A year ago, Sarah Cooper was probably as well-known globally as Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
Yet through her “How to…” online videos this spring and summer – in which she lip-synched along to the leader of the Free World’s ramblings about the coronavirus and anything else that popped into his head – she did as much as anyone to showcase the madness of King Donald. Ultimately, I like to think she may even have cost him the election by reaching GOP or undecided voters in a way that more obviously partisan comedians never could.
Before you accuse me of spouting the most arrant nonsense outside of a Rudy Giuliani press conference, or respond that if any comedian cost Trump the election it was probably the Libertarian Party’s Jo Jorgensen – here are two numbers to consider: 43,735 and 24.1 million.
The first is the combined number of votes by which Joe Biden won the swing states of Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona (the latter two still have a few votes left to count – once they finally reach the United States from Spain or Venezuela, presumably). If Trump had gotten those votes, the Electoral College would have been a “Veep”-esque tie.
The second is the number of views Cooper’s “How to Medical” video accrued on TikTok/Twitter after she turned the president’s musings into comedy gold. Or, to be more precise, comedy orange.
So what, you’re doubtless saying – the likes of Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Bill Maher and Samantha Bee also got millions of views this year with their remorseless comedic skewerings of the president. (One of the many strange quirks of the Trump presidency is that the late-night comedian who was born to mock him, Jon Stewart, went off the air as Trump announced his candidacy, and is now set to return on Apple TV+ just as 45 exits stage right.)
But here’s the difference: These TV hosts were all preaching to the choir with their Trump diatribes, rarely likely to flip anyone from the right side of the political aisle. A diehard Trump supporter was more likely to watch an HBO documentary on trans kids than “Real Time,” “The Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight” – and especially in an election year.
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Cooper, however, wasn’t writing mean things about Donnie Anarcho. Instead, she had the genius idea of simply taking his own comments and using them against him – hoisting him with his own petard (though Trump would probably swap the “p” for an “r” there).
And here she had a huge advantage over the late-night TV hosts: the most consistently funny, outrageously out-there writer in the business. Even Robin Williams in his prime couldn’t have ad-libbed a line like “You’re going to have to use medical doctors.”
Until Cooper emerged this spring, the most commonly repeated phrase I read on Twitter in relation to a Trump video was: “Someone needs to add the ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ theme to this.” After she came along, the most commonly repeated phrase was, “I can’t wait to see what Sarah Cooper does with this.”
By using Trump’s asinine words and just a handful of props (my favorite was the whiteboard marker pen she sniffs in “How to More Cases Than Anybody in the World”), Cooper was perhaps able to attract centrists and Republicans not signed up to the Cult of Trump, and get them laughing in a way that the Colberts and Mahers of this world never could.
Which undecided voter couldn’t watch Cooper do the most spot-on facial mannerisms of the president as he spouted his quackery and think, “Maybe Sleepy Joe ain’t so bad if Deranged Don is the alternative”?
The homemade nature of the videos made them even more appealing, particularly as they were created at a time when many Americans were in lockdown and thinking only of surviving the coronavirus (and then emigrating to Canada).
There was nothing slick about the videos, nothing that would lead you to mistake them for an edited-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life ad by Never-Trumpers like The Lincoln Project. Instead, Cooper’s videos relied on a highly skilled mimic who could make you laugh with the merest gesture; a person filming on a smartphone, and then the most basic of edits. Oh, and a killer use of the “silent voice of reason” – Cooper again, this time playing the observer via the most minimalist of disguises (usually just a pair of glasses, notepad or tamped-down hair), and offering looks of bewilderment while listening to the digressions of a vainglorious fool.
Even if we can’t prove that Cooper impacted on Trump’s numbers, it’s irrefutable that she brought laughter to millions when all was turning to merde. (One more number for you worth considering: 91 percent of Black women voted for Biden.) She also got a Netflix special out of it, “Everything’s Fine,” so her year definitely turned out a lot better than Donald’s.
The Trump empire strikes back?
I was originally going to call this piece “Did this comedian help Biden win the election?” In the end, though, I decided to go with Trump – and many folks in the media are going to face similar decisions over the next four years.
Put simply, how much focus should we be putting on the ex-president as he plots his political return, Darth Vader-esque, in 2024? (I don’t think he’ll be able to announce his presidential bid in as memorable fashion as in 2015, if only because they don’t have escalators in Sing Sing.)
Yet no matter what you think of Trump, there’s no denying he’s been good for the media business. The New York Times and Washington Post both tripled their digital subscriptions over the past five years; CNN and Fox News enjoyed stellar ratings, dominating this year’s U.S. election coverage; and documentarians can’t keep up with demand for stories about politics, from Trump on up.
But it’s not just documentaries. I finally caught up last week with “The Comey Rule,” which first aired on Showtime back in September. This two-part miniseries, about former FBI chief James Comey – aka the world’s most egotistical Boy Scout – and his bungled involvement in the 2016 election and subsequent sacking by Donald “I expect loyalty” Trump, was way more enjoyable than I anticipated.
Who knew, for instance, that former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates would sound so much like Holly Hunter? Or that they could find an actor to actually look as slimy as Don Trump Jr.? (Harmon Walsh – thank you for your service.)
However, it still managed to fill me with trepidation that the next four years are going to be spent reliving the Trump presidency on screen, in both documentary and dramatized form.
The latter seems inevitable given the craziness of the past four years, but also because Hollywood does seem to love a good ol’ GOP biopic – whether that be Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1993) or “W.” (2008), or “Vice” (2018), about former VP Dick Cheney. And who could forget “Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story” (2003), when James Woods clearly “went method” and has been stuck in character as a rabid right-winger ever since.
As I say, the other thing that makes it inevitable is the wealth of great potential stories out there. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a movie about Kellyanne Conway and her husband George – she Trump’s top propagandist, he Trump’s Twitter nemesis? Actually, throw in their pissed teenage kids and that story’s got sitcom written all over it.
There’s already a film reportedly in the works based on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s tell-all “Disloyal: A Memoir.” And how long before someone buys the rights to the story of Miles Taylor, the former Homeland Security chief of staff who penned two exposés about the White House as “Anonymous,” earning the wrath of Trump.
At this rate, “All the President’s Men” is likely to refer to the lineup at your local movie theater late next year.
One group of artists who’ll be praying these films do see the green light are hair stylists – there are four alone credited on “The Comey Rule,” including one specifically for the Trump mane. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brendan Gleeson’s Trump wig in “Comey Rule” gets its own agent soon.
While our mental health may be better served by receiving a much-needed break from 45, there’s still one Trump-themed movie I’d love to see in the near future: Todd Haynes revisiting his 1988 classic “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” in which he retold the singer’s tragic story using Barbie dolls.
Well, it’s either that or a silent comedy.