Once a week, The New Yorker’s cartoon editor Robert Mankoff opens his door to dozens of eccentric artists, who sit down at his desk with a stack of drawings, trying to convince him to put one of their gags into the magazine—or at least to keep them in the mix as he’s narrowing down his list of contenders for that issue from over 1,000 to 15. Mankoff himself knows what it’s like to be rejected by The New Yorker: He submitted roughly five drawings a week for two years before he got one of his cartoons published. But he also knows what it’s like to thrive in the magazine’s wry one-panel format. (One of Mankoff’s pieces, with a businessman saying, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?” is one of the most famous New Yorker cartoons of all time.) He encourages young talent, but he doesn’t have time to be anything but brusque about their work. As he flips through the stack, a typical Mankoff comment is, “I like the idea, but not this idea.”
Scenes of those weekly “open auditions” recur a few times in the HBO documentary Very Semi-Serious—a film with a premise so rich that it’s surprising it hasn’t been done before. Director Leah Wolchok considers the great American institution of the New Yorker cartoon as both social history and aesthetic quandary. This is the publication that once gave a forum to artists like Charles Addams, Peter Arno, William Steig, and Saul Sternberg—illustrators who pulled down six figures a year while defining a certain urbane sense of humor, at once whimsical and cutting. The business has changed, and very few artists can make a living in 2015 just drawing cartoons for magazines. But it still means something to be “a New Yorker cartoonist.” The description carries with it a certain responsibility: to say something about modern life in a major metropolis.
Wolchok tries to do maybe a little too much with Very Semi-Serious. At times this is a nuts-and-bolts doc, breaking down the mechanics of getting cartoons from pitch session to page. Wolchok films Mankoff’s assistants (who handle the mailed-in submissions, check subject matter against a big database to avoid repetition, and help run the highly popular caption contest). She also shows the weekly meetings with editor David Remnick, who makes the final selections. The film is even around for The New Yorker’s move to new offices, which Wolchok uses as a way to illustrate how even a monolithic media entity evolves.
At other times, Very Semi-Serious makes that same point by fragmenting into mini-profiles of some of the magazine’s regular contemporary contributors. During his tenure, Mankoff has actively nurtured a younger, more diverse roster of artists—without “putting the old ones out on an ice floe,” he says—which means the documentary has a wide range of voices available to offer reminiscences and opinions.
Wolchok talks to veteran Roz Chast (who remembers being viewed with suspicion by the old guard when she started getting into The New Yorker in the late ’70s, when the magazine rarely published women cartoonists) and to quirkier up-and-comers like Liana Finck (who admits her skewed view of life and difficulty with social interactions may be due to Asperger’s), Emily Flake (who worries that becoming a mother is making her too happy to be funny), and Ed Steed (a soft-spoken genius whose work resembles the best of B. Kliban and James Thurber).
All of the jumping around from person to person and idea to idea can make Very Semi-Serious seem a little overly digressive. Wolchok spends the majority of her film following Mankoff, but because this isn’t a documentary about one cartoonist, the time she devotes to the editor’s marriage, his personal tragedies, and his attempt to write a memoir—while all fascinating, and even moving—often feel like they belong in a different project.
Then again, the advantage to spending so much time with Mankoff is that he knows cartooning. He can be philosophical about the artform, talking about how it “makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” Or he can just laugh at a drawing of a cat in a suit, because cats are adorable. At its best, Very Semi-Serious pivots smoothly from its fly-on-the-wall/day-in-the-life material to something a little more reflective, and even provocative, and Mankoff makes a great focal point for both of those approaches.
Beyond recounting a little of the history of The New Yorker and its cartoonists—whose work is preserved in the office’s archives, in hand-bound volumes that any comics aficionado would kill to spend just an hour flipping through—Very Semi-Serious tries to explain what makes a good cartoon. It’s not essential to be a great draftsman. (Just ask Chast, who says that when she first started getting published, readers were scandalized by her scratchy lines.) And it’s not even important to be able to brainstorm killer one-liners. According to Mankoff, people who submit work to him should aspire to do what Thurber did, drawing cartoons that are “immediate, visual, and comic.” His job as an editor is to remember that everything he approves will become a permanent part of a publication that’s spent 90 years documenting a changing world, one pen-stroke at a time.