Beard humor emerges from a deep follicle of male anxiety: We laugh at beards in part because they make us nervous. Facial hair is funny-strange; it’s a weed that grows across the borderlands of folly and fashion. For every Bearded Best Friend, there’s a Bearded Clooney, for every Galifianookalike, an urban woodsman. The beard can be a sign of girlish vanity or of manly liberation. It can be a marker or a mask; earnest or ironic; grandiose or goofy; freewheeling or self-conscious. Or it can be all of these at once.
The comedy beard points at this uncertainty. Facial hair pretends to show us who is an authentic man and who is the opposite – who’s a Hemingway and who’s a lowly lumbersexual. The Galifianookalike is both. His bold and bushy whiskers aren’t fake – he’s not in beardface – but neither is his baby fat. That’s what makes him weird and funny: He’s a bull in the body of a child.
The wryness of a beard often mixes with nostalgia – appeals to olden times, to whiskered gentlemen and wild ’49ers, to the badass beards of yore. Our forebears were so comfortable in whiskers, so confident and true! We’re kidding when we say that, but also sort of not. Those bygone gentlemen look like they enjoyed their virile innocence, born of a time when beards were beards and men were men, when woolly bristles didn’t make us sheepish.
But that’s just a story that we like to tell ourselves, a fantasy of fallen manhood passed from one generation to the next. We’d like to think there was a time when whiskers were uncomplicated. Alas, it isn’t true. There never was a golden age of facial hair. Beards were always funny.