You might think the only sort of person who gets famous on TikTok is a teenager caked in bronzing makeup busting out robotic dance moves, not a middle-aged married woman with an economics degree, despairing at her government. But 2020 has brought many surprises, and Sarah Cooper is perhaps the most unlikely of all of them: an American comedian who has appeared out of nowhere and made millions of us actually want to listen to Donald Trump. That is, as long as his voice is coming out of her mouth, in the videos where she lip-syncs and mimes along to his rambling speeches.
“I hate him so much,” she says, smiling calmly as she talks to me over video from New York, where she lives, “but he has provided my greatest material.” Such as the time he imagined, out loud, all the lovely health benefits that might come from imbibing disinfectant. Cooper turns her despair into hilarity when she moves her mouth in perfect timing to his words while looking exactly like herself: a black woman who has never voted Republican in her life.
The videos migrated from TikTok to Twitter, where Cooper rapidly amassed 2.4m followers, leading to her making a new Netflix comedy special called Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine. The title is a joke, as she plays a character with the same name as herself – a news presenter who is feigning happiness while the world disintegrates around her. But in Cooper’s own career, everything now is fine, a fact which is still making her pinch herself. Her show has an all-star supporting cast, including Helen Mirren, Whoopi Goldberg and Winona Ryder, who all wanted to get involved with her work. “I’m like, it’s… This wasn’t my life. Very shortly ago,” she says, visibly dumbfounded by her newfound fame, “this was nowhere close to my life.”
Cooper is 42 and was born in Jamaica. Her family moved to the US when she was three, and she later graduated in economics from the University of Maryland, encouraged by parents who thought she should make some money, rather than taking the risk of pursuing her performing dreams. She also studied design, another sensible decision that helped her get jobs at Yahoo and Google in user experience, only to find that Silicon Valley was all about pursuing your dreams. Allegedly.
“In the tech world there’s a lot of looking down on people who aren’t living their passion. You had to be very passionate and excited, and everything was the most important thing that you could be doing. I felt a lot of times like I was faking it,” she says. “This idea that your job has to be your dream and the thing that you live for, and not just the paycheque, it’s difficult – because it is a paycheque. Having to put this mask on and pretend all day is very draining.” Or as she put it during a recent comedy performance, “People always ask me if it was fun to work at Google, and it was fun. I knew that it was fun because they kept telling me how much fun I should have each quarter, else I would be fired.”
Ironically enough, she ditched all that follow-your-dreams stuff, so she could follow her actual dream, which was to become a comedian who made fun of workplaces that said such things. She started with a blogpost on Medium, about how to look clever in meetings; advice included always converting percentages to fractions, so if someone says 25%, you repeat it as “so, one in four” and nod along like a maths whiz. It went viral, and she built a website called The Cooper Review, inspired by her favourite TV show The Colbert Report, which she had privately studied for years to work out the finer cadences of humour.
She also tried standup and has said that she riffed on subjects including “How my Jamaican parents didn’t identify with African American culture. How they were black, but didn’t really see themselves as black, and how that affected my identity.” (In one of her jokes, she went to a shopping mall with her father, who said: “Look at those black people over there.” She replied, “Dad, that’s a mirror.”)
Her corporate critiques seemed to get more attention, though, and next came a publishing deal for three satirical workplace handbooks; she is turning one of them, How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, into a CBS comedy series next. The spoof book featured things such as a blank page headed: “Use this worksheet to think about what you truly want for your life, your family and your career, then how you can lower those desires and expect much less.” Another chapter had the prescient title of “How to Talk Like a Man, but Still Be Seen as a Woman,” which, in a further irony, would unintentionally prove to be Cooper’s own trajectory to real success.
By April this year, the social media app TikTok had become huge among a demographic who were stuck in their houses and hooked on its short, funny video format. Cooper started doing Trump for fun or perhaps desperation – “I was just playing,” she says. Her husband Jeff is a software engineer she met at Google, and while they were still living in their small New York apartment with their dog Stella, unable to go anywhere, she was suddenly on the television, too. (All she wants now she has made some money “is a bigger apartment.”) She had to convince Jeff of the significance of her Zoom calls while frantically doing her own hair and makeup, and while he was on conference calls of his own. “I was like, sweetie I need you to be quiet, I’m going to be on Ellen, I’m going on Jimmy Fallon, it’s a big deal.” All those years dreaming of going to Hollywood studios to be on such shows. “And it was just me at home picking out my clothes, going, oh well I guess I’ll wear this jean jacket.”
The actors and directors Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph, from the Saturday Night Live scene, approached her about making a sketch show together for Netflix, helping to pull together an all-star cast. One sketch features Cooper and Helen Mirren playing Trump and Billy Bush, doing the notorious locker room “grab ’em by the pussy” chat. There is something quite extraordinary about seeing the two of them, who are dressed in smart trouser suits, but not dressed as men, carrying themselves and their thoughts with such utter, unqualified boastfulness. It makes you realise how unlikely it is to hear women talk with such confidence, or use their bodies to carry a conversation in that way. I start to wonder if Cooper actually felt liberated by becoming the man she loathes so much.
“Knowing you have that control, that you can do whatever you want – he even says, ‘They let you do whatever you want’ – to me, as a woman, it was kind of empowering. Playing Trump, for me, is this empowering feeling of: ‘I sound like a complete idiot, but I feel very good about myself. I’m not questioning a single thing I’m saying! Everything I say is the exact right thing!’ Which is the opposite of how I actually am as a woman, where I question all my thoughts as soon as a single word comes out of my mouth.”
She and Mirren rehearsed the scene over Zoom from their homes before coming together to shoot when restrictions allowed. “I would play the audio on my phone or she would play it on her iPad and we would just kind of watch each other and try to get the words, try to get the lip-syncing into our systems,” she says, bursting out laughing at the memory of turning the woman who famously played the Queen into a lecherous chauvinist. “And we talked a lot about, you know, the man-versus-woman thing, because I think at first she thought we would be in drag as men. Which was weird for me, because when I was making the TikToks by myself. I just thought, no, it’s me. If Trump were me, this is what you would see.”
As for the rest of her stellar cast, including Whoopi Goldberg and Danielle Brooks, “It’s something that I don’t even know if I’ve really processed yet. Even up until this year I was thinking about going back to Google just because, you know, I wasn’t really making any money. So just saying ‘Helen’ is strange to me, because she’s such a hero of mine, and Natasha, too. My husband’s always, ‘Oh, first-name basis, huh?’ I think Winona Ryder was one of the first people that said yes and it was a shock. I thought, ‘I’m going to be in a scene with Winona Ryder, I don’t know, I think I might seize up and just freeze and not be able to do it.’ Jane Lynch is one of my heroes. Even being in a group chat with Natasha, and Maya Rudolph. I’m just fangirling like crazy.”
The show has had a mixed reaction, something that Cooper hasn’t brushed off. She was walking around the Upper East Side recently, with a friend who worked on Everything’s Fine, “and I was in this emotional state. We were saying what we liked and what we didn’t like about the show and my feelings were all over the place, because I’ve never really put myself out there like this before. Now I’ve had good reviews and bad reviews. I have people that think I don’t deserve this at all, because I just came out of nowhere and all I do is lip sync – anybody can lip sync, you know.”
Then they walked past a voting station with people lining up to cast their ballot and a fan stopped her and said: “‘Oh, I love your special,’ and this other woman wanted a picture. It was a very weird feeling. None of it had felt real until the special came out – and then it becomes a total mind fuck. You’re in your head, ‘What do people think of me? What do people think of this? Is it good, is it bad? Why?’ And then you have to stop yourself from spiralling.”
Cooper later confided in Natasha Lyonne, the show’s director, who is also the star and creator of hit Netflix drama Russian Doll. “I said, ‘I don’t know how you do this, I don’t know how you constantly put yourself out there like this, because this is really hard.’ She sent me a series of emojis, which I love. She said, ‘This will be your life from now on. Feeling sad, feeling sick, feeling crazy, feeling like a star, celebrating, feeling good about yourself, feeling like you’re in love, feeling cool then feeling sad again, then feeling sick, crazy, like you’re a star again. It’s just this rollercoaster, over and over again.’”
So did it ever worry you, rising to fame for mocking Trump? Did you feel you were in danger? I know he blocked you on Twitter, and he told someone he hadn’t seen the videos, but you reckon he has.
“I feel that Trump has bigger fish to fry than Sarah Cooper. I think he has got stuff on his plate and so I’m not super worried that he will come after me. But if he had won again, I would be very… I would be terrified. If he had won, and they kept control of the Senate, we would be going into a fascist state. I told my sister, they would be flying Trump flags with the American flag, and I think I would’ve had to start pretending I loved Trump. I think we’d all have to start pretending we loved Trump.”
She isn’t celebrating his demise just yet, though. She says she can’t truly relax “until Biden has raised his hand and is taking the oath”, and adds that, “if an employee gets fired for doing something bad, you usually escort them out of the building and take away their passwords. But this is a two-month notice period, and the idea that he still has access to everything…”
So for now, she’s in the unusual position of wanting her main muse to disappear, so she never has to perform one of his speeches again. “I do think this probably is it,” she says. “I’m done with him now. I mean, I always say that, but then he says something that I can’t resist. Who knows what material he’ll have for me by the end of the day?” And there is the rollercoaster, waiting to carry her from rage and despair to laughter and joy, over and over again.
Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine is now on Netflix