Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine.
“Can you imagine Maya Rudolph on The Real Housewives of Orange County? That would be so fun,” TikTok superstar Sarah Cooper laughed on a four-way Zoom call a week before the premiere of her Netflix comedy special, Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine. Cooper’s co-star in the special, Saturday Night Live great Maya Rudolph, cannot exactly imagine. Rudolph doesn’t “keep up” with reality TV.
“I think we got enough reality TV happening in real life,” Rudolph said. “I mean look at where it got us. It got us a reality TV star for a president. I can’t stomach it.”
Everything’s Fine — directed by Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne, the third member of the Zoom — is a response to where our reality TV star of a president has gotten us. It introduces us to a fictional version of Sarah Cooper that is a TV presenter trapped in 2020’s most punishing local morning show. The special mixes Cooper’s now-famous TikTok format of lip syncing to Donald Trump’s bizarre public statements with the claustrophobic horror of America’s months-long “quarantine” in the face of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
When we can collectively laugh and know that other people see the horror that we’re seeing? That has been really comforting.
Everything’s Fine knows you often feel like you’re in hell. The special’s job is joining you right there in the fire — and still managing to make you laugh. Above all, Cooper, Rudolph, and Lyonne want you to feel seen amid the chaos.
“Natasha’s really good at being like, ‘Let’s do something that doesn’t make sense,’” Cooper recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s actually better.’ There’s something really cathartic about it. Because that’s how it feels right now. You get on Twitter and you’re not sure what you’re going to see. You know you’re going to see some things that are going to make you feel not-good. But you’re not sure what it is.”
Everything’s Fine — which was entirely produced during the COVID-19 era — is also filled to the brim with moments that range from bitingly weird to nightmarishly nonsensical as fictional Sarah’s series loses its grip on reality. But you never feel frightened because the topsy-turvy narrative is brought to you in the “safe container” of a 45-minute Netflix special. The increasingly extreme social distancing antics of Fred Armisen’s producer character are the supreme example of this ethos (executive producer/SNL alum Paula Pell came up with the idea). One minute, Armisen is in a beekeeper’s outfit; the next, he’s wandering through the studio in a spider-like styrofoam getup.
“It has the inherent claustrophobia of the paranoia of not only Network, but also a homemade COVID special,” Lyonne explained of the continuity-error filled bit. “It’s slowly coming in on you in just the same way that the externalization of doomscrolling is — that feeling of when you’re just sinking back in your sheets, going under, because just nothing makes sense.”
Everything’s Fine reaches the inevitable peak of its inherent dread when it’s revealed the devil is, in fact, involved with the show-within-a-show’s production. The “twist” felt like a natural development to Cooper rather than the gasp-inducing shock it would be in other projects. To emphasize this fact, a track praising one’s casual placement in hell plays into the credits.
“The song that Fred and Maya wrote, ‘It’s So Nice to Be in Hell,’ is just like, ‘Yeah. It’s hell. But you know what? It’s hell. What are you going to do?’” Cooper said with a smile. “Working with Natasha, she’s like, ‘You know where your sweet spot is? It’s the smile but the crazy eyes.’ I was able to do that a lot because that’s been this year of ‘Yeah! Everything’s fine.’”
Despite the dark themes of the special, few things have made the Everything’s Fine team actually feel more like maybe — just maybe — everything will eventually be fine. “If you can’t look at the truth, you can’t touch the problem — name it, see it, and acknowledge it — because you’re scared of the pain, then you’re not going to get anywhere,” Lyonne said, nodding toward James Baldwin’s famous quote about fear. “There is something that is at least a relief about people speaking honestly about that.”
Rudolph is equally happy to see people finally screaming her own concerns into the void. “When we can collectively laugh and know that other people see the horror that we’re seeing? That has been really comforting,” she said. “Finding Sarah — before we even got to meet her — gave me that sense of, ‘Oh, you’re seeing this too? I’m not the only one?’”