If you think the Trump administration is beyond satire, you must not know Sarah Cooper. The New York-based writer and comedian makes videos that savagely lampoon some of President Trump’s most ridiculous moments – by letting his own words do all the talking.
In clips that have gone viral on social media, Cooper lip-syncs to audio snippets of Trump’s media appearances, adding only facial expressions, gestures and the occasional prop to highlight the absurdity of his comments. “I’m not trying to do an impression of Trump,” she says. “When I do these videos, I’m trying to say, like, what if Sarah Cooper was this person who could get away with talking like this?”
The juxtaposition of Trump’s inanities coming out of her mouth dissolves whatever clothes the emperor had left, because Cooper knows she couldn’t get away with talking like that. “We look at white men in power, and if they’re speaking, we give them the benefit of the doubt that what they’re saying is smart and truthful,” she says. “And you know, someone like me, I don’t think I get the same benefit of the doubt.”
Born in Jamaica, Cooper always wanted to be an actor. After struggling to make ends meet with acting and comedy, she took a job as a UX designer at Google. She funneled her experiences at the tech giant into her writing, with her Medium post “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings” going viral in 2014. This developed into a book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings, published in 2016, followed by How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings in 2018. “I basically was able to use the corporate experience to kind of catapult me out of the corporate world again, back into comedy,” she says.
Cooper’s Trump act began around the start of the coronavirus lockdown. Unable to do stand-up or attend open mic nights, she made it her quarantine goal to learn how to use TikTok. She tried to join in the TikTok dance craze (“I deleted it immediately”) before settling on lip-syncing, another popular activity on the platform. At the time, Trump was doing daily press briefings with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Cooper found herself increasingly frustrated at what she heard. She draws parallels between Trump and the corporate figures she parodies in her books. “He reminds me of these guys in meetings that I would see who would come in and just kind of bullshit their way through the meeting, but somehow make people think that they were paying attention and knew what they were talking about.”
In her first Trump TikTok, “My audition to be president”, she lip-syncs to a clip of the president bumbling through a description of his coronavirus response: “So we have, we’re going to have a few committees – I’ll call them committees – and then ultimately we’re going to make decisions. We’re going to make decisions fairly quickly and I think they’re going to be the correct decisions, I hope so.”
She thought it might be a one-off, but then her husband drew her attention to Trump suggesting using ultraviolet light or disinfectant as a treatment for Covid-19. She immediately visualised herself acting it out. In the clip, she uses her living-room lamp and household cleaner as props. “Supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin or in some other way” – at which point she gestures at her mouth and ears before miming inserting a suppository. The clip went viral; it now has more than 750,000 views on TikTok and more than 21 million on Twitter.
Cooper started doing more Trump clips. In one, she speaks into a cracked phone and examines her shower curtain as Trump insists he visited the White House bunker “for an inspection” amid protests following the death of George Floyd. In another, she uses a hairdryer to mimic a helicopter in the background while Trump talks in revealing terms about his “MAGA” fan base: “MAGA is Make America Great Again. By the way, they love African American people, they love Black people. MAGA loves the Black people.”
There’s no orange makeup or blonde wig, and no real attempt at impersonation, just a navy blazer to hint at the act. Faced with a character like Trump, Cooper recognises that the way to satirise someone who is practically already a parody of himself is not through embellishment but through excision. “The satire comes from taking away all of the pomp and circumstance around him, and all the things that make it look like his words make sense,” she says.
She sometimes also plays other characters reacting to her Trump – a baffled journalist, a lovestruck Sean Hannity, a confused lobster fisherman.
Although Cooper films and edits her videos on TikTok, she shares them across different platforms and has the largest following on Twitter (Donald Trump is not a part of it, having blocked her in 2017). She can only directly monetize the videos on YouTube but her internet fame has caught the attention of the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres and landed her an agent. She’s hoping next to bring her comedy to film or television.
When it comes to Trump, there’s plenty of potential content – “It’s really frustrating, he won’t shut up” – but she is being selective, aware that the joke will eventually get old. With the presidential election coming up in November, she is considering collaborating with others to tackle the debates.
Meanwhile, other targets are far from safe. Cooper has already taken on Elon Musk, acting out a clip of him explaining his baby’s name to podcaster Joe Rogan (her Musk appears relaxed and affable until Rogan says he’s not familiar with the A-12 spy plane, at which point he flings little X Æ A-Xii to the floor), and says she’s up for tackling any man in power with her “reverse mansplaining”. “I would love to do Boris Johnson,” she says. “There’s a great clip I have in my back pocket of him.”
Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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