The Sabbatical Beard, Perfected By Late Night Hosts

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Mike Coppola / Getty Images

This year has been a tumultuous one for the faces of late night television, mostly due to the shifting game of musical chairs played with new shows and old hosts. But also for questioning the state of clean faces in the world of talk shows.

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Not every man looks good in a beard, but after years of having no choice in the matter, many hosts take this rocky, sometimes unpredictable sabbatical as a chance to explore the unknown, aka, the now-common “leave job, grow beard” phenomenon popular on YouTube.

While psychologists may have their own theories about what’s going on behind the scruff, we’ve narrowed it down to a simple, expected pattern of five stages. From clean faces and five o’clock shadow to those unwieldy manes, and sometimes back again, these hosts exemplify the outward appearance of men taking time off, and going through major changes.

Grief: Conan O’Brien

Conan O’Brien sulking through his hiatus in 2010. (Gary Miller / Getty Images)

Sometimes you leave on top, sometimes you leave in a torrent of controversy, but one way or another, a departing late night host is going to miss the desk. Life changes in big ways for hosts after they realize their faces will no longer grace the TV screen every night, and the first thing they do to begin coping is let the beard grow. Maybe it’s relief, or maybe it’s a deep-seeded depression associated with losing your dream job to a hacky, high-talking has-been who should have retired years ago. Either way, years of shaving for America can be constraining. This is the first step in embracing a new life.

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Freedom: Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart owns his post–Daily Show beard. (Gary Gershoff / Getty Images)

Whether they greet a new life with joy or confusion, the beard starts to be part of the exploration, and it will grow as they do. America may not notice in the early stages, but at some point once the beard has rooted itself firmly, it will make its public debut, and at that point the host will have a new, bearded identity to the world. It’s as if to say, “The suited me is gone. This is part of how I find my moment of zen.”

Expression: David Letterman

David Letterman doing his santa impression. (Mike Coppola / Getty Images)

This new identity may be part of how they share a new life with the world. Here the beard fills the void (sometimes a large one). The beard may expand to fill lofty spaces, reaching out in all directions. It may become self aware, and search out new footholds for itself and its host (pun intended) alike. This beard is a bold beard, and a controversial one. It’s the directionless temper tantrum, the moment of “I can do what I want.” But it’s only temporary.

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Bargaining: Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert embraces beards before his CBS start. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Faced with many eyes again, the host must reform himself from the unstructured mass that was left when he departed the show. For some that means new avenues of expression: documentaries, news shows. For others it means retirement. But however the host is reformed, so must the beard be reformed. This means a sudden and severe transition from wild and untamed to, like his suits of old, tailored and manicured. A huge promotion to network TV doesn’t hurt, either.

Acceptance: Jimmy Kimmel

Jimmy Kimmel has the balls to wear his on air. (Randy Holmes / ABC via Getty Images)

Clean shaven is the standard, but sometimes it takes a rebel to upset the status quo. Does the beard track with focus groups? Does it make the host look refined? “Hot”? Will moms tune out? Honestly, who cares? Sometimes a face you’ve seen ten thousand times is made better by a week’s worth of growth. No one answer is perfect. Beards are not, after all, for everyone and every place. That’s the part of the journey that only a host (and network ratings) can decide.

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