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For many people, 2020 was the worst year of their life, but for Sarah Cooper, it was — at least in a professional sense — the best. Indeed, during the global pandemic, her DIY videos, shot at home in Brooklyn and featuring her lip-syncing and acting out then-President Donald Trump saying ridiculous things, went viral. The Washington Post described her as “just about the only good thing in a year mired in isolation, racial unrest and political conflict.” AdWeek named her Digital Creator of the Year. And the Associated Press selected her as one of the year’s five breakthrough entertainers. Last October, Cooper was given the larger platform she richly deserves: a Netflix comedy special called Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine. The 44-year-old recently spoke with THR’s Awards Chatter podcast about her life and career.
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Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Excerpts lightly edited for clarity and brevity…
Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Jamaica, but I was raised in Rockville, Maryland. My dad was an engineer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and my mom was a human resources director for a health consulting firm.
You were drawn to the arts as a kid, but took a long detour away from them.
It’s really hard to go to your parents, who are Jamaican immigrants who work very hard, and say, “I want to act.” It’s just not what they want to hear because they want you to own a house, get married, settle down and be financially independent. At 17, I was going to go off to college — I got a theater scholarship and really wanted to do theater — and my parents encouraged me to not do that so that I wouldn’t struggle. I felt it was necessary for me to not let my own dreams down, so I created a contract between me and myself. I wrote, “I, Sarah Cooper, being of sound, mind and body” — I didn’t realize that ‘sound mind’ was one phrase, so I put a comma after sound — and I promised myself to try to be an actress for at least 10 years, or as long as it takes, or if I decide to change my mind and I don’t want that anymore, that’s fine too. But I just promised myself that I would give it a try. I signed the contract and I had my sister witness it. I was so serious about this thing.
So instead of going to the University of Maryland to study theater, you went there to study economics.
Yes, but I always had one little toe in theater. I eventually found design because it was creative but I could also make money. Then I got a master’s degree in design at Georgia Tech and a job as an interactive designer at an ad agency. I was like a little Don Draper making Flash ads — those ads that come up like if you go to, like, RottenTomatoes.com, and take over your whole screen, and you can’t find the X button? That’s what I was working on. I was a creative director in Atlanta at 25, 26. Even after I left that job and went to Yahoo and was designing there, acting was always in the back of my head. I had just tried stand-up comedy for the first time, and then I was at the Stella Adler Conservatory for summer study and got a job at Google, so I stayed in New York. At Google, I designed the interface for Google Docs. If you open up Google Docs and start to type, I decided how much of a shadow there should be around the page, I decided what the icons were, the order of the icons.
You were a big fan of The Colbert Report…
I just loved Stephen Colbert because he became the thing that he didn’t like, the thing that he wanted to make fun of, and he was so good at it. I would watch his monologues, transcribe them, study the jokes, and try to create my own sort of Stephen Colbert character.
Was The Colbert Report responsible for the creation of a blog called The Cooper Review?
I was at Google for about three years when I wrote an article called “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” which I had started writing when I was at Yahoo. I published it and it went viral — that was the first thing I did that ever went viral — and I created the blog based on the success of that article. Then I left Google in 2014, and I thought maybe it could become a book. I turned it into an illustrated post and republished it and it went viral again, and that’s when it got the attention of publishers. I found my agent, Susan Ray Hoffer, through that, and she’s still my agent now. I said, “You know what? I want to turn this into a book.” She said, “You know what? We’re going to turn this into three books.” We turned it into 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings, which came out in October 2016. Then I did a coloring book for business people where you can color-in low-hanging fruit and someone getting thrown under the bus and things like that. And then my third book, How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, came out in 2018.
Shortly after the first book was published, Donald Trump was elected president. As a woman of color who immigrated from one of the places he was soon calling “shithole countries,” you had some things to vent about, and did so on social media.
Yeah. I was always replying to his tweets and telling him what an idiot he was. In October 2017, I tweeted something like, “Fake news: Trump is not fit for presidency. Real news: Trump was never fit for the presidency.” People started liking it and retweeting it, and he saw it, and then he blocked me. It was just like, “Oh my God, I’ve been blocked by the president of the United States!” Which was a huge claim to fame at the time.
When did TikTok first cross your radar?
It was August 2019. I went to hang out with my nephews in Maryland and I was like, “Show me TikTok.” I installed it on my phone and we made a few videos and I was like, “Oh, that was fun!” But they were like, “Aunt Sarah, you’re too old for this!” So I just put it away and didn’t really think about it again.
Many believe that your first Trump lip-syncing video was “How to Medical,” which went viral, but in fact there were several before that. Where did the idea of lip-syncing Trump come from?
Well, I was playing around TikTok when we were locked down in quarantine, and I was trying to do a dance and was very bad at that. Then I saw a woman lip-sync him, and I was like, “Wow! It’s fascinating hearing his voice coming out of someone who looks nothing like him.” I was like, “I’ve got to try that.” I think the first one I did was a press conference where he just listed companies; that’s all he did for an hour. Then another one was when somebody asked him how he was going to get something done and he said, “Well, I’m going to form a committee. Yeah, I’ll call it a committee, and we’re going to make decisions, and we’re going to make decisions fairly quickly, and I think they’re going to be the right decisions.” I felt like I was back in one of those work meetings and a guy who said absolutely nothing was being lauded and applauded and told he was brilliant for saying absolutely nothing. Because I’m a woman and a person of color and an immigrant, I got a little jealous, feeling like, “I want to do that! I want to say nothing and have people think I’m amazing!”
So what distinguished “How to Medical” — which you put out in April 2020, and which mocks him telling the press that people should inject bleach to deal with COVID — was that it had better production value?
Yeah, exactly, and I also played a character reacting to him [Dr. Deborah Birx]. I listened to it and I immediately saw the person on the other side thinking, “What the fuck are you telling me?” “We’re going to put light inside the body. We haven’t tried that yet, but we’re going to test that. And the other thing is we can put in disinfectant because it knocks it out in a minute.”
So you upload that on a Thursday night, go to sleep, wake up, and…
It had a million views by the next day. I thought, “Oh, cool, yay! I made a viral video in the pandemic.” I mentioned it to my manager at the time and he was like, “Cool.” He didn’t even think it was a big deal, so I was like, “Oh, I guess maybe it’s actually not that big of a deal.” Then Jerry Seinfeld started talking about it, and that was like, “Whoa!” So I told that to my manager and he was like, “Cool.” I was like, “Okay. I guess it’s really not a big deal.” But then the pandemic kept going on and Trump kept saying dumb things and I kept making videos because it was fun.
You mentioned Seinfeld commenting. So did Cher and many others. I understand people like George Conway were DMing you requesting videos. At some point, Kamala Harris wanted to get in touch. Then you filled in for Kimmel. But you, like the rest of us, were locked down in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and if you went outside you wore a mask, so presumably people weren’t recognizing or approaching you in real life. Was it almost like a fever-dream? The world had changed when you were in front of your computer, but otherwise everything else was the same…
Absolutely. I mean, I did Ellen from my couch, I did Fallon from my couch. I went from 60,000 Twitter followers to 2.3 million. It just snowballed. But at the same time, I still feel like I don’t know what happened. I was just doing a Zoom with Ben Stiller and I was like, “Is this really happening?” None of it has felt real.
Here you were, with your video content blowing up, initially on TikTok and then on other platforms too. But TikTok and Twitter are not monetizable…
I wasn’t making any money. I mean, I was making a little money on YouTube ads, and that was about it. I was really just doing it for fun. Then eventually I was doing it because people were demanding it.
There are numerous other people who did Trump impersonations — Alec Baldwin, J-L Cauvin and others. But do you think that seeing Trump’s words coming out of somebody who is, in a lot of ways, his exact opposite — man versus woman, old versus young, white versus Black, idiot versus educated person — made for a different viewer experience?
I think so. It’s one thing to be played by Alec Baldwin, who is a Trump contemporary and also has power and money. With me, I don’t have the people calling me “Sir” and following me around telling me I’m a genius or whatever. People said they were actually able to hear what he was saying when it was coming out of my mouth. The reason is because we’re so visual that when we see a powerful white man, rich, in a suit, and people are nodding at him, we think, “Yeah, this must make sense.” But for better or worse, when a Black woman is talking, we’re like, “Wait, what’s she saying?” I think people just listened a little bit more, which was great, because he’s not saying anything.
Had TikTok been around when George W. Bush was president and was also regularly saying stupid things with great confidence, would this same thing have had the same effect, or is there something specific about Trump?
Wow! Now I want to go lip sync George Bush. That’s such a great idea. I think it would be the same thing, probably.
The upside of all this attention, I would imagine, was that you were finally being recognized for performing. And yet, was any part of you concerned, like, “Wait a minute, have I become so well known as the young woman who lip-syncs Trump that that’s all I’ll be known for?” And what if he loses in 2020?
There was no world in which I was going to be disappointed if he lost. I was so happy that he lost. I would give up everything for him to have never been president. I mean, it’s a tough thing because something magical did happen when I was doing those videos. Now it’s a thing of, “How do I find something magical like that again?”
The Netflix special was your first high-profile opportunity to show your range. It was produced by Maya Rudolph and Natasha Leon, the latter of whom also directed it; the writers included Paula Pell, who used to write for SNL and is now on Girls5Eva; and it has a ton of big-name cameos, from Helen Mirren to Megan Thee Stallion, all supporting you. How did it come together and drop on Netflix just seven months after “How to Medical” posted?
It’s insane. I would not advise anyone else to attempt to do what we did. It was a lot of people’s first production back from lockdown. And the last time I was on a set? I had a line on some show years ago, Vampire Diaries or something like that, and now I was number one on the call-sheet and there were 100 people with tags that said ‘Sarah Cooper’ on it. I was on set with Jane Lynch one day and Jon Hamm the next day. Helen Mirren and I were rehearsing on Zoom. It was so surreal. I’m proud of everyone who worked on it and of what we were able to do.
Where do you hope to go from here?
My ultimate goal is to have my own series and to be like Jerry Seinfeld, one of my favorite comedians. I watch Seinfeld every night. It’s one of my favorites. I want to play a blowhard too! What if a Black woman was a blowhard? That would be a fun thing to do. So that’s one of my goals.
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