“No one here is that excited about Sarah Cooper.” That was the verdict from one talent agent a few months before the pandemic hit, on the comedian’s efforts to move into television. “It was so hurtful,” Cooper says of the feedback. Six years after quitting her tech job to concentrate on comedy, doing stand-up, online sketches, blog posts and books, her future felt unclear.
Then Donald Trump changed her life.
I meet Cooper for a transatlantic meal (lunch for her, dinner for me) to discuss the Trump bump to her career. It’s a few weeks before rioters invade Capitol Hill, an event she sums up in a tweet as “Trump implores his supporters to violently overthrow the government peacefully”.
Last year, in the early days of lockdown, confined to her Brooklyn flat by the pandemic and deprived of a stand-up audience, Cooper played around with TikTok, the Chinese-owned short video app popular with teens. In the first few she filmed herself dancing and pulling expressions with a face mask. Then she tried something new: lip-syncing Donald Trump’s words.
“He was just on television so much. It was so frustrating to see the gaslighting,” she says. The early clips were rough but she warmed to the theme, revelling in Trump’s “masculine energy” and feeling “everything I say is amazing, and everything I say is right.”
Then, at the end of April, Trump speculated whether citizens could use disinfectant to kill coronavirus. “The disinfectant . . . is there a way we can do something like that, by injection?”, wondered the president. The medical profession and disinfectant manufacturers were aghast; Cooper was inspired. She put on a navy jacket, lip-synced his words and posted the video, “How to medical,” on social media. It tore through the internet, becoming one of the defining cultural moments of the pandemic year, viewed more than 24m times on Twitter alone.
Overnight, everyone became excited about Sarah Cooper. Subsequent “how to” videos (including, “How to the black people”, “How to hydroxychloroquine” and “How to regret”) attracted fans across the world. Amid Trump’s pandemic mismanagement and the Black Lives Matter protests, the 43-year-old provided a comedic balm.
I am keen to discuss her long journey to sudden stardom and after a few tech glitches, we finally have a stable connection. Her Brooklyn flat — the pictures, cream walls and charcoal sofa — are familiar, the backdrop to her TikTok videos. Stella, her miniature cockapoo, leaps up on to the sofa, a pink toy between her jaws, and Cooper’s husband affectionately smooths his wife’s stray hairs before disappearing off-camera. After seeing so much of Cooper’s TikTok Trump, I am surprised by the softness of her voice, and her immaculate appearance: perfectly waved hair and flawless make-up.
My starter — hummus with sliced egg, a tangy pickle and pita bread — smells appetising, though I long to enjoy it under the warm light of the stylish Shawarma Bar, a short walk from my flat, rather than the blue glare of a screen. There is a larger problem than ambience: Cooper’s food has not turned up. We agree to proceed and hope a delivery arrives soon from Table 87, a local restaurant which makes her favourite pizza.
Today, in the embers of Trump’s administration, it is hard to remember that the presidential ambitions of the brash reality TV star were once dismissed by many political pundits. But, says Cooper, “it became something scary pretty fast”. During his presidency, she sometimes avoided mentioning politics in her stand-up because, she reasoned, audiences on a night out needed a break. But not always. In one routine she riffed on hating him because they were so similar: both spend all day on Twitter, she would say, and show up to meetings unprepared. Another joke skewered his privilege. “If I had Donald Trump’s confidence, I’d be the most successful woman in the world. Wait, I mean I’d be the most unlikeable woman in the world.”
The problem with political comedy is that it can also make comedians’ targets palatable. Trump “should have been censured many times for many things, not least when he told the country to inject bleach into their veins. He is the most dangerous man to ever hold the office,” says Cooper. “And yet we [kind of] laughed at it and moved on.” Had Trump won the 2020 election, she says she would have worried that her videos had somehow helped to humanise him.
It has become a cliché that satire died under the entertainer-in-chief. Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep and The Thick of It, put it bluntly: “Political comedy only works if there are a set of rules to follow so you can point out how certain politicians are bending them, but Trump is an anarchist.” Cooper believes satire had to “reinvent itself, but I don’t think it’s dead. Satire now has to work harder and be smarter, or go the other direction and get sillier.”
The success of her TikTok videos was thanks to their simplicity: Cooper demonstrated Trump’s words were preposterous. “[I’m] exposing the mansplaining. I couldn’t get away with speaking like this. Part of the reason I can’t get away [with it] is because I am a woman, I am a minority.” So much so that the routines made her father anxious at first. “[We’re] immigrants from Jamaica. He was like, ‘Dude, this is a powerful guy. You shouldn’t poke the bear’.”
The simplicity of the videos conceals the effort. Cooper would repeatedly listen to Trump’s words, finding new inflections until she got the rhythm of his speech just right. At the start of each one she would think: “I should stop doing this, this is stupid, I can’t do this.” Until she finessed it to the point of thinking, “OK, this is gonna be good.” The final hurdle was her husband. If he cracked a smile she knew it was “good enough” to share.
Some have quipped that Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok was triggered by her videos rather than security concerns. Recently she “got confirmation”, though she refuses to identify the source, that the outgoing president had watched the videos and they “really hurt him”. How does she feel? “Good. I feel good. Maybe he really saw for a second, ‘Oh, well, I’m full of shit.’”
Professionally, Cooper is keen to move on from Trump, and hopes that a Biden-Harris administration will not inspire a new wave of political comedy. If anything, she wants them to be so boring that politics recedes into the background. “Americans are now intimately familiar with how our government works in a way that we weren’t before because [Trump] broke all these rules. We still have to keep an eye on politics but I don’t think it should be the subject of every conversation.”
I ask if it is right that liberals dominate the entertainment industry and stand-up circuit. “It’s so obvious to me that if you’re liberal, you’re willing to explore things,” Cooper says. “And if you’re conservative, if you conserve your thoughts, if you conserve your exploration, you just won’t be able to reach the level of humour that a leftwing comedian can reach. It’s true for comedians, acting, arts in any form, you have to be open. And I don’t think the conservative mindset is an open one.”
Cooper implores me to start despite there being no sign of her calamari and salad. I don’t tell her that before logging on I scoffed a mouthful of warm, tender lamb and pillowy pita bread, nor that the pickles are just the right side of sweet.
Cooper has wrongly been described as an overnight success; in fact, she was viral long before the pandemic restored the word’s medical meaning. In 2014, her blog-post, “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings”, which advised workers to turn percentages into fractions and to draw Venn diagrams, became a huge hit. So too did her post “9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women”, which recommended peppering “emails with exclamation marks and emojis so you don’t come across as too clear or direct.”
Financial Times readers may remember her 2018 column “Six things working women should pretend they can’t do”, which advised women not to take notes, plan office parties or make coffee. “The minute one of your co-workers walks into the kitchen and discovers that you know how to pour steamed milk into a cup,” she wrote, “they will assume it is part of your official duties.”
What is the secret behind internet fame? “I’ve tried to crack the formula many times. I can tell you the ingredients: timeliness [and] authenticity. But even if you make something that’s very timely and authentic, it still might not go viral.” Even if it does, it’s hard to make a career out of virality. “Lilly Singh [a Canadian comedian] and Lele Pons [a Venezuelan-American social media star turned singer, presenter and entrepreneur] and a lot of these YouTube stars are able to make videos that get millions of views, but it takes a long time. I’m the type of person that I try something and then if it doesn’t work, I move on to something else.” She was on the verge of quitting lip-syncing just before posting the “How to medical” TikTok clip. “If that hadn’t gone viral, we wouldn’t even be talking right now,” she says.
Attention is complicated for Cooper. The youngest of four, she moved with her family from Jamaica to Rockville, Maryland, when she was three. As a child, Cooper says she learnt to minimise herself because her two sisters had a greater need for her parents’ time (one had a learning disability, and the other was in and out of surgery). “It’s a daily struggle,” she says. “You want attention, but at the same time, you don’t want to say, ‘Look at me’. It’s this push and pull of being scared to put myself out there.” She calls herself a recovering people pleaser. “I just want everything to go smoothly. Even if that means that I’m not happy.”
87 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Fried calamari appetiser $15
Apple almond crunch salad (dressing on the side) $11
with extra chicken $4
Berber & Q Shawarma Bar
46 Exmouth Market, London EC1
Lucky Saint lager £2.90
Jerusalem chopped salad £5.50
Lamb shawarma plate £18.50
Iraqi hummus £8
I become acutely aware that she may be pretending to be OK about her food failing to arrive. We both check our phones for updates. Nothing. While she’s distracted, I surreptitiously nibble the pita bread.
Cooper was a keen actress at school, but both her mother (an HR executive) and father (an engineer) wanted her to pursue a sensible job. She studied economics, and after a stint at an advertising agency she moved into user experience design at Yahoo in Silicon Valley, and then in 2011 to Google in New York. “I spent a lot of time in the nap room. I loved the environment [and] that people are so smart. But I didn’t want to be doing the work.”
She held on to her childhood ambition to act despite the growing realisation that she did not actually enjoy acting. In 2010, she started doing stand-up. “When I tried comedy, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, this is fun.’”
The workplace was rich in material: she would take notes on co-workers and office life. She set up The Cooper Review, a home for her satirical posts, and left Google in 2014. (She joked that she quit her job after she married her white husband, an engineer at Google, as a form of “reparations”.)
Later, she published books which expanded on her earlier blogposts. In 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings (2016), she advises creating presentations with one large word in the centre of every slide. “Read the word aloud, then look at the audience and say, ‘I’m just going to let that sink in.’”
This was followed in 2018 by How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, which made fun of the advice women are given that twists them out of shape, such as the right amount of smiling for a job interview — somewhere between flirty and bitchy that “makes you look like you’re having a stroke”.
Bullshit underpins Cooper’s career, I suggest, tying Trump to her books skewering corporate life. She winces. “It’s absolutely true.” Though she prefers the word “performance” — as in, acting — to bullshit.
Immigrants are very good, she says, at figuring out what the “smart people are doing [and doing] that too.” Trump is different. “He wouldn’t try to appear smart, he would literally just say, ‘I’m smart’. It’s like hypnosis, you hear something enough, you start to believe it. I wish we could all stop performing [and] could have more real conversations.”
Where does she stand on tech as a communication tool? “It’s the greatest thing ever. And also the worst. I couldn’t have got to where I [have] without social media and the internet. But at the same time, everything has become so extreme. The middle is disappearing. It’s just pixels and yet we wrap our whole lives up in it.”
Without social media she might never have ended up making a Netflix special. Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine is a dystopian news show, with sketches and lip-syncing segments, culminating in the recreation of Trump’s “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape, with Cooper reprising her TikTok role and Helen Mirren as Billy Bush. The show got mixed reviews, but the combination of humour and disquiet is compelling. Cooper wanted the viewer to feel like they were “losing [their] mind because the news is so overwhelming”.
Currently she is working on a TV script of How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings for CBS. Will she adapt her office observations for the Zoom era? “There might be some additional working-from-home scenes but I’m hoping the pandemic will be a distant memory by the time the show is on TV.”
In the new year, I catch up with Cooper, who like millions of us watched events unfold at the Capitol. “I knew violence was possible,” she writes in an email. “But the scenes inside the House chamber was so shocking. People were so excited about having an ‘outsider’ in politics but the problem with that is that they have no relationship to the institutions they’re supposed to be leading. When he was elected he had no regard or respect for our democracy and for some reason that was seen as a benefit. It’s not.”
Cooper is now looking forward to the end of the Trump era. And on the matter of our lunch, she has one trivial regret. She wishes the salad she ordered, which did eventually arrive, had been a pizza. “I thought ordering a salad would make me look health conscious.” Performance, it seems, can even get in the way of lunch.
Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work and careers feature writer
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first