Is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen Sarah Cooper’s impersonations of Donald Trump? Her viral videos, set to the soundtrack of the president’s own (gibberish) words, have become ubiquitous during the pandemic. Every time the 42-year-old New York comedian uploads a new clip satirizing the commander in chief, she generates tens of millions of viewers on TikTok and Twitter.
It’s not just Trump’s detractors obsessively waiting to see what she posts next; even his supporters are fans. So Cooper doesn’t necessarily believe the media-obsessed president when he said in an August interview with Fox News that he hasn’t seen her routines. “Are they good or bad?” Trump, at the time, asked the reporter. (The journalist helpfully suggested that Cooper “doesn’t mean it to be positive.”)
Cooper sighs when asked about Trump’s denial (which he delivered, suspiciously, around the same time he threatened to ban TikTok). “I think he’s proven himself untrustworthy enough,” she says. “I don’t know if he has seen them, but he has such a short-term memory problem that he probably forgot them.” She considers for a moment. “He must have seen them,” she says, “but I don’t know if he registered what he was looking at.”
For most of us, Cooper’s channeling of Trump has been one of the only good things to emerge from the pandemic. Inspired by the daily White House coronavirus briefings, where the president rambled from one non sequitur to the next, Cooper quickly became a household name. Her sarcastic expressions and maniacal mannerisms shed a parodic light on how little the leader of the free world was doing as thousands of Americans died. The fact that a Black woman (Cooper is Jamaican American) was so successful at mocking the president made her meteoric rise even more fitting.
“If you listen to any single [Trump family member], they talk a lot and they aren’t really saying anything,” Cooper says. “But it didn’t even really hit me until he was doing his daily briefings. I just recognized that he was saying so many words without any substance. That’s what made me start to lip sync him; I wanted to pretend like I had that power.”
It didn’t take long for the aspiring stand-up, who left her job at Google as a user-experience designer in 2014 to pursue comedy, to land on Hollywood’s radar. Cooper signed with talent agency WME and later guest-hosted “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” She is working on a Netflix special called “Everything’s Fine” (directed by Natasha Lyonne and executive produced by Maya Rudolph) and developing a comedy series at CBS based on her popular book, “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.” Gone are the days of hoping that an agent, manager, someone, anyone, may call her back.
“I’ve gone from basically making TikToks at home to talking to Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph every day,” Cooper says. On the phone, she’s soft-spoken in a manner that belies the delusions of grandeur she assumes while mimicking Trump. Her voice is gentle, bordering on exhaustion, as she considers how she ended up in a virtual writers’ room with Rudolph and Lyonne. “I have to kind of pinch myself,” she admits.
For Rudolph, the decision to work with Cooper was a no-brainer. The former “Saturday Night Live” actor, who recently won an Emmy for impersonating Kamala Harris, jokes that Cooper’s videos are “the only way I can absorb Trump.”
“Everything’s Fine” came together quickly, with the goal of getting it on Netflix before the election. Rudolph was immediately impressed with Cooper’s zealous work ethic. She frequently finds herself encouraging Cooper to take breaks and unplug from the internet every once in a while.
“I don’t think she sleeps,” Rudolph says. “Every time she comes up with an idea or someone else does, she takes a stab and tries to fully realize it. It’s nonstop working her butt off.”
There’s at least one reason Cooper hasn’t taken her foot off the gas since March: Her comedy special is her first chance, post-viral fame, to prove that her humor extends beyond her Trump pantomimes. She’s had bouts with viral success before (she wrote a popular blog post in 2014, which she later turned into a book about satirical “tricks to appear smart in meetings”).
But in today’s hyper-capricious news cycle, stretching your 15 minutes of fame — or turning a meme into a moment — is no simple task. Yet, Cooper doesn’t feel daunted by the prospect of forging an identity beyond her political impersonations. “Oh, no,” she says, brushing off any doubts. She is giddy at the singular thought of no longer having to endure her email inbox getting flooded with daily suggestions of videos she simply must tackle.
And to no longer have to immerse herself daily in the psyche of Trump? Well, a girl can dream. At the height of the pandemic, Cooper would find herself spending hours on end parsing his speeches to perfect her movements to his increasingly crazed tone and inflection. Somehow, she swears, his voice hasn’t seeped into her subconscious: It hasn’t given her nightmares.
“So many people ask me that,” she says, “which makes me feel like maybe I have brain damage. I listen to these recordings over and over and over, hundreds of times. As soon as I make the video, it’s like, poof — it’s gone.”
Although Cooper’s career has been entangled with Trump in a weird Harry-Potter-and-Voldemort-like fashion, she hopes he’ll be booted from the Oval Office in January. “I want him to go away for so many reasons,” she says. “For my sanity, this isn’t something that I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Her Hollywood ambitions range far and wide, with plans to produce, write and act. She quips, “I’m just hoping to Phoebe Waller-Bridge this thing.” Trump or no Trump, her creative aspirations center on one common theme: “I want to make people laugh,” she says. “That’s my No. 1 thing.”
That’s been a prevailing sentiment in Cooper’s life since growing up in Rockville, Md., as the youngest of four siblings, raised on “The Cosby Show” and “Three’s Company.” (“Jack Tripper was my first crush on television,” she says.) As she got older, she found herself obsessing over the dry comedy essential to “The Colbert Report” and “The Office.”
“I always turned to humor as a defense mechanism to ease tension and make sure everybody’s feeling good,” she remembers of her childhood. “I just love when people feel comfortable and happy. I was always making my family laugh, and they’re making me laugh.”
She hopes to expand the boundaries of comedy to include edgy roles for more than just white men. “Larry David gets to be an asshole and fuck things up on [‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’] and walk around being completely unaware of who he is pissing off,” she says with admiration. “It would be great to have more exciting characters like that in comedy for women and for women of color.”
For now, she has enjoyed getting acclimated to show business from the comfort of her couch in Brooklyn, alongside her husband, Jeff Palm, and 10-month-old cockapoo, Stella. “The spirit of New York isn’t gone,” she says. “Neither is the feeling of knowing that a place as magical as the city can exist and thrive.”
Before the pandemic, Cooper jokes that she performed in mostly empty basements. When it’s safe again to gather in large crowds, it’s reasonable to assume she’ll no longer have trouble filling seats.
“Yeah, right. Maybe?” she says, still trying to come to grips with fame. “We’ll see.”