There’s a joke about the cartoons seen in The New Yorker: pretty much all of them can be re-captioned “Christ, what an a**hole.” It works surprisingly well about 90% of the time. (The other two evergreen captions for New Yorker cartoons are “What a misunderstanding” and “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”)
There’s more going on in the craft of cartooning than those captions suggest. The one-panel gag is hard to get right, and more jokes are bound to miss than hit. Throughout Leah Wolchok’s documentary Very Semi-Serious, we watch cartoonists arrive at The New Yorker each week with stacks of their original work. It’s perused and mostly rejected. They come back again the next week with more work, unbruised and undaunted (at least not outwardly).
The process of creating because you have to create--this is what artists do.
Director: Leah Wolchok
Release Date: November 20, 2015 (limited); December 14, 2015 (HBO premiere)
While Very Semi-Serious isn’t wholly obsessed with the process of creation and failure (it’s just semi-serious, after all), that process is just one of many small hooks that make the movie a light, funny, and enjoyable watch. Maybe it’s lighter, funnier, and more enjoyable if you’re already a reader of The New Yorker, or if a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the magazine and its editorial process is of interest to you.
Wolchok spends a good amount of time focusing on Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff. A celebrated cartoonist himself, Mankoff is writing a memoir while sorting through new work by past contributors and up-and-coming artists. Humor is a matter of taste, and most of the cartoons are the kinds of things that appeal to Mankoff and ultimately to New Yorker EIC David Remnick. Sometimes he laughs at a gag and then dismisses it. “This is beneath him,” he says as he rejects a cartoonist he likes. There’s a gentle mentorship to Mankoff, who’s picking and choosing magazine content but also finding ways of encouraging an artists’ sensibilities. Their work may not be right at the moment, but there’s talent worth cultivating and he encourages them to try again, fail again, and to fail better.
Two of those young artists that Mankoff takes a liking to are Liana Finck and Ed Steed. Their quirky styles are closer to contemporary web comics rather than the droll New Yorker style, and it fits with their personalities. Steed speaks in a perpetual whisper that masks his comedic talent, and Finck is like a weird but lovable heroine in an indie film. Mankoff probably sees a bit of himself in each of them, and gives them the gentle push they need to keep doing their work.
Before getting their work looked at in the New Yorker offices, the artists mull around with other cartoonists, almost all of them socially awkward and none of them speaking to one another. It’s a nice visual gag.
Very Semi-Serious covers a lot of ground, and does pretty well for its scope. There’s the history of the cartoons, little nods to famous New Yorker cartoonists of the past like James Thurber, 9/11, Mankoff’s life at home, and The New Yorker‘s recent move from Times Square to One World Trade Center. Nothing can be lingered on too long, so Wolchock juggles the elements that are important, presenting them and then passing them off with a certain light deftness.
There’s also the question of diversity. The New Yorker‘s cartoonists tend to be white and male. Even the handful of women cartoonists (Finck, Roz Chast, and Emily Flake) are white. During the scene of cartoonists waiting to be evaluated, I don’t recall a single person of color, and I wonder if that will change, and if so when. Though maybe it says something about The New Yorker.
Part of me wants a longer chronicle of a few New Yorker cartoonists given how long they’ve been in the industry and how it’s changed. Cartooning can’t be done full-time anymore, for instance, so the craft winds up a passion pursued on the side. I’m not necessarily expecting something like Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, but nearly all of the cartoonists are such characters themselves with stories to tell. (A documentary on New Yorker covers and cover artists could be interesting as well given the wide array of artists and subject matter.)
Chast, for instance, has such a great on-screen presence. She’s one of the few (if not only) women who contributed cartoons to The New Yorker decades ago and still contributes today. In archival footage, Chast slips through the background of the tuxedo-clad boys’ club. It’s funny and telling and smart the way Wolchok contextualizes the clip.
It could have been a New Yorker cartoon--all three captions kind of work too.