×

HBO Documentary Offers ‘Very Semi-Serious’ Look at the Publishing Business

Bob Mankoff is not exactly a media star, but that doesn’t seem to bother HBO, which is trumpeting a new doc about him, titled “Very Semi-Serious.”

Mankoff, 71, is the longstanding cartoon editor of the New Yorker and, consistent with the magazine’s tradition, he has remained a behind-the-scenes figure, quietly selecting his famously amusing, and often arcane, drawings. And now he’s out there in public, looking downright cheerful.

If Mankoff cuts an upbeat figure on the documentary, that also reflects the attitude of the magazine for which he works — an unusual phenomenon in the industry. I have a number of friends in the magazine business, and they are like characters in a Tarantino movie, anticipating doom at every corner. Careers collapse as fast as ad revenues. In a business once based on great stories and lavish photos, the key to survival now rests on videos, the Internet, metered paywalls, virtual reality apps, conferences and variations on “native advertising” (disguised ads).

Given this gloom-and-doom scenario, I decided to peek under the covers of the New Yorker, currently celebrating its 90th birthday. The publication looks, and reads, much like it did a generation ago. But of course, that’s not really true. In fact, the Conde Nast-owned magazine has been shrewdly, but quietly, adapting to the new media universe. The day-to-day agenda of its editor, David Remnick, reflects this change. When he landed the job 17 years ago, Remnick seemed well cast as the prototypical print editor — a serious Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman who could be counted on to assign important stories and faithfully move the copy. Today, the 57-year-old Remnick has also taken on a mandated role as a media celebrity. He serves as host of a new radio interview show, moderates myriad panels and festival events, and will regularly appear on a new weekly TV show on Amazon, a sort of New Yorker meets “60 Minutes.” He even performs now and then with his rock ’n’ roll band.

“The magazine’s showbiz focus is even reflected
in the decision to initiate a special entertainment issue in April, complete with a rich portfolio of TV and film stars.”
@mrpeterbart on Twitter

Amid all this, Remnick also focuses daily on New Yorker.com, which has built a substantial fraternity of digital followers. Unlike his Conde Nast colleague, Graydon Carter, however, he has not as yet opened a restaurant or produced a movie.

Cordial and good humored, Remnick is a little defensive about his media celebrity. “I owe this to the magazine,” he explains. In other words, show business is a component of editing a magazine. That showbiz focus is even reflected in the decision to initiate a special entertainment issue in April, complete with a rich portfolio of TV and film stars — an intriguing precedent for a magazine whose critics historically treated entertainment with more pedantry than praise (though the publication has run occasional pieces by the likes of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Lena Dunham and Tina Fey).

Conde Nast doesn’t volunteer numbers on its publications, but the New Yorker’s circulation has now climbed to more than a million. From the outset, the magazine defied most precepts of publishing success. Drawings adorned the covers, not star photos. The principal pieces were both long and occasionally academic. Yet some members of the literary elite, such as Dwight Macdonald, writing in the Partisan Review, labeled them “middle-brow” or “mid-cult.”

Which brings us back to Mankoff. In “Very Semi-Serious,” he admits that cats are funnier than dogs — a heresy, in view of the fact that the magazine’s most reprinted cartoon is about two caninessitting in front of a computer, with one commenting, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Mankoff acknowledges that many of his cartoons simply aren’t funny to readers, but they’re funny to him.

And in the magazine business — even at the New Yorker — a good laugh is hard to come by.

Popular on Variety

More Voices

  • Renee Zellweger'Judy' film premiere, Arrivals, Samuel

    'Judy's' L.A. Premiere: Renée Zellweger Takes Another Ruby Step Toward the Oscars

    Renée Zellweger continues to follow the yellow brick road to the Oscars. The Los Angeles premiere of Judy on Thursday night in Beverly Hills kept the Academy Award winner on track for a possible second win come February. “We’re just so happy we’re able to share it with you tonight,” Zellweger said to the crowd [...]

  • Barry Bill Hader

    Emmys 2019: Clear Favorites and Top Challengers for This Year's Winners (Column)

    If this felt like the longest, most expensive Emmy campaign in history, you might be right. For one thing, the 2019 Primetime Emmys will be held Sept. 22, which is the latest the ceremony has taken place since 2013. That also happened to be the last year of TV’s quaint, pre-streaming era, before outlets like [...]

  • Fleabag Succession Emmys

    Could 'Fleabag' and 'Succession' Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

    At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild [...]

  • Climate Mobilization

    Marshall Herskovitz: Why the Climate Crisis Needs Movie Marketing-Style Muscle

     I’ve lived inside the climate-communications conundrum for 20 years, working with scientists, academics and activists to find ways to convince Americans that something they couldn’t see or feel was nevertheless a looming catastrophe worth upending their lives to fight. Now the climate crisis is undeniable, and we are finally seeing the beginnings of concerted action. [...]

  • Renée Zellweger, Adam Driver Gain Oscar

    Telluride: Oscar Buzz Builds For Renée Zellweger, Adam Driver and 'The Two Popes'

    This year’s Telluride Film Festival began on Thursday with the Guest/Patron Brunch on a private estate about a 30-minute drive from the center of town. Eggs, bacon and fruit salad were being served as the sun was shining on Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Noah Baumbach, Laura Dern, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Ken Burns, Ric Burns, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content