“Cartoons either make the strange familiar or the familiar strange,” says New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, the main character in Leah Wolchok’s fantastic documentary about the weekly magazine’s enduring cartoon department, Very Semi-Serious, playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “They’re not didactic, but they deal with our world.” Or, as cartoonist Emily Flake puts it, describing the exact sort of material that Mankoff and his editor-in-chief David Remnick tend to buy for the magazine: “Basically, stupid cracker shit.”
Wolchok charts the evolution of what has passed muster as sufficiently funny “stupid cracker shit” from the very first New Yorker cartoon, in the magazine’s inaugural 1925 issue, to today, while honing in on the personalities and processes of certain artists, and drawing a picture of an industry in flux. As old timers like Mort Gerberg and Lee Lorenz explain, there used to be dozens of magazines they could sell their work to, but now The New Yorker is the only game in town. In spite of this, Mankoff has turned the process into a very open one, allowing any artist to come to the weekly meetings at which he sorts through thousands of cartoons to pick the 15 or so that will be bought and published. That openness has brought more women and young artists into the fold and, to a lesser degree, some racial diversity to the magazine’s set of regular cartoon contributors.
In addition to Mankoff, whose personal struggles, professional duties, and memoir project form the film’s core narrative structure, Wolchok focuses on a half-dozen cartoonists. They include the section’s first regular woman contributor, Roz Chast; the young graphic novelist Liana Finck, who struggles mightily to bend her eccentric style to Mankoff’s tastes; and the prodigious cartoonist Edward Steed, whose hilariously dry and quirky drawings immediately make their way into the magazine that he only discovered two years prior while backpacking in Vietnam. “I thought, ‘I could do that,’” he recalls. “Not ‘I want to do that,’ but ‘I could do that.’” Each artist is introduced with a caption that includes the number of cartoons they’ve had published by the New Yorker, ranging from zero to 1,826 (Lorenz), but even some of the most prolific endured years of rejection before making their debut in the magazine. The film captures both the solitary business of creating cartoons and the social ritual of the Tuesday pitch sessions.
Appropriately, given its title, Very Semi-Serious also devotes a good amount of time to letting the cartoonists ruminate on the nature of humor. Some locate the root of their work in childhood, as a way to privately get back at bullies, others see it as something more akin to stand-up comedy, highlighting the odd and amusing in the everyday. Cartooning’s relationship to truth and pain becomes an especially powerful topic as Mankoff recalls the process of picking cartoons for the magazine in the weeks after 9/11. Wolchok copiously peppers the interviews with images of the subjects’ cartoons, revealed setup-punchline style, with the drawing appearing first, then the caption. Her film, consequently, has precisely that pitch-perfect balance of truth and comedy that makes for a great New Yorker cartoon. It also makes for a seriously excellent documentary.