With her sister working as a nurse in D.C. and her 70-year-old mother battling asthma, Cooper finds that her work has helped her relieve some of the anxiety she’s feeling. “I need comedy more than ever,” she said. “I need escape and I need something to relax me, even more than I needed before the quarantine.” In our conversation, Cooper reflected on pivoting to a digital platform during the pandemic and the role of topical comedy in a time of crisis. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Shirley Li: You’ve been active on Twitter and YouTube for years, but you uploaded your first TikTok only a month ago. What made you want to join the platform?
Sarah Cooper: Well, to be fair, my 11-year-old nephew, Tyler, introduced me to TikTok last summer, and I made a few videos but then just completely forgot about it. [Laughs.] I was kind of doing [social media] on and off. I was doing more live shows, open mics, and then once everything got canceled, a part of me was like, Well, this is a bit of a relief, because I’m working on a book, and [I can] rediscover my love of creating content for the internet. It has to be shot at home with what you have. That energized me. I have all these stories that I tell on stage, how can I put this into this new medium? TikTok’s not really my platform; Twitter is, but I find TikTok to be this amazing tool for creating new visual interpretations of existing audio. So I’ve been experimenting.
Li: How does the experience of hearing from an audience through likes and comments compare with doing stand-up, with the energy in the room?
Cooper: [Takes a deep breath and whispers.] It’s just awful. As much as I love seeing comedians I haven’t seen in a while, this format just feels corporate to me, so constraining and awkward. Live comedy in a club, with an audience—it’s hard to recreate that experience in a digital world. With Zoom, your face is there the whole time, and you feel like you have to always be on. You feel like you always have to be paying attention, and it can be exhausting.
I’m kind of an introvert, so I really do have to get over some anxiety to get on stage and connect with an audience. Once I do, it’s amazing, but it is a bit of a struggle. [TikTok], for me, was exhilarating; I don’t find performing on Zoom or Instagram that rewarding. I feel like I’m trying to take, like, a cube and put it in a round hole, you know what I mean? It just doesn’t fit.
Li: Your videos directly engage with the anxiety around the pandemic, and your series covering the president have to mine humor out of his lies—without spreading his harmful messages. How do you figure out how to toe that line?
Cooper: The cool thing with TikTok is that people have already done their own takes on his audio, and I’ve noticed that people who try to impersonate Trump do the hair or the clothes or the facial expressions. But it isn’t as funny, for some reason. What I did was basically, What if I, Sarah Cooper, said these words? Like I really believe that this is a valid idea. I’m talking very honestly through this, so I wasn’t trying to imitate him at all.