Humor's No Joke in 'Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists'

Matthew Fay

A new documentary about the New Yorker cartoons shows the pains taken to be funny.

Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists

Cast: Robert Mankoff
Network: HBO
Air date: 2015-12-14

In keeping with its title, Leah Wolchok’s documentary Very Semi-Serious is a film about the struggles found in a life of humor. Or perhaps, the humor found in a life of struggle.

The line between these two designations is consistently blurred in the film’s inside look at the business side of what many deem an archaic form of humor: the New Yorker Cartoon. Told largely from the perspective of current New Yorker Cartoon Editor, Robert Mankoff, the film portrays Mankoff’s grueling weekly process in reviewing the thousands of cartoons brought to the magazine each week, and giving feedback to the cartoonists. However, in showing the pressures of Mankoff’s position, as well as those of the cartoonists submitting their work, the film also offers an insightful reflection on the life and work of the struggling artist, and the passion and drive that keeps them dedicated to their craft. In showing these particular artists' dedication to the art of cartooning, the film is a warm reminder of the cathartic power of humor.

As depicted in the film, the title Very Semi-Serious ultimately serves as an apt description of both the New Yorker cartoons and the people working with them. The film effectively shows the contrast between the tedium of the work in the New Yorker offices, whether it be shuffling through mounds of papers or the thousands of submissions to the "caption contest", and the inherent absurdity of the art being discussed. Mankoff’s regular duties include taking a cartoonist into his office and looking through a portfolio of 10 or so comics, giving feedback and describing what works and what doesn’t, and what’s in and what isn’t. These are interspersed with interviews with the artists themselves, who discuss their regular rejection and "weekly moment of humiliation", and yet, their resilience allows them to come back for more. The tone and aura of the conversations and interactions come across like New Yorker cartoons themselves: subtle, subdued, but with poignant, funny moments in the regular stresses of the human comedy.

The film’s central focus is Robert Mankoff, especially his efforts to write his memoir How About Never? Is Never Good for You? (entitled after one of his own cartoons, and one of the most reprinted illustrations in the magazine’s history). Mankoff gives his own perception of the world, both internal and external, of the cartoonist, and the kind of mindset that makes for the best in the business: an unrepeatable, uniquely absurd view of a mostly droll and taxing world. It’s this kind of view that made the careers of some of the most famous artists in the business, including Charles Addams, Peter Arno, and Mort Gerberg. But even for longtime artists like Gerberg, who acknowledges his place as "out" of the current New Yorker circle, the passionate drive to find and capture the humor in daily life, and to keep drawing and submitting, is always there.

This artistic drives shines through particularly strongly in the documentary’s section on the 9/11 issue of the magazine. Despite the editors announcing they wouldn’t be running cartoons in the issue, the magazine ended up accepting a single one: an illustration by regular illustrator George Booth of one of his usually eccentric characters, a violin-playing old woman, instead seated in silence with her violin on the floor. Within a few weeks, however, the humor had returned, with one comic reading: "it’s been hard, but I’m slowly starting to hate everyone again".

The personal moments with the cartoonists themselves show lives much different from those one might imagine from professional humorists: not clowns or crazies, but quiet, withdrawn individuals, usually living alone in solitary homes and apartments, hunched over a table or a drawing board. The film depicts the lives of both long-time contributors as well as the young, new artists trying to break into the business. The regular experiences of both are not so different, however, with even the most seasoned cartoonists still expecting rejection from Mankoff.

For the cartoonists interviewed, their art is a kind of solace from the regular stresses of life, and has been since very early on in life. Longtime cartoonists like Roz Chast explain how difficulties like a strained relationship with her mother helped form her art, while others, like Emily Flake, explain the importance of childhood misery in being a humorist.

For Mankoff himself, however, the art is a rescue from a loss of the most devastating kind: the death of his son a year before. As he and his wife, Cory, discuss the struggle of moving on from such a loss, they explain the importance of the humorous aspect of their lives: as a distraction. Distraction, Cory says, in a memorable moment with the couple’s daughter towards the film’s end, can be as important as acceptance. She’s immediately followed by Bob, who intervenes by humorously moving his bicep up and down, to the disgust and delight of his wife and daughter.

As a love letter to a simple art, the film depicts the craft of cartooning, but more generally, the art of humor, as exactly this: a singular and temporary, but vital, escape. Like a printed cartoon, when surrounded and enclosed by the solemnity of life’s dramas, the art of the escape is found in the expertly crafted hilarity of a single moment, found with a very particular eye.

The film’s emphasis on the drollness and difficulty of life make the moments of outright laughter all the more significant. One of the most rewarding scenes in the film is when Mankoff takes a weekly batch of accepted cartoons up to the office of the head editor, David Remnick, for a final clarification. Redneck’s cackling at something as simple as a cartoon of Batman eating mosquitoes, and Mankoff’s own cheek-to-cheek grin, is a heartfelt depiction of what all of the film’s struggling cartoonists work so hard to achieve: a good laugh.

Very Semi-Serious is an imitate look at an old, but beloved art, and the dedicated, passionate people who pursue it. Even as Mankoff and other artists feel the drive the modernize the cartoon, and bring it into a new digital age, the same drive for life’s absurdities remains from one generation to the next.

Carolita Johnson, one of the New Yorker's resident cartoonists, describes an odd habit of her dog to explain her passion. "I have a dog that will go into the middle of the living room and dig an imaginary hole. He'll then go and put a bone in that imaginary hole. And that's why I make cartoons. You can't not do it".


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