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Sarah Cooper’s Netflix Special Is Stymied by the Current Moment, Just Like the Rest of the Comedy World

‘Everything’s Fine’ is yet more proof of the challenge of satirizing our chaotic world, and why traditional forms keep coming up short

Netflix/Ringer illustration

You probably recognize Sarah Cooper. You’ve probably also never heard her voice. The 42-year-old comedian stands at the red-hot nexus of two equally powerful trends: front-facing comedy videos and the toddler-aged rhetorical mode that is Resistance Humor. In a way, the fads are at odds. Front-facing comedy is the populist province of social media, where performers fashion characters out of a few square inches of real estate. Resistance Humor’s unofficial home base is the first 15 minutes of Saturday Night Live, where increasingly famous celebrities ape politicians to unsettling effect and outsized acclaim.

Cooper splits the difference. In early April, she joined TikTok, whose all-important algorithm makes it easy for users with minimal followings to reach large audiences. By late April, Cooper had hit on her signature style: finely calibrated lip syncs to audio recordings of President Donald Trump, augmented with prop work, body language, and supporting characters also played by Cooper. At first, the videos were shot in Cooper’s Brooklyn apartment; soon, the backdrop switched to the telltale glass walls and blond wood of a rented WeWork office space, reflecting the lip syncs’ shift from quarantine lark to career exercise. The clips quickly became the toast of the liberal internet, propelling Cooper to a CBS comedy project, a Jimmy Kimmel guest-hosting gig, and now, a Netflix special called Everything’s Fine, which premiered on Tuesday.

Directed by Natasha Lyonne and executive-produced by Lyonne and Maya Rudolph under their joint Animal Pictures production banner, Everything’s Fine was made, like most of Cooper’s best-known work, under the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. Before lockdown, Cooper regularly did stand-up; “I started this year doing a late-night set at a pizza place in Jersey City,” she cracked on Kimmel. “Now, here I am, hosting a late-night show in a vacant house.” Everything’s Fine, though, is closer to a character-driven sketch special, loosely structured around the concept of Cooper hosting a morning show. Crowd scenes are out of the question, of course, but Everything’s Fine boasts a celebrity cast that includes, in ascending order of surprise, Jonathan Van Ness, Aubrey Plaza, Megan Thee Stallion, Winona Ryder, Whoopi Goldberg, Connie Chung, and Helen Mirren. (Jon Hamm is around too, though “buzzy comedy” and “Jon Hamm cameo” are essentially redundant.)

The obvious question facing Everything’s Fine, which Cooper has gamely fielded in interviews, is whether Cooper can prove she’s more than her most viral calling cards. The Trump lip syncs are a show of timing, physicality, and editing chops, but they’re also drawn from material generated for Cooper by the news. What happens when Cooper, with help from a writers’ room populated by veterans from SNL’s Paula Pell to Difficult People’s Cole Escola, starts drafting her own scripts?

Some skepticism may be warranted, and ultimately, Everything’s Fine is not a successful hour of comedy. But that framing misses the point. After all, the special fails in ways identical to the blunders of names far bigger, more established, and better capitalized than a woman who went from relative unknown to Netflix star in just over six months. As the sheer wattage of star power involved suggests, the sensibility on display in Everything’s Fine isn’t unique to any individual entertainer. It’s a shared way of processing what the closing number inventively deems “hell,” one Cooper has been welcomed to rather than pioneering herself. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes, it’s that the outfit she’s wearing is so of-the-moment trendy that it already feels dated.

What’s unique about Everything’s Fine is how it contradicts the lessons of Cooper’s own work. The lip syncs caught on for many reasons: their brevity, the aforementioned technical chops, the sounds of the white male id issuing from the mouth of a Black woman. But at their core, the videos solve a problem so much Trump-era comedy, and art in general, is unable to solve: how hard it is to come up with something, anything, funnier or stranger or more shocking than what’s already unfolding on our feeds. Cooper shrewdly didn’t try, altering the context of Trump’s speech just enough to give it new life. One theory of Cooper’s popularity holds that she makes Trump’s humor legible to liberals who can’t stand its source.

Everything’s Fine, inevitably, reverses course. There are lip syncs dispersed throughout, both to Trump himself and supporting characters like Melania and Kellyanne. (For the grand finale, Cooper reenacts the Access Hollywood tape, costarring Mirren as Billy Bush.) But the rest of the special cycles through a Rolodex of social media clichés for How We Talk About What’s Happening Right Now, animated in 30-to-120-second clips. The title of Everything’s Fine recalls the widely circulated meme of a dog sitting calmly in a room set on fire, accurately forecasting the familiar, Twitter-fluent material contained within. Karens! Drinking in quarantine! 2020 as a Jordan Peele movie! The very premise of some sketches are transplanted directly from joke templates so widespread they’re attributable only to our collective imagination. “Can you imagine telling a time traveler about [insert latest news story here]?” becomes Cooper telling Ryder’s fictional TV character about the events of the last four years. Nihilist cracks about an asteroid ending our misery become an actual asteroid whose landfall ends the special. In the most groan-worthy bit of all, the ubiquitous quips about the 2020 writers’ room (“America really jumped the shark this season!”) become an actual sketch set in a writers’ room where the showrunner is Satan herself, played by Marisa Tomei.

Everything’s Fine works so hard to be about these interesting times that it’s barely about Cooper herself. There are hints, like a short riff about her name and how it squares with her identity as the child of Jamaican immigrants: “I feel like when my parents named me Sarah, a white lady moved into my body and gentrified my whole personality.” But there’s not nearly enough to serve as the self-introduction a televised special is supposed to be, and certainly no punch lines as sharp as “I’m black enough to be called the N-word, but I’m not black enough to say it,” a line from Cooper’s stand-up act. Cooper is a former Google UX designer who broke into comedy later in life after a Medium post about looking smart at meetings blew up in 2014. (The difference between 2014 and 2020 can accurately be summed up by “Medium post that becomes a book deal” vs. “TikTok series that becomes a Netflix special.”) In Everything’s Fine, though, she sounds like just another late-night host scrambling to keep up with the headlines of the day.

Again, Cooper’s struggle to heighten the heightened doesn’t make her somehow unfit to join the comedy establishment—if anything, it marks her as a part of it. (And at least she never calls the commander-in-chief a Cheeto.) But even her rapid ascent can’t outpace the internet’s roiling churn. In the time between Cooper’s ascent and the release of this special, the comedian James Austin Johnson became the latest performer to distinguish himself with a particularly apt Trump impression, this one focused on pop culture trivialities like 100 Gecs and Gilmore Girls. There’s room for more than one faux-Donald in the zeitgeist; Johnson isn’t supplanting Cooper, just showing how much harder it is to stand out as an impression than an individual. There are many Donald Trumps and only one Sarah Cooper. If only Everything’s Fine had more of the latter than the former.