David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Michael Stipe: Behold the retirement beard

David Letterman sports a beard on Nov. 30, 2015.
David Letterman sports a beard on Nov. 30, 2015. AP

In his retirement, David Letterman has grown a beard, and the beard has grown a following. He had a beard once during his Late Show tenure, when there was a writers’ strike, but never to this wizard-like degree. This beard is a beard that would not have passed CBS censors. This beard is a beard that could house sparrows.

The public reacted first with admiration then with alarm. Letterman initially appeared statesmanlike and then, last week, a set of unflattering photos made the rounds. He was out for a run, without makeup or glasses, in chintzy sports gear. “Never retire,” Esquire quipped cattily.

It is a Retirement Beard. It is a biological reaction to a lifetime of performing under intense scrutiny. Letterman’s face is saying, less than a year after his final show, that it is free. The Retirement Beard is very similar to the Exile Beard, which is similar to the Metamorphosis Beard. All three signal that something has changed, or is changing. The modern pioneer on all fronts is, of course, Albert A. Gore Jr., who won the popular vote but lost the presidency, receded from public view to nurse his wounds, and grew on his face a sign that said, in whiskers instead of words, “I don’t give a damn. I am reborn.”

We’ve got plenty to go around. Jim Carrey appeared on Letterman’s final show with an Exile Beard that was an un-Hollywood acknowledgement of the passage of time. Carrey, according to his beard, is old.

Jon Stewart retired and bam! Beard. Mel Gibson got weird and bam! Beard. The longer Michael Stipe is a solo artist, the longer his beard seems to get. Stephen Colbert grew a Metamorphosis Beard as he cocooned himself between leaving his Comedy Central show and ascending to Letterman’s desk. Now, Colbert is as fresh-faced as a boy making his First Communion. It served its purpose and was then bladed away.

Zayn Malik, who liberated himself from the British boy band One Direction last year, had his own reasons for growing one.

“I wasn’t allowed to keep it,” Malik recently told Complex magazine about his facial-hair attempts during his One Direction days. “Eventually, when I got older, I rebelled against it, and decided to keep it anyway. That was just because I looked older than the rest of them. That’s one of the things that is now quite cool. I get to keep my beard.”