WASHINGTON—When Jon Stewart appeared in front of Congress to deliver his impassioned testimony on behalf of 9/11 first responders, it was a reminder of both the power of Stewart’s words and his influence on American politics.
For the Newseum, Stewart’s speech couldn’t have been more timely: The journalism-focused museum recently opened “Seriously Funny: From the Desk of ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,’ ” which explores Stewart’s tenure at the iconic Comedy Central series, his lasting impact on news and comedy, and the careers the show helped launch.
The Newseum began planning this exhibit in 2015, when Stewart retired from “The Daily Show” and donated his desk to the museum.
“There has been no acquisition that the museum has had that has received more attention, more [people saying] ‘I want to see it,’ ” said Patty Rhule, the Newseum’s vice president for content and exhibit development. “The excitement is still there.”
The desk—complete with a globe hanging overhead—is the literal centerpiece of the exhibit, which fills a room on the museum’s second floor. You can’t sit at it (it’s surrounded by plexiglass) but you can stand behind and take photos. The desk, which was used on the show from 2007 to 2015 and was modeled after actual news show desks, offers some behind-the-scenes insight into Stewart’s work process.
“We have these little artifacts that Jon kept behind the desk, his essentials: toothpicks, they would always put a singular pen on his desk that he would tap and use to update the script as he was going, a bottle of water, an alarm clock,” Rhule says. “Then there was also a little sort of a pocket under the desk where people might sit to hand him props or give him a high-five.” (The chair even has “Jon’s chair” written on the back, Rhule adds, “in case anyone would forget whose seat it was.”)
“Seriously Funny” isn’t limited to “The Daily Show,” which Stewart took over from original host Craig Kilborn in 1999. The exhibit also takes a broad look at satire and the First Amendment: A display case includes issues of Mad magazine and The Onion, and there’s a moose head that popped up in a 2008 “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Amy Poehler rapped about then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Stewart’s progeny—onetime “Daily Show” correspondents Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj—and his successor, Trevor Noah, are also well-represented. As is the massive Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that Stewart and Colbert co-hosted on the National Mall in 2010.
It’s not unusual for the Newseum to turn to comedy: A 2013 exhibit was based around Will Ferrell’s fictional newsman Ron Burgundy and the “Anchorman” movies. But “Seriously Funny” takes a more ... well, serious approach.
“In the exhibit, we talk about satire as a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment,” Rhule says. “Even before there was the First Amendment, Americans were making fun of King George. So this is just a part of our American DNA: to be able to make fun of our leadership and people in leadership roles. Not every country has that opportunity.”
Using video clips from “The Daily Show,” quotes from entertainers and politicians, and objects used on the series, the exhibit makes a case for how revolutionary Stewart’s show was—how his brand of satire transformed the show into something that bordered on actual news. For example, the exhibit explains how Stewart hired real broadcast journalists to help with research and fact-checking.
“You really can’t have effective satire unless you’ve got the facts right,” Rhule says. “For a generation, he was their voice of the news.”
The exhibit, which was assembled with the help of Comedy Central, includes correspondent credentials from the 2008 Democratic National Convention and a 1999 clip of Steve Carell chatting with then-Republican presidential contender John McCain aboard his Straight Talk Express bus—signs that the show was being taken seriously by both political parties.
“His point is really taking both the media and politicians to task,” Rhule says of Stewart, who aimed much of his ridicule at CNN and Fox News by the end of his run. “And telling everybody, ‘Come on, do a better job.’ He’s using the tools and things that we all know a broadcast journalist has: over-the-shoulder graphics, the breaking-news chyron. He’s both admiring and admonishing the media.”
It’s fitting, then, that “Seriously Funny,” which will likely be the final new exhibit at the Newseum before it closes at the end of the year, includes a script page from Stewart’s final show, where he warned viewers, and those who would succeed him, to be vigilant against “bull[expletive].”
“The people who were inspired by him have gone on to do shows that take that brand of comedy and social commentary and put their own twist on it,” Rhule says. “They are still making headlines today with the way they are challenging hypocrisy and challenging the press as well as politicians to do better—just like Jon Stewart did.”