It wasn’t even a year ago that Sarah Cooper seriously thought about once again setting aside her dream of making it big as a comedian and heading back into corporate America for a steady gig. Then the former UX designer at Google downloaded TikTok at the height of the pandemic and hit record.
The rest, as they say, is history: Cooper is now a near household name for her wide-eyed, exaggerated lip-syncs of President Donald Trump on the video app—as well as other platforms like Twitter and YouTube. The viral videos quickly catapulted her career, leading in rapid succession to a guest-hosting spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a prime-time appearance at August’s Democratic National Convention, a Netflix comedy special airing this month and a TV series in development at CBS.
It’s a breakneck pace that’s made the year hard to process, Cooper admits, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t thrilled. “I’ve gone viral before, and I’ve had a few TV spots, and that got me a few book deals, but it [didn’t] change your life the way this kind of thing changes your life,” says Adweek’s Digital Creator of the Year. “I had been working for a really long time to get here, but as soon as it happened, it all happened all at the same time, so it’s been crazy.”
The comedian spoke with Adweek a week after finishing filming her Netflix special, Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, directed by Natasha Lyonne and executive produced by Maya Rudolph. The special is, in Cooper’s own words, “about this moment in time that we’re all experiencing, where we’re trying to say everything is fine when we know it’s not fine.” That sensibility was put into even sharper focus because Cooper and the crew were filming under what she calls “surreal” Covid-19 protocols, which included regular testing, masks and ventilation breaks.
That surrealism will be woven into the special, which debuts Tuesday on the streaming service. “Instead of ignoring the conditions, we confronted them head-on—it’s part of the comedy,” Cooper explains. “People need to laugh, and we were almost forced to find the humor because it was such a bizarre situation. Everybody was motivated to create something that people can use to escape.”
That escapism is something of a new lane for Cooper, whose comedic performances on TikTok thrive in the intersection of current news events, political commentary and comedy. To make them, Cooper listened to audio clips on repeat, usually from the confines of her New York apartment she shares with her husband, nailing the cadence and working on her flashing expressions. “A lot of people saw my clips making fun of Trump and making fun of what he was saying during these task forces, and they saw that before they saw the actual clip of him saying it,” she says of the videos, which take two to five hours each to complete.
The videos, she explains, are less about impersonating Trump outright and instead rooted in highlighting the absurdity of his interviews: One of Cooper’s first viral ones, How to Medical—which has been viewed more than 23 million times on Twitter—centered on the president’s potentially dangerous suggestion of injecting disinfectant as a treatment for Covid-19. Inspired by teens’ lip-syncing on TikTok and comedian Bowen Yang’s own ultra-popular movie lip-syncs, they were born out of an extended fit of boredom brought on by extended lockdowns, plus Cooper’s frustration that Trump, to her, seemed able to get away with saying just about anything.
“I’ve always loved corporate jargon and watching people speaking in circles, but when I started watching the coronavirus task force briefings, it was frustrating having no one call him out on it,” she recalls. “I would love to be able to get away with bullshitting my way through life, so I thought, let me imitate that and have people ask, ‘Could Sarah Cooper get away with it?’”