Trevor Noah and the key to capitalizing on change

By Katy Penrod — Minerva Strategies

On August 6, 2015, the world (or at least the world of comedy television) was irreparably altered. Jon Stewart, host of one of the best political commentary shows on television – satirical or otherwise – ended his tenure.  Stewart took the reins at The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn in 1999 as a relative unknown, but over the next 16 years led it in a new direction, shifting its focus from popular culture to political and national media critique, and rising to icon status (at least among a certain sector of the viewing public) in the process.

Modeled after the countless news programs pervading networks across the country, The Daily Show has become a real source of news for many looking for commentary not guided by melodrama and ratings-chasing. Even for those who are not of the same liberal mind as Stewart and his team, the role of The Daily Show as a check on a relatively one-track media environment is undeniable.

Significant credit must be given to the brilliant writers who churn out biting, honest, and hilarious material every day based on current events. But Stewart himself played an equal if not larger role, delivering the material with expert pacing and expression, and thinking on his feet with ease in conversations with guests and correspondents.

In short, Stewart left some pretty gargantuan shoes to be filled at his departure.

Cue Trevor Noah, South African comedian and actor, and soul brave enough to step into those gigantic shoes. Noah made a few appearances on Stewart’s Daily Show, but is otherwise a relative unknown (at least in the states) much like his predecessor. And from the first few episodes, it looks as though Noah could take the show, as Stewart did before him, in a new direction.

The show’s format itself is unchanged, but Noah’s differences from Stewart present opportunities for growth. Noah is biracial, making race, a topic Stewart touched on but delved into with much less fervor than others of the same complexity and importance, more accessible. Additionally, in comedic style Noah pushes the boundaries further than Stewart, sometimes to the point of offense (one joke riffing on “aides” vs. “AIDS” in the first episode elicited an audible and justifiable gasp from the audience). This willingness to go beyond the comfortable could serve Noah well in elevating The Daily Show beyond its great, but somewhat expected arrangement.

So what does any of this have to do with communications?

There’s no getting around it, change can be scary. But change is also an opportunity for growth. In the world of communications, change is something we face every day in counseling clients, dealing with the complexities of real world problems, and keeping ourselves up to date with evolving trends and technologies. On one hand, it is important not to get bogged down in comparison or hold on to the past in a way that hinders potential progress. On the other hand, it is important to use the foundation built in the past to inform future advancement. The key is finding a balance between the two. You must be willing to take chances but also play up your existing strengths in order to make the most of the opportunity that change presents.

Noah is an example of doing just that. In taking over the throne (swivel chair) that Stewart commanded with excellence for so many years, he has, instead of trying mimic Stewart, come in with confidence in his own unique style and abilities and a vision for new heights that the show could reach. The foundations of the show remain the same – killer satirical writing pointing out the absurdities of our political and media reality – but Noah has already shown his willingness to take risks and express his unique viewpoint, embracing and motivating change rather than fighting it.

Foundations, firms, and other groups should take the same mentality when approaching change, whether it be a rebrand, development of new messaging, or leaving a past position to start anew. Change can be a great thing; it’s all about how you capitalize on it.