A (mostly) straight-faced movie about the art of being funny, Leah Wolchok’s “Very Semi-Serious” pulls back the curtain on the New Yorker’s venerable cartoon department and finds a world-class collection of freaks, geeks and merry pranksters who channel their offbeat worldviews into the magazine’s iconic black-and-white illustrations. Lending method to the madness is longtime New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, who becomes the compelling central figure here, giving necessary shape to what might otherwise have been an amusing but disorganized cacophony of voices. The result is a delightful if never particularly deep survey of an American comic institution, which should find a sizable niche audience along the lines of previous behind-the-scenes media docs “The September Issue” and “Wordplay.”
With his disproportionately tall, slender build and mane of unkempt grey curls, Mankoff himself looks like he might have been drawn for comic effect, and he has the Teflon demeanor of someone who has moved through life using humor as both a defense mechanism and social lubricant — so much so that it comes as a shock, midway through the film, to learn that he and his wife are still grieving from a recent family tragedy. At the magazine, where Mankoff has been cartoon editor since 1997, he seems a benevolent dictator, holding a weekly open pitch meeting where artists come peddling their wares like the traveling salesmen of yesteryear.
Some are storied veterans like George Booth (who’s been contributing to the magazine since the 1960s) and Roz Chast (with more than 1,000 published cartoons to her credit); others are up-and-comers like Liana Finck, a shy young graphic novelist whose off-kilter sensibility captivates Mankoff; and Ed Steed, a former shepherd who’d never even heard of the New Yorker until he discovered the magazine while backpacking through Vietnam, and who has now graced its pages with several dozen of his deadpan panels (a coat check run by a cat burglar; a bottled genie assisting in an industrial laundry).
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The weekly meetings were designed expressly to foster such new talent — a mandate of both Mankoff and New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick. Still, to judge by the evidence here, while youth may no longer be a problem for the magazine, the cartoon pool remains overwhelmingly male and very, very white. There’s also something less immediately quantifiable that links many of the contributors: a certain introverted outsider’s temperament that makes them innately attune to everyday absurdities. Call it a touch of Asperger’s (as one contributor does), or chalk it up to childhood bullying (as does another). “Being funny is being awake,” Mankoff himself reasons at one point in the film. “You’re in the world and you’re out of it, looking at it.”
Although Wolchok (a first-time feature director) supplies a brief history of the cartoon department dating back to the magazine’s 1925 launch, and a roll call of its most famous alumni (William Steig, James Thurber, Charles Addams, et al.), “Very Semi-Serious” doesn’t strive to be comprehensive and mostly stays focused on the present. Brief glimpses of a dozen or so section regulars at home, or working their day jobs (which range from furniture mover to pattern model to TV sitcom writer), reinforce the notion that cartooning is more of a passionate pursuit than a lucrative career track. Elsewhere, we see the editorial life cycle of a cartoon — from Mankoff’s initial selection to his weekly pow-wows with Remnick to final layout — and get an insider’s peek at the running of the magazine’s weekly caption-writing contest.
Often, Wolchok simply cedes the film to the cartoons — dozens of them — which rarely fail to draw a chuckle, or a belly laugh, even if you’ve seen them before. At their best, the New Yorker cartoons are like pictograms of the human comedy, and occasionally something more, as when (in one of the film’s most compelling sections) the artists find themselves forced to grapple, in cartoon form, with the legacy of Sept. 11. A little more than a decade later, the entire New Yorker staff moves from Conde Nast’s former Times Square headquarters to new digs at One World Trade Center, while Paris is still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks (discreetly referenced here). Mankoff acknowledges the sometimes jarring dissonance between the work he does and the state of the world. But whatever else may come, “Very Semi-Serious” gently argues, we are doomed if we can’t find new ways to laugh at ourselves.