So that’s what she turned it into. Scott threw on a sparkly top, grabbed a bar glass, and spent 30 minutes learning to lip-sync the president’s address — “The germ has gotten so brilliant” — before recording her reinterpretation and throwing it on TikTok, where it promptly gained more than a million views.
If you’ve had an extra hour or 90 to stare at a screen in the past two months, you might have seen one of Scott’s videos. The settings change, from bar crawl to birthday toast to Uber ride, but her character remains the same: Scott is a runny-mascara’d hot mess who is definitely going to borrow your purse and then puke in it. She just happens to be delivering the monologues of the president of the United States. “I’m not splicing anything together,” Scott says. “They’re all full sound bites that he’s said directly.”
It wouldn’t be accurate to classify Scott’s work as impersonations. There is no donning of orange wigs; this isn’t Alec Baldwin slinking his voice down half an octave to inhabit the correct vocal range. This is Scott sprawled in the back seat of a ride-share, waving around a slice of pizza as she pontificates in Trump’s actual voice. Comedians have long complained that Trump is difficult to parody: He says things that are weirder than what any writers’ room could come up with, with a delivery that’s practically beyond exaggeration. Lip-sync remixers like Scott have found a way to revive presidential satire by simply keeping the word vomit and changing everything else.
Sarah Cooper is another master of this method. Wearing her own street clothes and in her own Brooklyn apartment, she’s filmed a whole series, including “How to Medical” — using Trump’s comments about injecting disinfectant to kill the virus — and “How to Obamagate.” Already an author and working comedian, her Twitter following has grown from 60,000 to 600,000; when I talked with her on the phone this week, she said she’d been “taking meetings,” one of those Hollywood terms that often means somebody powerful wants to make you into somebody famous.
But in the beginning, her first video came from a simple premise: What would it look like if she, a 35-year-old black woman, spoke with the blustering confidence of the president? “The more I get into impersonation, the less funny it becomes,” Cooper says. “I’m trying to present the words as me, Sarah Cooper, as earnestly as possible.” The effectiveness of her videos comes from the vast chasm between her identity and Donald Trump’s.
“He is an older, rich white guy, in a suit, at a podium, with a presidential seal, and people standing behind him, nodding. All of these things mess with your head and make you think that what he says must make sense,” Cooper says. “I’m taking that setting away and putting those words into the mouth of someone who is much more low status and low power.” Stripped of the suit, the podium and the seal, she says, “you focus more on the words. And focus just on how ridiculous those words are.”
Cooper’s performance isn’t only about Donald Trump. It’s also about how context and pageantry play a role in how authority is vested. When she points out the president’s preposterous statements, she’s also making the point that certain kinds of people’s preposterous statements are assumed to be smart — a twist on Nixon’s infamous claim, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
When an aging man in a suit says it from behind a presidential seal, and an entourage of high-powered officials react with stoic deference, that means it is not crazy.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that Cooper and Scott are both women (Cooper doesn’t either: “This doesn’t work as well when men do it,” she says). Some of the sharpest political commentary on TikTok involves women impersonating male politicians — witness Maria DeCotis as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — a trend carried over from television. “Saturday Night Live’s” smartest casting decision after the 2016 election wasn’t Baldwin as Trump. It was Melissa McCarthy as former press secretary Sean Spicer, throwing red-faced tantrums and plowing her motorized lectern through the White House pressroom.
The skits reportedly made the president furious, as did the ones featuring Kate McKinnon as then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak,” a top donor anonymously told Politico, and the president felt that casting women had done just that.
Of course, that was backward. Melissa McCarthy behaving like Sean Spicer didn’t make Spicer ridiculous. Spicer behaving like Spicer made Spicer ridiculous. (Any insistence that he needed help in that department evaporated a year later, when the former press secretary appeared on “Dancing With the Stars,” playing the bongos while dressed like a Day-Glo can of Pringles.) But, again, a lot of bonkers behavior can be overlooked when it’s committed by a man in a suit at a lectern.
McCarthy’s performance didn’t invent Spicer’s absurdity. “[It] didn’t highlight anything weak — that is to say, in Trump translation, ‘feminine’ — about Spicer,” wrote Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker. “She didn’t mince around or giggle or bat her eyes. Rather, she played Spicer as a bruised, bloviating alpha male. . . . From the start of the sketch, her gender was beside the point, neither provocation nor distraction.”
I disagree with only that last bit. McCarthy’s gender was absolutely part of the point, and it was a provocation. Not to Sean Spicer, but to the rest of us. A male cast member would have been mocking Spicer personally. McCarthy’s casting mocked the whole “bruised, bloviating” system of alpha-maleness that made Sean Spicer a credible figure to begin with.
In other words, it’s not that the drunk girl in the club sounds like Donald Trump, it’s that Donald Trump sounds like the drunk girl in the club. If you can’t tell which statements were made by the leader of a country, and which were made by a lush on her fifth vodka soda, then why should anyone bother listening to that man on the podium?
“What’s a little scary about this is, I started this six weeks ago,” Cooper says. She now finds herself in a conundrum: Demonstrating that the statements of a powerful man sound nutty when spoken by an un-powerful woman has made her own voice more powerful. What happens if people start to listen to her with the same deference they might listen to Donald Trump? The humor falls apart, she says, and so does the commentary.
“The more status I get,” Cooper says, “the less this works.”
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.