Finding Hope in a Challenging Year: A Conversation With Trevor Noah

For many of us, comedy helped make 2020 a bit easier. At our recent digital event, Comedian Trevor Noah shared a few takeaways from 2020 and his hopes for the future.

Born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, award-winning comedian Trevor Noah brings his unique perspective on race, politics, and current events to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. During our global digital event, Conversations for a Changing World, Noah sat down with award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien to discuss how his show adapted to pandemic-era production, his philanthropic efforts, and what he hopes humanity will remember from 2020. Here are some takeaways from their conversation.

Technology Keeps Us Together

Organizations the world over had to learn how to move to a remote workforce as the pandemic took hold. For many, the transition was even more challenging because it had to happen so fast. For Noah, moving the production of The Daily Show to a remote environment was something he thought about early on in the pandemic.

As COVID-19 caused devastation in China and then spread across Italy and Spain, Noah said he turned to his team and asked, “We should prepare ourselves for the idea that maybe we'll have to make a show, firstly, without an audience; and secondly, how would we make a show if we weren't here?”

Growing from a small bubble working together to a fully remote production team, Noah and his staff have turned to a mix of tactics to keep workplace culture strong and foster a sense of connection. From Slack and FaceTime conversations to text messages to virtual all-hands meetings, his team is using technology to bridge the gaps created by physical distance. Smaller conversations tend to happen organically, while big-picture discussions are also part of the mix to give the whole team an opportunity to hear his perspective: “We can chat about what's going on, and then I let them get back to their work.”

Without the benefit of in-person production meetings, “I try and remember what the building would have felt like,” said Noah, to tap the best person for a job. In pre-pandemic production meetings, “Someone would raise their hand and go, ‘I want to be on point.’ I think to myself, who would really love this story?”

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

In a year that didn’t offer much in the way of levity, Noah mused about the healing effects of laughter. “Many of the things we talk about aren't funny,” said Noah. “I'm using humor to process the reality of the world.”

After O’Brien shared that her own children think Noah is hilarious, he emphasized that humor can help younger people see hope in challenging situations. Drawing on his own experiences, he said, “All I'm trying to do is get people to be motivated, because as someone who comes from a country where there was, ‘No hope,’ I know what it's like to be written off.” 

“If we learn the right lessons from coronavirus, I genuinely believe the world can be in a better place.”

Trevor Noah

Building a Better Future

That same commitment to the next generation comes through in the philanthropic efforts of The Trevor Noah Foundation, which is focused on improving education. Noah said the impact of the foundation is in its ability to move quickly and then share what it has learned with the government, to drive solutions at scale. 

Noah also pointedly returned to an old adage to make the point that ensuring education leads to economic advancement isn’t just about education or hard work. It’s about access and driving equity. He said, “The thing people always neglect to tell you is it also helps to know somebody. You can tell people they have access, but if they don't know where the door is,” access doesn’t matter.

We’re All in This Together

While acknowledging the devastating toll the pandemic has taken in human and economic terms, Noah and O’Brien discussed how to use what we’ve learned during 2020 and turn it into long-lasting positive change. “We've seen the potential,” Noah said, speaking of the ways we can reshape society. “Families can stay home and raise their kid if they need to and not be forced to choose between the workplace and the home place. Schools might find new things to implement now that they know how they've fallen short in terms of teaching kids from afar,” he said. This might even mean giving kids who previously couldn't go to a great school in person the ability to go to a great school virtually.

Summing up, Noah said he hopes people were reminded in 2020 of the importance of individual human beings and human connection, and that we all depend on one another. “Whether it's teachers, or people delivering food, or people working in a supermarket, we forget how essential those people are. And I hope that doesn't change when we come out of this,” said Noah. “If we learn the right lessons from coronavirus, I genuinely believe the world can be in a better place.”

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