Commentary: There’s an art to impersonating Trump. Just ask J-L Cauvin and Sarah Cooper
As caricature is to painting, impersonation is to acting. The lowlier art of mimicry isn’t easy to master, but it’s a specialty skill, limited in range and considered something of a freakish endowment, rarer even than being double-jointed.
The most famous impressionist of my youth was Rich Little, a staple of “The Tonight Show” in the Johnny Carson days. Little could be counted on to get a rise out of his host by standing with a straight back, fiddling with his tie, sidling into a so-so joke with a Nebraska twang and punctuating the bit with a golf swing.
Richard Nixon, however, was the impression that made Little a household name in the 1970s. Watergate supplied endless material — what greater gift to an impressionist than a scandal involving tapes? — and Nixon was an easy target, a political caricature already stretched beyond the bounds of credulity.
With the exception of Barack Obama, the presidents who have come after Nixon have been a cinch to send up. But Donald Trump is without question the biggest boon to mimics since Nixon. Alec Baldwin rebooted his celebrity with his gawky cartoon on “Saturday Night Live.” But TikTok, YouTube and Twitter are where the best burlesques of the 45th president can be found.
Sarah Cooper and J-L Cauvin have won social media fandoms with their Trump lampoons, delivered in short video clips that provide vivid X-rays into the hobgoblin mind and carnival barker manner of our reality-TV commander-in-chief. Their acts are like Bob Hope USO tour sketches transmitted directly into the phones and laptops of the exhausted resistance.
The different approaches Cooper and Cauvin take to capture their subject suggest there’s more than one way to skin a Trump. Cooper, who caught fire on the ping-ponging platform TikTok, pairs herself lip-syncing to Trump’s wheeling words with her reaction shots to the verbal farrago. Cauvin compiles his own Trumpian texts into monologues that are one-part C-SPAN, one-part Mad Magazine, and delivers them in fulsome Donald fashion.
Great mimics help you listen better by drawing out a famous person’s idiosyncrasies, those tricks of the voice and gestural tics that announce an Unmistakable Presence. Cooper, a postmodernist with a satiric slyness and a genius for editing, recycles snatches of Trump’s speeches and interviews to expose his crudeness, rudimentary vocabulary and simple-minded illogic.
When a clip was circulating of Trump’s recent Fox News interview, in which he went on at length about acing the cognitive test that asked him to recall the sequence “person, woman, man, camera, TV,” there was an anticipatory excitement over what Cooper would do with this comedy goldmine. She didn’t disappoint.
In a video titled “How to person woman man camera tv,” she focuses on Trump explaining how he had to make his way through this litany of words, an obstacle course requiring him to use all of his mental muscle to make the leap from “man” to “camera” before resting at the finish line of “TV.”
Cooper, a Black woman, doesn’t do anything to resemble Trump physically. She’s dressed for a business meeting. Her look is smart, crisp and conspicuously sane. All of her imitative powers are trained on the rhythms and recursive habits of Trump’s talk. Her timing is uncanny. When he repeats the sequence of test words, she italicizes with her expressions the variations in his wobbling.
The slowness with which Trump explains the basics of what was clearly for him a grueling exam is underscored in the cut-away shots to Cooper as an interlocutor growing bug-eyed at the torpid pace of his explanation. At the end, Trump crows that the test was a breeze, because he’s “cognitively there.” But as Cooper points to her temples while mouthing these words, her funny-scary simulacrum raises the same questions about the president’s mental fitness that were apparent in her hilarious and disturbing earlier video “How to medical,” in which Trump proposes ultraviolet light and disinfectant as possible treatments for COVID-19. (Not even Mel Brooks on an ayahuasca retreat could make this stuff up.)
Cauvin is a more traditional comic impersonator. Of Haitian and Irish background, he occasionally resorts to a wig to invoke Trump, but mostly he conjures his subject through the manipulation of voice and breath. The snorting sound and frat-boyish masculinity are perfectly calibrated. If a MAGA hat could talk, it would sound exactly like Cauvin’s imitation.
The casual racism and sexism are embedded in a speech pattern, in which final consonants are dragged out with defiant randomness. Cauvin has picked up on Trump’s rhetorical tendency to land on a word (“aspects,” say) with an emphasis that adds little value to what’s being said. Cauvin’s Trump is like a fumbling news anchor who wields his elocutionary quirks to cover up his ignorance of what he’s reading.
A comedian with a law degree from Georgetown, Cauvin uses his impressive cognitive wattage to illuminate an unapologetically dim presidential bulb. His Trump tends to paraphrase what he has just struggled to articulate, both to reinforce what he’s saying and to buy himself more time to come up with something new. Words like “strong,” “great” and “nasty” are conscripted to cover gaping holes in meaning. Thinking aloud for this Trump knockoff is like mountain climbing in the Himalayas while wearing flippers and breathing through a snorkel.
Sarah Cooper has become one of the social media sensations of the coronavirus era thanks to her lampooning of President Donald Trump.
Cauvin’s imitation of Vice President Mike Pence, as good as his Trump act, reveals his knack for distillation and exaggeration as a comedy writer. In the video “25 years of Mike Pence Coronavirus Briefings in a Minute!,” Cauvin gives voice to the smooth sycophant’s bamboozlement of the American public in praising Trump’s “bold leadership” in getting the coronavirus crisis under control in 15, 30, 45, 90, 250, 450 days to stop the spread that, in this telling, still appears to be raging 14 years later.
It’s especially satisfying to see two comics of color skewer a president who has stoked racial resentment and bigotry. But it’s the precision of their comedy that has made Cooper and Cauvin unmissable. Trump has provided endless fodder, but their talents will transcend this off-the-rails presidency. America is never short on political fools, and comics like Cooper and Cauvin are necessary safety valves for our national sanity.
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