July 28, 2020
At some point when all this is all over with, our post-pandemic society (whatever that might look like) will begin to cast its critical eye back to this moment in time to try and understand what happened, why, and who is to either blame or laud for how America responded to the coronavirus outbreak.
Among those future historians tasked with unraveling our current William Gibson-esque jackpot, I imagine, will be someone lucky enough to discover Maria DeCotis, the New York City actress and comedian whose unique contribution to the pandemic discourse has been to take New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s semi-regular coronavirus press briefings, and — much like Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin or, for a more contemporary example, Sarah Cooper’s viral spoofs of President Trump — create a caricature of a public figure that is simultaneously more extreme, yet strangely, more accessible than the real thing.
Mic spoke with DeCotis last month, during the height of Cuomo’s daily press briefings, when her short lip-sync interpretations of the governor’s frequently rambling anecdotes served to both skewer and humanize one of the most implacably political animals in the country.
“As a public figure he’s very playful, he can laugh at himself, and he jokes a lot,” DeCotis says, explaining why Cuomo appeals to her and how that translates to her videos.
“I think he enjoys going on these tangents and telling people about how, yes, he’s this powerful man in society, but he’s completely overpowered by his daughters at home,” she continues. “He has no power. He doesn’t get to make decisions. Things like that.”
It’s Cuomo’s family, and his bizarre asides about life with them during quarantine, that frequently take center stage in DeCotis’s sketches. In one video from early May, DeCotis mimics Cuomo, while also playing his youngest daughter Mariah and her unnamed boyfriend, who are forced to grimace through the governor’s rumination on his “third daughter”‘s relationship.
In a more recent video, DeCotis mimics CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, cooking their mother’s sauce recipe while she calls to inquire about Andrew, playing one brother against the other.
“I think it’s exciting to see someone commit to a character that is so different from how they look, or how they go through life,” DeCotis muses, noting that she is hardly Cuomo’s doppelgänger. “I think that’s just really inherently very fun for people, that they can see me play this 62-year-old man who’s kind of grumpy and insecure about his daughters. It’s kind of funny because I am around the age of daughters.”
At the same time DeCotis was making a name for herself nationally for spoofing New York’s governor, fellow comedian Sarah Cooper was doing something similar with Trump, releasing short video clips of her lip-syncing the president’s frequently rambling press briefings and interviews. It’s a comparison DeCotis readily acknowledges.
“I was very inspired by Sarah Cooper initially when I started making videos,” DeCotis tells Mic, “and I think what she talks about is just her identity alone is speaking to what the president is saying. Like, ‘If I said these words, no one would care, no one would believe me.'”
“I guess mine are more of showing this personal crisis that the governor is having amidst this global pandemic, because he’s not invincible, he’s still this trembling dad, trying to figure out parenting,” DeCotis says. “I like to show him unraveling, and I think that’s really fun to do physically with the character, because all I have is the audio, and I can add limitlessly whatever I want on top of that.”
While there are broad similarities between Cooper and DeCotis’s work, there’s a clear difference in tone and focus. Whereas Cooper’s videos focus on the halting ramblings of the most powerful man on the planet, elevating him to an almost abstract level of incomprehensibility, DeCotis takes care to humanize her subject, bringing Cuomo’s tough-guy bravado down to Earth. And while Cooper’s videos clearly mock the president without any quarter, DeCotis’s work shows an undeniable affection for Cuomo.
“Personally, I have an affinity toward him because he is an Italian dad and he is from New York, and both of my parents are Italian from immigrant families that grew up in New York. That’s what I find endearing about him, or what makes me want to play him as a character,” she tells Mic. “For me it’s a personal connection to the material he’s talking about. I just remember watching him talk about the boyfriend and I was thinking, ‘This is so Italian right now,’ y’know? I feel like for me that’s kind of the draw.”
Singular as DeCotis’s Cuomo impersonations may be, they do not exist in a vacuum. As we’ve since learned, the governor’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic played a major role in the virus’s spread, as well as the catastrophic impact coronavirus had on New York, particularly New York City. In this context, DeCotis’s videos, with their decidedly light-hearted take on the Cuomo family, have not been for everyone.
“I have [gotten criticism],” she admits. “I know that people are bringing their political views into it, even other liberals who aren’t happy with all of Cuomo’s political decisions.”
“I don’t really claim to praise his politics in any way,” she adds.
As to whether Cuomo himself is aware of the videos, as he has been of other pandemic-era works about him, DeCotis said she has heard from the governor and “the response was positive. That’s all I’ll say.”