If you were on social media — any social media — in 2020, you probably saw a video of Sarah Cooper lip-syncing to President Donald Trump’s public appearances. And while her early videos were made using TikTok, they migrated to Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. As the year ends, Cooper has a Netflix special called Everything’s Fine under her belt and is developing TV shows.
Before all that, though, there was TikTok, perhaps best thought of as a video editing tool with a distribution network conveniently attached. Cooper tried it out, with stupendous results. Though she’d previously written two books, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, it was her madcap take on Trump — the president as bad boss — that launched her into celebrity status. Cooper brought the observational style she honed working at companies like Google and Flickr to her study of Trump.
“Trump is a prime example of how the people at the top influence everyone beneath them,” Cooper says. ”And that’s kind of true for companies. You see how the CEO acts. You see how leadership acts, and everybody imitates that.”
Unlike many other product designers, Cooper now finds herself on the other end of products — as a creator. It’s hard to monetize on TikTok and virtually impossible on Twitter, where Cooper feels her community is. Of all the platforms, YouTube was the one that gave her a financial windfall when she posted her videos. “It was really more like an afterthought, but in terms of monetization, it’s the only place really to make money with videos,” Cooper says.
Moving to Netflix was similarly surreal — Cooper remembers when Netflix was just a DVD-by-mail startup. Now, of course, the company produces original content, including her own, which was produced by Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph and full of celebrity cameos. “I completely clammed up with Jon Hamm because I’ve watched every season of Mad Men, like twice,” Cooper says. Also, she regrets not asking Winona Ryder what filming Edward Scissorhands was like.
But, of course, the production was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, with on-set tests, a virus scare, and Zoom meetings. “Everything was on Zoom, which is sad because I think Google Hangouts is a pretty good tool,” Cooper says. “I was on Hangouts at Google all the time.” We asked her to reflect on her whirlwind year.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You had a big 2020. How are you thinking about it?
It’s been the biggest year of my career. I’m actually working on things, for the first time in my life, that I’m so excited to be working on. I’m doing right now, what I’ve always, always wanted to do. And so it’s just weird to feel that way about this year, but then also feel like, fuck 2020. Can’t wait until it’s over.
Work seems like your most important subject. From How to Appear Smart in Meetings, there’s a through-line to Trump. How did your interest in workplace dynamics play a role in what you’ve created?
I fought it for a long time because I thought it wasn’t cool to talk about work. But work is just this fascinating place. At first, when I started making the Trump videos, I didn’t really know how they fit in with everything else I was doing. Then looking back, it was like, “Oh yeah, everything he does is this performance that he’s putting on.” That’s the through-line of everything that I do. We’re all sort of putting on a show.
I had this idea when I was like 21 that I was going to make a blog called My Life on Stage, because I always felt like I was performing, wherever I went. Work is just, it’s like a prime place for that kind of thing. Especially in tech, because you’re there because you’re being paid, because it’s a job. But in tech, you’re also supposed to be very passionate and excited about everything, constantly.
That was kind of what led to me leaving Google really. I felt like I was living this double life. I was so much more passionate about writing than I was about what I was doing at work. And yet I had to be a manager, which means being a cheerleader, which means talking about how this is the greatest thing we’re doing... The project we’re working on right now is so important and it’s going to change the world and all of these things. And I just didn’t feel that way.
I’m really curious about how your background as a designer informed your approach to social media platforms. How did you think about trying to build an audience?
Well, I’ve been trying to build an audience for a very long time. It’s just been a process of like, building an audience and kind of getting bored with something and then rebuilding and rebuilding and rebuilding. I was always just trying new platforms, new video platforms, new ways to share ideas online. I just tried everything.
I had my own blog for a while, thecooperreview.com. One thing I noticed from creating blogs is that it’s really hard to create an audience from scratch, even when the blog went viral. A lot of these social platforms just have built-in ways of sharing and built-in ways of creating audiences. So I realized it was a lot easier to try to build an audience through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
That’s kind of why I tried TikTok. Everybody was doing it and I had nothing better to do.
You moved away from using the TikTok editing tool. When did that happen and why?
TikTok’s [editing tool is] very chronological. I have different characters in my videos and it’s not like I could shoot all of one character, all of the other character, and then edit them together. It was really like me sequentially, like, now I’m Trump, now I’m the person responding to Trump, now I’m Trump again.
But when I wanted to do anything that was longer than 60 seconds, it was just more complicated. I think the first one I did, on my own, without TikTok, was Don Jr. interviewing his dad for Father’s Day. Then I did “person, woman, two man camera” and that was just a longer video, almost two minutes. You can’t make anything over 60 seconds on TikTok, so I just had my own little hacky way of lip-syncing and recording myself and then editing it in Final Cut.
How did you think about moving your audience from social networks to Netflix?
A long time ago, I wanted to make a video making fun of how Gary Vaynerchuk is on YouTube telling people to follow him on Twitter. And he’s on Twitter telling people to follow his Facebook. And then he’s on Facebook telling people to follow... So, he’s just like trying to get people to follow him.
I just don’t think that works. I feel like you need to meet people where they are and if people are on YouTube, bring your stuff to YouTube, and let them view it on YouTube.
With Netflix, it was just funny because I’d be on a call with Netflix marketing, and they’d be telling me about personalization and how their platform works and stuff like that. When I worked in tech, I used to design personalization features. It’s really interesting, being on these different sides of it.
I’d worked at Flickr and I left Flickr to do acting. I was doing a little bit of modeling and I had a photographer teach me how to use a feature in Flickr that I designed. It’s kind of cool, seeing the other side of it, coming from a perspective of like, first I was designing these experiences, and now I’m creating content for these experiences.
It gives me a better understanding of how things work. Like, how to caption things so that people will be intrigued by them — so that you don’t give it away, but you pique their interest. And all of these things, I feel like I’ve honed over the decades I’ve wasted in social media.
This is the most extreme example of dogfooding I think I’ve ever heard of.
Cut to doing the Netflix special, where I was doing the Access Hollywood bus scene with Dame Helen Mirren and trying to teach her how to TikTok. I would kill to be Dame Helen Mirren! And she’s like, “How do I lip sync? And I’m like, “Why am I teaching you how to lip-sync? You should not be lip-syncing. You’re Shakespearean-trained.”
The Netflix special would have been a time crunch in any year. But we also have a pandemic. How did that affect filming? How did that affect the collaboration?
Not only was it my first special; it was my first COVID production. It was a lot of people’s first COVID production. There were a lot of masks. There was a COVID specialist on set. There was a lot of like, “Hey, you guys are too close.” Or, “Do you need some hand sanitizer?” Constant COVID tests.
The last day, I walked onto set, and they took my temperature. I had a temperature, and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m trying so hard not to get sick,” because I didn’t want to shut down this whole production. And now on the last day, I have a temperature! But it turned out I was just standing in the sun.
Are you focusing on television, or will we still see you on social media?
I’ll always be on Twitter. I can never get away, for some reason. For the foreseeable future, I’m going to be focused on TV. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get away from social media. Plus, I think it’s HBO Max, is now going to be releasing all their films, simultaneously, online as well as in theaters. And so, all these big movie stars are all internet stars now. We’re just all on the internet now.