It started with a beard.
After taking a week off for Memorial Day, Jimmy Fallon returned to the Tonight Show in early June with the overgrown stubble of a man who had not shaved in several days. He declared that we were about to enter the “Summer of ’Stache” and that he planned to have a full mustache for the entire month of July. Apologizing to his audience for how weak the beard looked so far, he said, “I want to give you the quality facial hair you deserve.”
It was another 10 days before Fallon finally decided the beard was long enough to turn into a mustache. With some inspiration from Ethan Hawke—who said his wife thinks his ’70s-style mustache makes him “look like a porn star, in a good way”—and the help of One Thousand Mustaches author Allan Peterkin, Fallon first settled on the style of mustache he wanted to rock and then had master barber Russell Cordeiro make it a reality during a commercial break.
Fallon’s mustache has garnered so much attention—headlines include GQ’s “Jimmy Fallon Now Has a Full-On ‘70s Mustache” and Esquire’s “Jimmy Fallon’s Mustache Just Isn’t Growing On Me”—partly because of how outside the norm facial hair still is for late-night hosts. Until recently, it was even rarer than being a woman.
Jimmy Kimmel began sporting a closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard in the summer of 2015 and James Corden seems to have a perpetual five o’clock shadow. But otherwise, late-night has been a sea of men with naked faces, who only seem to grow facial hair when they either have long hiatuses or enter retirement. The big exception to that rule was the extended Writers Guild strike of 2007 and 2008.
After a nearly two-month break, several hosts returned to the air in January 2008 without the benefit of writers to help them deliver jokes. In solidarity with the WGA, whose male members had grown out beards for the duration of the strike, hosts like Conan O’Brien and David Letterman emerged unshaven. “In my line of work there’s no opportunity to grow a beard,” O’Brien told The New Yorker about six weeks into what would be a three-month strike. “These shows are the organizing principles of our lives, and the moment they stop you start to go insane.”
Conan O’Brien famously re-grew that impressive red beard after he lost his short-lived Tonight Show gig and started to go “insane” once again. It became a symbol of his anti-authoritarian stance against NBC and helped burnish his rock star image when he hit the road for The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour in the spring of 2010. He kept it around for the first six months of his TBS show Conan—before Will Ferrell shaved it off for him in May 2011.
Similarly, Stephen Colbert unveiled his epic “Colbeard” just a few months after leaving The Colbert Report. “This is me,” he told The Daily Beast at the Oscar Wilde Awards in Los Angeles in February 2015. “It turns out the real Stephen Colbert had a beard the whole time, I was just so deeply in character for 10 years you didn’t notice. That’s how good of an actor I am.” But despite being called “Clooney-esque,” the beard was gone by the time he made his Late Show debut that fall.
Jon Stewart was quick to grow his own gray beard, which has been on display for most of his post-Daily Show appearances, from a USO event in the spring of 2016 to his more recent Donald Trump takedowns on his old friend Colbert’s show. The look has only enhanced his elder statesman status in the world of political comedy.
And then there is David Letterman with the best post-late-night beard of all, having gone full Santa Claus in his retirement. “I always told myself, when the show goes away, I would stop shaving,” Letterman told Tom Brokaw in one of his first interviews after leaving The Late Show. He explained that he shaved his face clean every day from age 20 until he was 68 and “got so sick and tired of it.” By the looks of it, he has not so much as trimmed his beard since going off the air for good more than two years ago.
But no late-night host has made his facial hair such a big part of his onscreen persona as Fallon has this month with his mustache, which has dominated his conversations with celebrity guests over the past few weeks. Most notably, his former Saturday Night Live co-star Will Ferrell emerged with an oversized fake blonde mustache of his own on a recent episode. “It’s kind of Sam Elliott meets Wilford Brimley,” Ferrell said of his own new look, before taking it off and sticking to the face of an enthusiastic woman in the audience.
Perhaps the mustache was a last-ditch effort by Fallon to remind Emmy voters that he’s still as fun as he’s always been before that body’s nomination deadline last Monday. First for Late Night and then for the Tonight Show, Fallon has earned an Emmy nomination in the increasingly crowded Outstanding Variety Series category (now called Outstanding Variety Talk) each of the past five years, losing out to either Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or John Oliver every time.
This year’s nominees, which will be announced a week from today, could very well see Fallon fail to make the cut in favor of more politically relevant nominees like Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. Colbert, who was nominated 10 consecutive years and won twice for The Colbert Report, missed out on a nomination last year for his debut season as host of The Late Show, but his recent ratings surge could put him back in the conversation this year.
For Fallon to be left off that list this year would be a brutal bookend to the well-deserved backlash after he used kid gloves to muss Donald Trump’s hair just two months before the 2016 election. The host has said he was “devastated” by the response and has spent the past several months digging himself out of that hole.
A summer ’stache probably isn’t going to make his haters forgive him any sooner, but if it gets people talking about something other than his political ignorance, Fallon’s throwback facial hair could finally help him move forward.