Time was of the essence if the first comedy special from TikTok phenom Sarah Cooper — whose short videos lip syncing to the president’s occasionally nonsensical speeches went viral earlier in 2020 — was going to make it to air before Election Day on Nov. 3.
But within hours of the comedian and author’s first call with executive producers Natasha Lyonne, Maya Rudolph and Danielle Renfrew Behrens and their production company, Animal, the women were texting ideas to each other; within a week they had sold the project that would become Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine. The special, Cooper’s first, officially debuts Oct. 27 on Netflix.
The surreal collection of sketches and cameos and, of course, Donald Trump impersonations starts out with Cooper playing a chipper morning news anchor but quickly devolves into strange, surreal madness — like 2020, essentially. Rudolph and Lyonne’s longtime collaborators — Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell and star Fred Armisen (who is also Lyonne’s partner), along with people like Winona Ryder, Helen Mirren and even Connie Chung, filled out the cast and writing staff; Rudolph appears in the special as a deranged weather woman and Lyonne directs.
Below, Cooper, Rudolph and Lyonne discuss how quickly the whole project came together, the complicated logistics of so many celebrity cameos (all while figuring out how to run a COVID-safe production), and what Cooper envisioned for her special beyond her famous videos. Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine is available to stream on Netflix.
How did you all start working together on this project?
Rudolph: No one remembers the which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I think in getting a chance to have a meeting with Sarah, we were just so excited that we were able to talk to her about what she was doing. Because it was, I think it’s fair to say, the person of the moment encapsulating how we were all feeling and executing it so beautifully. I don’t remember what happened next, but I think the special came about very quickly. I remember talking to Natasha [and she said], ‘OK, this has to get done. I’m going to direct it.’ And I was like, ‘OK, we have to have it done by the election.’ She just jumped into action.
Cooper: She really did. I mean, I think we met on Zoom on a Thursday, and then by midnight that night Natasha was texting me constantly. And she was like, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’ I’m like, ‘OK!’ Now I’m just texting Natasha — Natasha Lyonne, the Natasha Lyonne I’m texting? It’s just crazy. It just happened so fast. From the time we met to the time we actually had a pitch, I feel like it was a week.
Lyonne: Maya and I have this company, Animal, with Danielle Renfrew Behrens, who is our partner. Those texts were coming from a place of we were just immediately looking at the calendar. Why Sarah? Because it’s literally the only thing that has any meaning right now that is worth putting into the world — somehow this singular human being has found a way to cut through to the heart of how this all feels, and it resonates. For me and Maya as a company, we want to make stuff that means something, hopefully, or that has a reason for existing — something to say. And then it was looking at the practical of, all right, it looks like it’s an election special. How do you pull that off with that deadline? You’re just launched into 24/7 nothing but making this across the board. Luckily, Sarah had been planning this for a lifetime, so there was a lot of information there that was ready.
[To Sarah] I definitely think that you’re just a person who’s met your moment … I don’t even know how many people that I’ve worked with — including myself — over decades, I’ve never seen someone who is just so ready for her moment and just making it about the work 24 hours a day. As soon as it would be like, “Well, Sarah, we only have five days and $5, we can’t do [this],” she was like, “Got it, new idea. Boom.” She knew there was not that time for the mourning period around, “We didn’t get this actor, we can’t we can’t afford to build that set.” Maya and Paula [Pell, who wrote on the series] are so [used to] that that SNL muscle of “that old idea is dead. New idea. Old idea is dead. It’s not the best idea. That was the best idea when it was yesterday’s idea, today’s today.” For me and Sarah, who had never done this before, it was really that engine of expertise around, ‘You’ve just got to stay in motion or die.’
Sarah, what did you want this special to be?
Cooper: I just I had this idea for this morning show host who, like, ends up under the desk. It was an idea of you’re just so overwhelmed with all the news and she has a mental breakdown, or the world stops. And that’s how it felt — the world just stopped when the pandemic happened and we didn’t know what was happening. And so I wanted to capture that. I am a big fan of Mr. Show, and this idea of sketches relating to each other and coming back and being intertwined. Netflix is a big fan of that too, because they don’t want people to know what’s coming, because then they’ll keep watching because they’re not really sure what’s going to happen.
Me in my living room making TikToks, I had this idea of, “Oh, it’ll just be a greenscreen. I don’t know.” I just had this very small, no-equipment idea of what it was going to be, and then working with Natasha and Maya and Danielle, they took it to the next level and we hired this amazing team of writers and Paula Pell was just a machine with being able to write. Anything that felt like it was unexpected and weird and surprising and not really what you saw coming, we were like, “Yeah, that’s it.” Because this is what this year is. We have no idea what’s happening and we wanted the special to feel like that. And I think we captured it. I watched the first edit, which was the craziest edit, and I loved it. It’s just so different than anything I’ve ever seen before. And for us to create something like that under these conditions is absolutely astounding, I think. To create something like this even with all the time in the world is hard, so I’m just really proud of how it came out.
It almost felt like the literal embodiment of doom-scrolling — when you go on Twitter and at first you read some stuff and you think everything’s OK, but then you read more and more headlines and it just descends into madness.
Cooper: I especially loved the last scene for that, which I think Natasha, you might have written that while we were shooting it. I’m not really sure. But it’s so like, “What’s happening? Literally what is happening right now?” And I love that. I love it.
Do each of you have any specific segments that you’re really proud of, or just something that really tickled you?
Rudolph: I mean, every single time I read or watch the Karens sketch turn into the documentary, it always gets me. Every single time. And I feel, like, “God damn it that’s good. That’s really funny.” And it’s also just such a beautifully meta moment of where we are that we’re actually commenting on this thing that’s happening in real time. It’s so damn funny to me.
Cooper: I haven’t told you this yet, Maya, but your weather woman I think is perfect. I think it’s amazing. I watched it with my husband. He couldn’t stop laughing. The thing about it is that it starts out like, “Yep, this is the weather,” but you’re listening and you’re like, “No, that’s crazy.” And when you watch the news that’s the feeling you get. You’re like, “What did you just say? That’s crazy.” And then you just completely lose it and you actually are able to say, “This is so fucked up,” and it’s just so cathartic. So that’s one of my favorite sketches.
Rudolph: Thank you. I love it, too.
Lyonne: I really enjoy the QAnon QVC. If you’re wondering about what Sarah is referring to [with] the crazy edit, that was much higher in the run of the show. It was like, “We’ve got to keep that audience! Start it crazy! QAnon!” And it also just makes me laugh because I remember being on the phone with Sarah in the middle of the night and just all of a sudden it was like “QVC, QVC, QAnon QVC?” It just brings me a lot of joy on a lot of levels. Also the set design. In addition to the incredible team, it’s worth mentioning that we were able to get really the A-team, thanks to the pandemic, of production designers and editors and cinematographers — Polly Morgan, who’s one of three women in the ASC, shot it.
Cooper: Eight months pregnant!
Lyonne: Eight months pregnant! The production designer [and I] were talking about that we wanted to base it on Melania’s Christmas, and all of a sudden that was back in the news and I was like, “Thank God, people will understand what these red trees are.” And then Aubrey [Plaza] just came in and demolished. Everything about it, like Sarah doing the TikToks with those face replacements, there were certain things like that that would happen that were so surreal, it was very satisfying that everybody was going for it. And I think in part it’s to the point about 2020 just being that surreal, there’s literally no other way to externalize or articulate it.
How did the logistics of the cameos work out? Did you just write everything and then slot people in whenever they were available?
Rudolph: That was crazy. Crazy, and not easy. A lot of, like, “OK, this person’s out. Who do we need for this role?” And fast. Fast, fast, fast. It started with, like, “Hey, you’ve got to have sketches to send them out to people.” And I was like, “Whoa, let’s not send them all our goodies!” I have to say that it speaks to people’s desire to work with Sarah and be a part of what she’s created that people were jumping. Helen Mirren is a case in point — just jumping at the opportunity to do this. There were several lovely people who agreed to do it that were scared at the last minute of being on a set, and rightfully so because it’s a very strange time and we don’t have all the answers. It sucked to lose them, but we get it. People don’t want to fuck around with their life.
Lyonne: Yeah, there is no follow-up text to that. But like Maya’s saying, Sarah really connected to the soul of this moment, not just the coincidence of it or the zeitgeist. I think it’s a little bit deeper than that for people because they experience it so personally. [To Sarah] I just think everybody really wanted to show up for you. I nearly name-dropped a specific rejection letter that we got, but I decided at the last minute not to. But anyway, even very sexy rejections would come with notes, “Please stress to Sarah that I’m such a huge fan, I’m not really leaving the house yet because, you know, the news.” But we got some very sexy rejections is all I’ll say.
Rudolph: I was thrilled to get Jonathan Van Ness. I am so delighted and tickled by him and what a perfect [casting]. Sometimes things like that just felt like yahtzee. That was a yahtzee moment for sure.
Lyonne: People were showing up for us, I feel like. Obviously Maya and I have been around a while, but it was just like, “Hey, Marisa [Tomei], Slums of Bevery Hills was 20 years ago, here’s that text I’m calling in 20 years later.” I mean, obviously, I know her and I’m friends with her over the years, but I had never really asked her for anything. That’s the nice side of it, you really see that there is a lot of love there over the years, that there’s people that you can really reach out to and that wanted to come out for this particular thing.
Cooper: And Fred [Armisen], too. Fred was so amazing. I mean, having him in this was awesome.
Lyonne: Maya and I didn’t know him so we were scared to reach out and wrote him very long fan letter and Sarah signed it and it was a very big deal and then after months of courting —
Rudolph: Natasha had to sleep with him.
Lyonne: I did. It’s an [important] project. It’s an election special.
How did you figure out how much of the TikTok lip sync to put in? Obviously people do want to see that, but it felt interspersed very nicely throughout.
Cooper: We weren’t really sure. We didn’t know how much [of the TikToks] Netflix wanted. We knew we wanted it in there, but we didn’t want it to be the whole thing. And I have to say, Natasha and the editing team took the TikToks to a whole new level. Yes, you’ve seen my TikToks, and you’ve seen them on YouTube and on Twitter, but you haven’t seen them like this. So I think that was really awesome. We wanted to pick things that we definitely wanted to do and not just do a bunch of lip-syncing stuff. I think the things we picked were really awesome. I’m especially happy with how the Connie Chung interview came out. To me, that’s another thing that’s just like, what? Connie Chung?
Rudolph: Her facial expressions are so delightful. She just epitomizes everything I feel when you hear that audio, and you’re like, what?
Cooper: Yeah. And that was my interview with the president.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.