By Jeet Heer* – The Nation
Sarah Cooper has cracked the Trump code with pandemic pantomimes
Sarah Cooper has become the breakout star of the pandemic by being the first comedian to figure out that Donald Trump’s absurd words are best mocked not by exaggeration but by exact replication. On TikTok videos posted on Twitter, Cooper has invented a new genre of comedy: the lip-sync explication de texte, where the gestural expressiveness of mime is used to bring out the full lunacy of political chatter.
On April 20, Trump gave his now-notorious press briefing where he floated the idea that ultraviolet light and disinfectants could be used to cure Covid-19. Cooper, locked down in her Brooklyn home, didn’t see the briefing, but was told about Trump’s comments by her husband. She thought they were ridiculous enough to serve as a comedy skit. So in just an hour, while her husband was preparing dinner, Cooper made a 49-second video. It spread like wildfire on social media, garnering nearly 15 million views as well as praise from Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stiller.
Trump has often been impersonated, most famously by Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. Yet, as talented as the mimics who have tried to parody Trump are, they run into the invariable problem that their fun-house version can never match the absurdity of the real thing. As Cooper herself told The Guardian, “It is interesting because as a writer you want to heighten how ridiculous things are. But everything he says is already so ridiculous that it is hard to heighten it.”
Cooper’s solution has been not to heighten Trump’s ludicrousness but to create a context where the audience pays closer attention to it. The genius of her comedy is that it counteracts the tendency to normalize Trump’s words, to tidy up what he’s saying and pretend it is more rational than it really is.
Trump owes his success as a politician to his taking subtext and turning it into text. Previous Republican politicians stirred up racist animosity by using dog-whistle phrases like “welfare queen” or “inner-city crime.” Trump won the presidency by being much more explicit, decrying “Mexican rapists” and calling for a Muslim ban. By being so overt, he convinced an intense base of supporters that he was authentic in his bigotry in way that previous politicians weren’t.
One fascinating side effect of Trump’s crudeness is that it has led his surrogates and many in the media to whitewash Trump’s words. Ever since Trump emerged as a political figure, there’s been an abundance of Trump translators, people working full-time to pretend that his vile and just plain bizarre comments mean something other than what they literally say.
In 2016, Trump said he wanted to “take the oil” from Iraq and that the United States deserves the “spoils” of victory. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani defended Trump by softening his meaning. “He hasn’t said we should take it for ourselves, necessarily,” Giuliani told ABC News. “We should secure it so it doesn’t get taken by terrorist forces so we can have some say over the distribution.” Giuliani’s gloss was a complete fabrication, but it was part of a larger effort to translate Trump’s frothing into normal human discourse.
In 2016, Trump also described former president Barack Obama as the “founder of Isis.” Interviewing Trump, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt suggested that Trump was of course being figurative. Trump rejected this defense, saying, “No, I meant that he’s the founder of Isis, I do.” Trump did later walk back the remarks by saying he was being “sarcastic”—itself a defense that makes no sense.
It’s not just the right-wing media or Trump supporters that close their ears to what he is saying. Mainstream media reports routinely edit Trump’s incoherent speeches into something resembling lucidity. Writing in The Guardian, Australian journalist Lenore Taylor wrote about being flabbergasted by listening to an entire Trump briefing filled with ranting that usually gets edited out of reports.
Taylor claimed that “the shock I felt hearing half an hour of unfiltered meanderings from the president of the United States made me wonder whether the editing does our readers a disservice.”
When Trump gives his grotesque briefings, everyone around him, both his staff and the attendant press, act as if what he is saying is normal and rational. It’s like the parable of the emperor who wore no clothes, except Trump’s nakedness has been accepted by mainstream institutions for nearly four years.
The brilliance of Sarah Cooper’s comedy is that it gives us Trump’s words raw, along with a pantomimic commentary. If Trump has turned subtext into text, Cooper has added a layer of surtitles on top of the text.
Consider the first video Cooper did. “Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” Trump said. In her rendition of this, Cooper captures Trump’s smug imperiousness, his unfounded confidence in his own brilliance.
Then Trump turned to Willian N. Bryan, the head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, and asked, “And I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but we’re going to test it?” In the actual video, Bryan is off-camera and presumably keeping a low profile. In Cooper’s rendition, she plays both Trump and Bryan, and as Bryan mouths, “Who, me?”
Trump went on to say, “And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do, either through the skin or in some other way.” Trump had paused before those last few words, which gives Cooper the chance to act out jabbing her butt with a finger, to suggest that Trump was perhaps thinking of a needle.
Throughout the video, Cooper uses props like a lamp and household cleaning spray to give visual reality to the words, again with the goal of making the audience pay attention to language.
Trump ended his farrago by saying, “And I think you said you are going to test that. Sounds interesting. And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute—one minute—and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs [here Cooper cups her hands and draws them towards her chest] and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that. So you are going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds interesting to me.”
Cooper-as-Trump looks particularly delighted with the phrase “medical doctors,” jabbing her finger in the air. Again, the comedian’s motions make us catch something in Trump’s speech that a quick listen might have glossed over, Trump’s relish of his own words when he thinks he’s being clever.
Cooper lets Trump write the script but there’s more than enough commentary she can provide by using her full body as a tool of exegesis. Her eyes are especially expressive, capturing as they do Trump’s obtuse self-assurance.
Cooper has found a rich vein of comedy. She continues to mock not just Trump but also figures like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and tech executive Elon Musk. The recurring theme of her comedy is male arrogance, although Cooper has also done a turn as Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman. She loves to puncture puffed-up balloons.
The new genre of comedy Cooper has invented could take off. Another comedian, Maria DeCotis, used this lip-syncing mode to hilariously comment on Andrew Cuomo’s embarrassing discussions of his daughter’s dating life.
The pandemic is the ideal time for this pantomime mode to flourish. Comedians don’t really have access to the stage right now, nor even the elaborate makeup provided by TV and movie studios. Now is the moment. Lip-syncing mimicry is bare-bones comedy, a form of miming perfectly suited to social media. The current moment offers few consolations, but at least it has finally given us comedy that moves beyond easy mockery and offers real insight.
*National affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).