. (Have I given entirely too much thought to the kinds of episodes that might have happened, had the show had still been on the air in autumn 2001? I have. Have these imaginings added centuries to my inevitable term in Purgatory? One has to assume so.) In the years after, culture in the U.S. took an extremely conservative turn.

By the time Universal was airing it multiple times a day in reruns, and the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever premiered, the United States was in a very different mood.We’d been embroiled in a multiple front war for around three years, we had a Yale graduate who pretended to be a cowboy in the white house, Evangelical kids’ books about the End Times were flying up the bestseller charts, and menus in New York City offered “freedom fries” rather than french fries.

I think it could be argued that the Lever allowed people who maybe didn’t entirely buy into that prevailing mood a space to laugh at the show’s simplistic view of life, but also offered a mental break from living in a society that wanted the show to be a documentary.

Conan’s gleeful artifice is the exact antithesis of Walker’s whole deal. But at the same time, it’s artifice based in joy. It’s not a show that masquerades as upholding wholesome family values while also encouraging its audience to cheer some poor sap getting roundhouse kicked in the face—it’s a show that tells you up front: this is fake. This lever isn’t attached to anything. I wanna pull the lever as much as you want me to. Jeff Ross isn’t really mad, and he’s not really running this show—we’re all in this together.

Conan’s responses encourage us to laugh at the stupidity and violence while also acknowledging that explosions are kinda rad. He actually does take the side of the underdog in these clips—best evidenced by his response to “the kid hits the ground” clip.

And here’s the other thing.

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It would be easy to see Conan and his audience as snotty elites, making fun of Real America. Again, I’d argue strenuously against the idea that one of them is somehow more pure than the other. But setting that aside, the first summer of the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever included a visit from Chuck Norris on September 8, 2004, when he got to pull his own lever, revealing a backstage knife fight with Conan—which Norris handily won, of course.

Conan invited the object of the bit into his space, and allowed himself to be made the object of a larger, meta joke, where a different prop-that-isn’t-actually-attached-to-anything is used to make him look like a fool. Even though the Lever was brought back the following year, and, as I mentioned, revived a few times during live shows, in a way this was the culmination of the arc. By turning the mockery on himself, Conan proved that the important thing was the spirit of absurdity, not cheap snark at someone else’s expense—even if that someone else once literally kicked a bad guy into the sun. icon-paragraph-end

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