A rapid rise to fame is never a good thing. For the vast majority of the high-profile comedians in the spotlight, what may look like ‘overnight success’ is rarely anything of the sort: as they are often at pains to explain, these people spent their early years grinding away, barely noticed, slowly getting better at what they chose to do, until finally they were good enough — and lucky enough — to have earned a platform.
The internet has changed all that. Now, of course, anyone who manages to draw millions of eyeballs by capturing something about the zeitgeist is able to shoot straight up the ladder of success, skipping the hundreds of rungs on their ascent. This is how, after posting a few dozen videos of yourself lip-synching to the pronouncements of the worst person in the universe, you can land a Netflix special studded with stars. It looks like a fairytale. The painful truth is that it is good for neither the person in question nor the performers necessarily denied an opportunity. Sarah Cooper is not an overnight success, of course, but few will ever go from TikTok to Netflix as quickly as she.
Comedy polarizes like no other art form. Where some see Cooper’s videos — in which she mouths along to Donald Trump recordings and the interjections of anyone also in the conversation — as brilliantly simple in laying bare the President’s idiocy, others (myself among them) are baffled by their success. Trump is morbidly funny because it is so difficult to believe he is real. Cooper rids him of his authenticity — the only thing that makes him so hysterically pathetic — and turns him into a pantomime. The impossible struggle to make comedy about Trump has been documented to death, but pulling faces while lip-synching to his speeches will not do it. Even the lip-synching is patchy.
But Cooper’s transfer to Netflix, and her 49-minute one-off special Everything Is Fine, could have proved doubters like me completely wrong. It could have demonstrated that there was so much more to Cooper than the President. Perhaps there was an accomplished actor under there, capable of performing fabulous comedy that — unlike Trump — was actually written to be funny. Within two minutes the special dashes any such hope.
As the host of a morning show called Everything Is Fine, Cooper begins by announcing some breaking news — Donald Trump is on the line. Incredibly, she then proceeds to have a conversation in split-screen with herself lip-synching to Trump’s words. The producers obviously felt the need to immediately signal what Cooper is famous for, but, divorced of the charmingly low-budget confines of a bedroom TikTok, the routine is utterly inexplicable: Cooper sort of dresses as Trump, munches on a burger, and falls over a golf flag, but the routine has no jokes and no punchline. Though staying loyal to the Cooper schtick could have worked, here it lies exposed, incongruous in a show with other people in it.
Throughout the show, Cooper isn’t helped by her 11 other writers — adults who presumably think that calling a robot CEO ‘8008S’ (‘BOOBS’ — geddit? Boobs?) is hilarious enough to make the edit. The special takes place in the Covid-ravaged present but does not have the courage to make any salient points or criticism of the Trump administration. If you are a comedian who has shot to fame lambasting the President, imagine choosing in your Netflix special not to say anything whatsoever about his catastrophic handling of the most devastating pandemic in living memory. But this is the point of Cooper’s videos: much as people might want her to, she has never been saying anything about Trump.
Instead, a series of stars (Jon Hamm, Aubrey Plaza, Ben Stiller, Megan Thee Stallion) come in and wear a variety of wigs. Acting is like anything else: it is only really possible to appreciate how difficult it is when it is done badly. So when Cooper shares the screen with someone like Maya Rudolph, suddenly the disparity is clear. This is something to which Netflix should not have subjected Cooper. The unfortunate effect is of a fan meeting their heroes for the first time. The most painful example is when, for no apparent reason, Helen Mirren ‘plays’ Billy Bush opposite Cooper, and the pair re-enact the infamous recording on the Access Hollywood bus. Even if it were 2016, this would simply look bizarre. But it’s 2020.
One subtle but unignorable problem with the special is that it revolves around a comedian who has no established identity. Cooper is synonymous with Trump. This means that, because we do not know her, we have no empathy with her as the world crumbles. This identity crisis is one that impressionists swerve by simply pushing themselves to develop new impersonations. But Cooper doesn’t do impressions. And there really is only so long you can listen to Trump, whoever is mouthing his words.
It has been proved time and time again that one of the merits of social media is that a comedian can, in theory, have their work seen by an audience of millions. Less successful, however, are the transitions from social media to a more conventional platform like Netflix. This isn’t just because the performer is exposed to a different (and, crucially, paying) audience but because suddenly they have to think about pace and story and character: things that have not made them famous but that characterize even the most basic half-hour sitcoms.
Because it lacks all of these things, Everything Is Fine is a squandered opportunity in so many respects. “You don’t want to miss it,” Cooper says at one point. Unfortunately, you do.