I’m kind of an introvert, so I really do have to get over some anxiety to get on stage and connect with an audience. Once I do, it’s amazing, but it is a bit of a struggle. [TikTok], for me, was exhilarating; I don’t find performing on Zoom or Instagram that rewarding. I feel like I’m trying to take, like, a cube and put it in a round hole, you know what I mean? It just doesn’t fit.
Li: Your videos directly engage with the anxiety around the pandemic, and your series covering the president have to mine humor out of his lies—without spreading his harmful messages. How do you figure out how to toe that line?
Cooper: The cool thing with TikTok is that people have already done their own takes on his audio, and I’ve noticed that people who try to impersonate Trump do the hair or the clothes or the facial expressions. But it isn’t as funny, for some reason. What I did was basically, What if I, Sarah Cooper, said these words? Like I really believe that this is a valid idea. I’m talking very honestly through this, so I wasn’t trying to imitate him at all.
Somebody [pointed out] that this is the emperor without his clothes, because when you see Trump, and he’s behind that podium with the presidential seal, and he has people nodding behind him, you might think that what he’s saying makes sense. But you take all of that away, and you have those words coming out of my mouth? It just brings to light even more how ridiculous it is.
Li: That reminds me of what Seinfeld said about you: that your video is funny because you don’t seem to be having fun.
Cooper: [Laughs.] It’s so funny he said that, because when I was doing it, my husband was cooking dinner, and I was rushing to get it done before dinner was ready. A part of that urgency probably came through. And he’s right; when you try to be funny, usually it’s not funny.
Li: You’re doing an objectively funny thing, but you’re actively trying not to be—or notice that you are.
Cooper: Yeah, if you’ve ever seen This Is Spinal Tap, or any kind of mockumentary, that to me is hysterical. Those characters don’t think of themselves as funny. That’s why Trump is so funny, because he thinks he sounds brilliant. So I was playing a character who didn’t think of myself at all as funny. Just being earnest, you know?
Li: When does he stop being funny? You’re skilled at writing timely jokes on Twitter, and your TikToks have only underlined the absurdity of his administration’s response to the health crisis, but have there been times when you’ve stopped yourself from coming up with a comedic take?
Cooper: It is a very tough decision. Trump was asked if he had spoken to any families who had lost loved ones to the coronavirus and he gave a vapid response. He was searching for something, for some way to seem empathetic even though he couldn’t [empathize], and I wanted to make fun of that, but he is talking about death, and he is talking about losing people. I felt like that was a line for me: Even if it’s him, I didn’t want to make something funny about people losing loved ones.