Where Do We Go from Here?
Of all the artifacts of the Trump years—the COVID death toll; the introduction of phrases like “grab ’em by the pussy” into the common lexicon; the rise of Twitter as a substitute for the White House press office—the most baffling might be the rise of Sarah Cooper.
If you’re on social media, you’ll recognize her: She’s the lady who lip syncs Trump speeches while making a series of silly faces. That’s . . .it. That’s what she does. It’s why she’s been given late-night hosting gigs and her own Netflix special. She silently mouths what the president says. She makes funny faces while doing it. She sometimes does the same shtick for other political figures. She racks up retweets. She shows up in my feed.
She’s. Always. In. My. Feed.
That last part is probably my fault, given that I follow a bunch of Boomers. (Love you guys, but come on.) And I’ve been assured that this summation is unfair, that she’s written books and had a thriving standup career before all of this. That she’s not Gen X Andy Borowitz but actually quite clever and merely riding her wave to fame and fortune. It’s unfair to harp on this; sexist perhaps, even.
And yet. You see clips like this and you wonder what we’ve done to deserve our fate:
I’m old enough to remember when Donald Trump was supposed to be good for comedy. pic.twitter.com/z6dr5I3ukc
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) October 27, 2020
All of which is to say that I turned on her new Netflix special—a parody of a Today-style morning show called Everything’s Fine, the title of which, we learn from a narrator, is driving her completely insane, as everything is NOT fine—in the worst possible mindset: I, a confirmed hater, switched it on right after being primed to hate by having seen a very hateable thing from the show.
But . . . it wasn’t terrible! Well, in one way, it was terrible: the lip-syncing, my God. It’s a running motif. Sarah Cooper pretending to be Trump on a golf course; Sarah Cooper pretending to be Trump-world women as dolls being sold by a QAnon-inspired QVC; Sarah Cooper pretending to be Trump while Helen Mirren pretends to be Billy Bush. And I understand that, like Gallagher, she can’t just not do her shtick—she has to give the people the hits, that’s what they’re here for; if she doesn’t smash the watermelon, they’re going to be annoyed—but it’s tremendously tiresome, a meme bereft of jokes or comic insight. (If you want comic insight into Trump’s braindead patter, you’re better off checking out James Austin Johnson.)
But the rest of Everything’s Fine absolutely nails the crushing absurdity of our times. From Fred Armisen’s increasingly outlandish coronavirus protection gear to the rise of prominence of the pillow guy (played here by Jon Hamm, who desperately wants us to tell him he’s funny) to the wild weather reports from Maya Rudolph to Megan Thee Stallion acting as a sort of stay-at-home-self-help guru, it’s largely gold. Not every bit lands (a Ken Burns-style documentary on “Karens” narrated by Whoopi Goldberg drags, even at a brief 70-some seconds) but enough does to recreate the sense that we’re living through a movie dystopia. At one point, the literal devil takes eight years of “plot points” and shoves them all into 2020, murder hornets bumping up against bat diseases. It’s a common Twitter joke (much of the humor here feels Very Online), but it works.
The only relief Cooper finds comes from fleeing her studio, getting out into the sunlight. And, again, there’s a palpable way in which this is incredibly true: One trap that news junkies fall into is consuming too much. Allowing ourselves to get overwhelmed. At a certain point, you need to just shut it off and go outside. (Of course, what you find out there might not be as much of a relief as you want.) If you sit in your NYC apartment foaming about the state of the world, you’re going to drive yourself a little—okay, very—nuts.
Cooper’s special imagines Trump and the insanities he’s brought to the fore—QAnon and the neverending cycle of lockdown and death and lockdown—as all-encompassing, a hundred-headed Hydra. An Evening with Tim Heidecker, meanwhile, countenances Trump as just a bump in the road.
Heidecker’s special, on YouTube now, is a send-up of stand-up, a sort of anti-comedy comedy routine. He comes out and can’t get the microphone stand to work, stumbling and bumbling with it for so long that the joke transforms from funny to not funny and back to funny again. As he gets going, the bits are ur-hack, the primal form of hackery: “Always flying from here to there, and I always end up sort of in the last position, when flying, you know, you get to the airport and they say, you show them your ID and they say ‘uh, too bad sir, you’re in zone five.’ [drops mic, makes funny face] I say ‘at least I’m not in the Twilight Zone.’ [mugging for laughs].”
He riffs on the names of people in the audience, doing terrible improv; he riffs on his wife (“I call her the nag, HAHA”); he riffs on vegan food. And then he gets to Trump. And you can feel a subtle shift in the audience, as if they expect this to be the meat of the show, or maybe too intense, or just a little more serious. But he does the same thing he’s been doing—botching a “Russia, Russia, Russia!” joke—before moving on to terrible impressions of movie stars and a bit on Coke vs. Pepsi.
Cooper and Heidecker are doing similar things in these two specials. Sure, Heidecker’s a bit more aggressively and intentionally unfunny; Cooper’s a bit more topical. But they’re both deconstructing common entertainments and reveling in their absurdity in order to reveal the banality underlying our distractions. In the end, Heidecker’s vision is a more comforting one despite its more aggressively anti-viewer stance, suggesting as it does that Trump is fodder for hack laughs, not worth obsessing over. You could plug just about any presidency into that portion of the show and it would change very little; when he’s gone, he’s gone.
Let’s hope that’s the case.