Watching Sarah Cooper’s special Everything’s Fine feels like dying — not a short, intense, violent death as well but a long, slow, painful one. About 10 minutes in, I had to check my pulse. Unfortunately, I was still alive.
How did we come to this? Ms Cooper rose to fame, having been a relatively obscure stand-up comedian and moderately well-regarded humorous author, lip-syncing to audio of Donald Trump. Johnny Knoxville, of Jackass notoriety, rose to fame being zapped with a Taser and shooting himself in the chest. Of course, not every comedian should have to go to such extremes to get ahead. But there was still something a bit lazy about Ms Cooper’s routine — and absolutely nothing funny. I wrote about it here.
Granted, you can’t blame Cooper for her success. If you or I made a dumb joke which somehow propelled us to stardom, we would probably milk it until its udders were dry. Granted, there is at least a subjective element to comedy. What makes me laugh might not make you laugh, and vice versa. Still, even if you cracked up as you first watched one of Cooper’s portrayals of a proudly, obviously brash and boorish man as brash and boorish — what about all the other ones?
But people watched. They watched, liked and RT’d enough that Cooper was afforded a Netflix special — a great honor and opportunity for a comedian, which is typically awarded to comedic veterans like Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman and ‘Chris D’Elia’, whoever he is.
The question was, how could someone known for a single joke fill up a special? The answer is, endless celebrity guests — endless celebrity guests. Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Stiller, Megan Thee Stallion, Helen Mirren and Marisa Tomei all make appearances in a production whose real star is the producer’s phonebook. Sometimes, poor Cooper feels like she is just in the way as another random A-lister barges onto the screen.
The concept is not a bad one. Cooper is presenting some kind of daytime talk show, straining to uphold some semblance of normality in 2020. Better writers could have wrung at least some comedy out of the tension of the scenario. Cooper and her team could not. First, she is not a good actor. I think the ‘talk show’ format might have been meant to pass off her real nervousness as pretend nervousness but it does not quite work.
That much is forgivable. She has never acted. The celebrity cameos intended to prop up her performance, though, are so numerous and so brief as to become distracting. Hardly anybody acts. They simply appear.
Aubrey Plaza is quite funny as a telemarketer enmeshed in the world of QAnon. Ben Stiller appears as an AI CEO in a sketch that makes a worthy point about our dependence on the comforts of tech in a manner that could have been funny if it had had time to breathe. But as far as talent goes that is about it.
The real crime, though, is the writing. It took a whole team of writers to create this, and none of them had the wit to point out that the ‘Karen’ meme might not be fresh and funny enough to fill two sketches — or, indeed, a sketch. Megan Thee Stallion’s appearance involves a ‘workout’ which entails drinking cognac and twerking. (The joke is that her workout is drinking cognac and twerking.) The otherwise quite funny Aubrey Plaza sketch is made a lot less entertaining by the heroically gratuitous insertion of Cooper’s lip-syncing, which, if you’re wondering, is no funnier than it has ever been.
Watching this was soporific and painful at the same time, like being drugged while also being sporadically electrocuted. What it represents symbolically, though, is quite interesting. Everything’s Fine was made by and for the sort of people whose ideal society is Obamaite technocratic progressivism. Their idea of high comedy is John Oliver and Stephen Colbert arching their eyebrows after delivering sly one-liners about ignorant Rethuglicans. No doubt, they hope Joe Biden will restore a world in which smart liberals push around the chess pieces of governance while dumb conservatives caterwaul in the background.
But they know something has changed. In the last scene, Cooper runs around while a meteorite homes in on the Earth. It would have been funnier if she had welcomed its impact as blessed relief from the madness around her, but that joke had already been made by the ‘Sweet Meteor O’Death’ campaign in 2016, so she had to settle for a worse one. Still, it shows how smug centrists are attempting to grapple with the high weirdness of our times — a weirdness Trump, in all his grand grotesquery, contributes to, but which is also shaped by long-term institutional decay, societal and economic rootlessness, the intensifying qualities of social media and a lot of other things which cannot be reduced to the orange man.
‘At this moment,’ says the hackneyed overdramatic narrator towards the end of the special, ‘Sarah Cooper realized that it was not she who had lost her mind. It was the world.’ In its artless, overproduced, annoying way, Everything’s Fine asks the question of whether American institutions can slide into a competent groove and everyone can more or less get along. One of its few virtues is that it answers ‘no’.