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A Salute to Ginger

Exploring the many phases of Conan O’Brien’s late-night career, the most recent of which comes to a close on Thursday when he signs off on TBS

Ringer illustration

My current all-time favorite Conan O’Brien moment—spanning a nearly 30-year career as a late-night superstar that now encompasses three networks/platforms, a dazzling array of time slots, and six distinct phases—is “Ginger, No!” In honor of the final episode of the half-hour iteration of the TBS show Conan—airing Thursday night, and marking the swan song of Network 2 and Phase 5—please watch this right now, preferably at high volume, whether this is your first time or your 5,000th.

Stupendous. The original “Ginger, No!” aired in early 2002, nearly 10 years after Late Night With Conan O’Brien debuted on NBC on September 13, 1993, and slowly overcame its legendary early shakiness. (“The ghost of Chevy Chase began to hover ominously,” sniffed The New York Times that week when a few Opening Night gags flopped, though it did conclude, “There’s a fine lunacy here that bears watching.”) This is Network 1 and Phase 1, obviously. By the early 2000s, Conan was a Gen X superhero, a Rolling Stone cover star (hailed in ’96 as a “Three-Year Overnight Success”), and a surrealist magician, holding down that coveted 12:37 a.m. ET time slot, mopping up after Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and masterfully splitting the difference between Johnny Carson’s imperial grace and David Letterman’s wily contempt. From the onset, Conan truly loved late-night talk shows as a comedy institution, and he knew that if you loved something and wanted it to live forever, you had to keep killing and resurrecting it.

Hence Ginger the Homicidal Dog. Conan’s reverence for late-night canon is right there in the setup: “It’s kind of a talk-show classic. You get animals on, and it’s a little unpredictable.” Think a spooked Johnny Carson fleeing a snarling cheetah and leaping into Ed McMahon’s arms. Let’s not belabor the premise of the original “Ginger, No!” any further, though. (Ginger, like any successful late-night bit, would return to kill again.) Let’s just revel in the single shot that sums up Conan’s greatness, no matter the network, no matter the time slot, no matter the phase, no matter the decade.

NBC

I just adore how janky this looks. Ginger’s paw isn’t even on the trigger! For the past 27-odd years, any show with Conan in the title understands implicitly how shoddy something has to feel for the result to be transcendently funny. It’s the sublime half-assedness of the image combined with the deafening blast of the gunshot. (OK, now watch it again at even higher volume.) It’s the way Kermit the Frog’s hands hang suspended in the air postmortem. It’s the proprietary blend of whimsy and violence. It’s the sense that anything can happen—any show, any network/platform, any phase—and the dumber it gets, the funnier it will be.

Actually, let’s break down those Conan phases real quick.

Phase 1: Late Night With Conan O’Brien (1993-2009)

Network/Platform 1: NBC

This show aired at 12:37 a.m. ET. I cannot stress this enough. No widespread internet when this show started, no YouTube, no DVR. You had to watch it live at 1 in the morning. Many viewers had just watched a solid hour of Jay Leno. Watching Conan during his first 16 years was de facto a terrible life decision. It was fantastic. He was cool as hell. He struggled for years. He turned that struggle into an inherent part of his greatness. His first musical guest ever was Radiohead playing “Creep.” (Look at Thom Yorke’s hair!) Morphine doing “Buena”! Jonathan Richman doing “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar”! Aretha Franklin doing “Freeway of Love”! All that plus In the Year 2000, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and, yes, the Masturbating Bear; let it be known that my current all-time second-favorite Conan moment is the Masturbating Bear in the Million-Dollar Money Booth, if only for the reactions of Conan and his trusty sidekick, Andy Richter.

Phase 2: The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien (2009 era, six months)

Network/Platform 1: NBC

Wherein Jay Leno finally drives off in one of his 10,000 cars and Conan finally gets what he’s always wanted: The Tonight Show gig, just like Johnny Carson, complete with a move to L.A. and a plush 11:30 p.m. time slot, which made watching this show in real time a much less terrible life decision. Will Ferrell dropped by on opening night to serenade Conan with “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which felt very silly and not at all prophetic at the time; this era is perhaps best known for that time Conan gave himself a concussion while running a race with Teri Hatcher, but other than the occasional hospitalization, everything went great for, uh, six months.

Phase 3: The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien (2010 era, three weeks)

Network/Platform 1: NBC

And then it all ended in unmitigated disaster: low ratings that triggered a cockamamie NBC scheme to bring back Leno and kick Conan’s Contractually Still Technically Called The Tonight Show back to the wee hours. This kicked off a media firestorm that—and you’ll just have to trust me on this one—burned hotter than the sun at the time. Conan vs. Leno happened just over a decade ago and yet feels more archaic now than the War of 1812, in that it involves various furious white men arguing over network television time slots. (This fiasco also produced one of my Top Five All-Time Letterman Moments, “Don’t Blame Conan.”)

The lesson here: Jay Leno still isn’t sorry. The other lesson here: Like Social Security or the 30-year mortgage or the electoral college, all of the institutions of Gen X’s youth would fail future generations entirely. Conan’s last three lame-duck weeks of The Tonight Show gave America the gift of the angriest man I have ever seen on television; the bits where he vowed to waste all of NBC’s money are priceless to this day. Shout-out to the time he brought out a Kentucky Derby winner in a mink Snuggie to watch copyrighted Super Bowl footage.

Phase 4: Conan (2010-2019, hour-long version)

Network/Platform 2: TBS

I will confess that Conan’s move to basic cable initially felt to me like a sort of slow-burn exile, wherein our spurned old pal played the dusty old hits (my current all-time third-favorite Conan moment is the Walker, Texas Ranger lever) while a new generation of late-night power players—Colbert, Corden, my beloved Craig Ferguson, your various Jimmys—lapped him on the quote-unquote major networks. But this era is already aging far better than I’d feared. Meeting the TBS censor. (“Bananas!”) The jeggings. The bizarrely moving “Conan Without Borders” travelogues. The student driver bit. Jordan Schlansky. Clueless Gamer.

But the best part of Conan’s TBS tenure is what he didn’t do, which is to say he didn’t lean too hard into the Trump era in either direction: He was not a tousler and/or enabler like Jimmy Fallon or Saturday Night Live, nor did he attempt to refashion himself as an eviscerator type like the ineffective and consistently out-satired CBS-era Colbert or the far more effective John Oliver or Samantha Bee. Conan’s TBS show stood still while every other late-night show broke into a wild and unsustainable sprint, and he nearly came out of the Trump era back on top by default.

Phase 5: Conan (2019-2021, half-hour version)

Network/Platform 2: TBS

Oh, sheesh, I will confess that I didn’t like this at first either, but cutting the show in half cut the fat from Conan more often than not, making the show looser and more chaotic, whether it was Conan comforting a crying woman in the front row or roasting Kumail Nanjiani at great length to fill time after Kumail Nanjiani bailed out a half-hour before taping began. The Daily Show often trounced this iteration of Conan in the ratings, but this put Conan himself back in his ideal role: the noble underdog, the screwball antidote, the throwback who was nonetheless shrewd enough to also launch a hit podcast. Going out on top has never been the Conan O’Brien way, and mercifully, no matter how many farewell shows of his you’ve watched in your lifetime (Jack Black’s on deck Thursday), going all the way away has never been his style either.

Phase 6: TBD!

Network/Platform 3: HBO Max

“In 1993, Johnny Carson gave me the best advice of my career: ‘As soon as possible, get to a streaming platform.’” This is the quintessential goofy Conan PR quote: nod backward but look resolutely forward. Conan 5.0 will reportedly “move away from the traditional talk-show format,” the punch line being that for all Conan’s reverence for (and nobly failed attempt to recreate) the Carson Glory Years, he’s carried a proud tradition of moving away from tradition for nigh on 30 years. You’ve likely not followed his every move in the past decade or two, but if you’re savvy you’ve never totally lost track of him either, and I’d advise still keeping an eye on him now. You never know when Ginger might come back for an encore.