Sarah Cooper’s Humor Is Not What You Thought

Sarah Cooper on "Everything's Fine"
In <em>Everything's Fine</em>, Sarah Cooper plays a morning-show anchor struggling to maintain her giddy demeanor.Lacey Terrell / Netflix

Press play on a video by the comedian Sarah Cooper, and you know what to expect: Cooper in a blazer, lip-synching to something nonsensical that President Donald Trump has said, her exaggerated facial expressions highlighting the absurdity of his comments. These bite-size, viral impersonations, created on TikTok and popularized on Twitter, have launched her to online fame since she began posting them in April, garnering her millions of followers, a guest-hosting gig for Jimmy Kimmel, and a deal with Netflix to create a special. In a year when comedians have had to cancel stand-up shows and adapt to performing without live audiences, Cooper’s meteoric rise is remarkable. When we spoke in May, she sounded stunned by her success. “My impostor syndrome is kicking in,” she told me then. “I’m like, ‘Wait, I didn’t actually write anything.’”

For her Netflix show, she certainly got to write. Directed by Natasha Lyonne, Everything’s Fine (streaming now) isn’t exactly a comedy special. Instead, it’s a series of vignettes packaged as segments of an eccentric morning show called Everything’s Fine. Cooper plays the flustered anchor, who struggles to maintain her giddy demeanor as the hour goes on. Packed with cameos from comic heavy hitters—including Fred Armisen as Cooper’s producer, Maya Rudolph as the meteorologist, and Whoopi Goldberg as a narrator—the show gradually descends into surreal chaos. Commercials interrupt the news at odd moments, interviews morph into dance breaks, and by the end, Cooper is cowering under her desk with a woman who just woke up from a four-year coma.

Recommended Reading

In other words, Everything’s Fine is a dramatic departure from Cooper’s Trump videos. Darker and more sardonic in tone, with an overarching story that requires some patience to understand, the special’s high-concept nature isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny. The comedian may have gone viral for “playing Trump,” but here, with her biggest platform yet, she demonstrates what her comedic taste really is—and it’s somewhat surprising to learn that it’s deeply weird.

It’s also invigorating to watch. Although Cooper does lip-synch to Trump in some segments, the best material in Everything’s Fine brings to mind Adult Swim programming, fever-dream-like productions that make just enough sense to keep you mesmerized. For instance, Aubrey Plaza appears as “the real QAnon,” hosting a QVC-esque home-shopping segment until she loses her mind and runs away. A short vignette set at a fictionalized Mar-a-Lago transforms into a trailer for the next Jordan Peele film. Interstitials with jarring imagery—including Cooper’s face superimposed on a wailing baby Trump and a recurring Jon Hamm ad about a pillow that injects coronavirus vaccines into users’ necks—constantly interrupt the show. It’s the type of comedy that would make sense showing at 1 a.m. after The Eric Andre Show, when dark, oddball shorts begin to air. Everything’s Fine thrives on discomfort, using its disorienting jokes to not only make you laugh, but also to make you cringe.

Still, Cooper’s jokes can be rather obvious. At times, she seems to be merely using the special to mock the biggest punch lines of 2020: Early in the hour, there’s a segment starring Jane Lynch as a guest who questions whether Cooper really is the host, becomes so afraid of her that she calls security, and then is revealed to be named Karen. (Get it?) Ben Stiller drops by as the CEO of a tech company who’s promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion practices, but who’s also mired in sexual-harassment allegations. (He’s a robot who goes by “8008s,” by the way.) And Rudolph’s meteorologist is a one-note character reeling from having predicted a bizarre week of weather patterns—the forecast includes “hot rain” and murderous snowmen—who routinely ruins the punch lines of her jokes.

The special is a dramatic departure from Cooper’s lip-synching videos. (Lacey Terrell / Netflix)

Everything’s Fine becomes more ambitious in the back half of the hour, when Cooper pivots away from skewering Trump and the lunacy of 2020, to skewering herself—and by extension, her audience—for being glued to every headline. “Is that a lot of news or what?” Cooper asks her crew as her chipper veneer begins to crack, adding that she has to cover what the president just said because he gets the network its best ratings. One of the most acerbic vignettes stars Cooper and Helen Mirren as Trump and Billy Bush, respectively, reenacting and lip-synching to the audio of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump boasts to an amused Bush that being a celebrity allows him to “move on” women and “grab them by the pussy.” As the anchor, Cooper touts the tape as a piece of gossip, cheerfully teasing the segment. But when the sketch begins, the women aren’t just lip-synching the men; they play them manically, as if saying derogatory comments gives them both immense pleasure. The clip takes on a sinister tone as the pair rile each other up, underlining how the exchange was never just innocent “locker-room talk,” but a deliberately callous, ego-stroking exercise. And by having two women delight in degrading members of their own gender, Cooper unsubtly criticizes the president’s female supporters for looking past his misogyny. It’s more cynical than anything else in the special.

Cooper’s fans may not be expecting such a tonal deviation from her viral work. Judging by the comments under her social-media uploads, they appreciate her ability to mimic and mock the president, often praising her for being the only way they can stomach hearing his words. They find her tweets relatable and her elastic expressions sharp. The trickle of content that she’s provided in the past six months—the impersonations, the commentary, the marquee gigs—have quenched a collective thirst for a new way to tell the Trump joke.

But as Everything’s Fine makes clear, Cooper isn’t interested in getting by on Trump jokes forever. Her career is unusual; she’s the rare comic who gets to define her persona after achieving fame, a talent who’s still very much a blank slate, despite the millions of fans she’s amassed—and, most important, one of the few comedic successes in a year racked by failures. That must be a strange feeling, to have your greatest achievement be the result of the worst times in recent history. Do you embrace that fact, or do you avoid it?

Everything’s Fine provides a clue to Cooper’s answer. In its final act, the special reveals the reason for the morning show’s deranged production, as it ends with a song playing over the credits that declares how “it’s so nice to be in hell” while Cooper flees in terror across a golf course. The comedian, given her brightest spotlight yet with this Netflix special, has used the opportunity to be as strange as the year of her rise. There’s no point in insisting that everything’s fine when nothing is, after all.