There’s a solid if somewhat broad line of criticism that can be directed at the TikTok generation of comedians—Meggie Foster, JL Cauvin, Brittany Broski and yes, Sarah Cooper, whose 49-minute Netflix special Everything’s Fine released last week. Two-minute bursts are great for topical satire, like the supercuts of Trump shitbaggery delivered by Cooper and Cauvin. But with extreme brevity comes the risk of egregious oversimplification, which is why I’m not a fan of ‘explainer’ TikToks. It is essentially the same cautionary argument made by Susan Sontag about the global proliferation in photography—as we capture more and more discrete moments in time, we increase our chances of forgetting everything that happened outside of those moments (like the volume and frequency of somebody’s laughter ends up devaluing it on occasion, y’know?).
With Everything’s Fine, Cooper delivers a brand of comedy that addresses these shortcomings, to an extent. The special builds upon her strength—the lip-syncing Trump impersonations that made her a viral star—and deploys it in increasingly surprising ways to talk about the hellfire year that has been 2020. Directed by Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll) and featuring Lyonne and Maya Rudolph among its executive producers, Everything’s Fine also features a stellar lineup of celebrity cameos, including Megan Thee Stallion, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Stiller, Jon Hamm, Helen Mirren and others.
In the framing story, Cooper plays an overworked news anchor sharing her name, who struggles to reconcile the oppressive cheerfulness of her job (Everything’s Fine is also the name of the fictional Sarah Cooper’s news show) with the horrors of the Trump presidency, being a black woman in an allegedly progressive workplace and, of course, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The show warms up with some brilliant ‘warm-up’ sketches, like the scathing ‘Karens’ (starring Jane Lynch), where Whoopi Goldberg voices a fake history of American ‘Karens’ (a satirical term used for a racist, entitled white woman). ‘Karens’ works because ‘fakelore’ (stories deliberately styled to resemble ‘authentic’ folktales) is the perfect way to lampoon a president who happens to be a chronic liar.
These lead into slightly longer ‘cutaway’ segments that combine director Natasha Lyonne’s impressive feel for the surreal with Cooper’s spot-on impersonations of people like Ivanka Trump and former White House staffer Kellyanne Conway. Lyonne’s own Netflix show Russian Doll, of course, was notable for its frequent, surrealistic set-pieces that were considerably easier to enjoy than to explain. She channels some of that energy here with Cooper, even superimposing her lip-syncing onto literal dolls at one point, to devastating effect. Comedian Aubrey Plaza plays a QAnon conspiracy spouting TV host in this segment, peddling treats like the ‘Presidential mouthpiece’ Kellyanne Conway doll which plays a recording of her notorious ‘alternative facts’ quote.
“We kind of accepted the fact that we were creating something that was of the moment and would speak to how we’re all feeling in the midst of this absolutely bananas year.” — Sarah Cooper
The piece de resistance is a longish sketch late into the show, a recreation of the infamous Access Hollywood video clip featuring Donald Trump and Billy Bush, the source of the notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment made by the President. Helen Mirren is an absolute delight as Billy Bush and Cooper, too, does her best work in this scene, clearly relishing her double act alongside the screen legend. To be sure, this segment can make for deeply uncomfortable viewing, especially if you have been at the receiving end of unwelcome advances from men like Donald Trump. But to Cooper and Lyonne’s credit, at no point does the sketch play down the discomfort, the chilling nature of Trump’s words and (implied) actions.
Before she became an Internet sensation, Cooper was known as a comedian and author who offered wryly funny insights on the corporate world—drawing from her own experience of working at Google as a UX designer. Her 2018 book How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, in particular, was an acutely observed satire about gender-based discrimination in the modern-day workplace (Cooper’s next project is a TV adaptation of this book). In Everything’s Fine, too, Cooper has plenty to say about being a Black woman in a cut-throat and predominantly white media outfit; I won’t spoil the big twist but suffice it to say that it’s appropriately weird.
In a recent interview with Time, Cooper spoke about the challenges of creating something as distinctive as Everything’s Fine: “We kind of accepted the fact that we were creating something that was of the moment and would speak to how we’re all feeling in the midst of this absolutely bananas year. Our lives have changed so much, so quickly. We wanted to capture that. But we were also able to address some themes, like the theme of con men, that will never go away. There will always be someone with power taking advantage of people who don’t have power.”
That last bit really does represent the biggest challenge yet for Cooper: what next after Trump? Because while most people agree on Trump’s evil, comedians understand ‘Trump fatigue’ better than most—having a soft target for so long does no comedian good in the long term. How will Cooper lampoon the frequent verbal and policy trip-ups of Joe Biden? I guess we’ll all know in a bit, and on the evidence of Everything’s Fine, the answers will never be boring.