What was Conan O’Brien’s first big move after getting deposed from The Tonight Show? He grew a beard. There was Coco the other day, on Page Six, his familiar red coiffure now underlined by some bright, red whiskers. What to make of them? Well, O’Brien’s did not look like a Vacation Beard, a New Seriousness Beard, or a Writer’s Strike Beard (grown by O’Brien in 2007 when he was host of Late Night). No, it was a beard that bespoke a long and very public humiliation, and, then, a withdrawal from the klieg lights. Call it The Exit Beard.
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Lately, more and more eminent figures have turned to the Exit Beard (aka To-Hell-With-It Beard) after a big loss. It’s a beard that says, “I don’t care that I look a little ridiculous. I don’t have to be on TV anymore.” After his presidential campaign perished at the doors of the Supreme Court, Al Gore grew one. And John Kerry and Bill Richardson got in touch with their inner wolfman after their own presidential bids ended. You might also grow an Exit Beard if you’re a billionaire hypochondriac recluse who’s hiding out in Las Vegas (Howard Hughes). If you’re an actor who has turned to rock shows and Sphinx-like media appearances (Joaquin Phoenix). Or if you’re the Baath Party leader who has found his political career put on hold by foreign infidels (Saddam Hussein).
The great thing about the Exit Beard is that getting rid of it can be just as big a statement as growing it. When Gore, Kerry, and Richardson were ready to return to the big time, they shaved. The world got the message. They were back.