In April of 2015, the movie, “Very Semi Serious,” was released. It documented how, sometimes, the simplest of lines could tell the funniest and most complicated of stories; it told the story of The New Yorker cartoons. With a focus on Bob Mankoff, the current cartoon editor, the documentary details the history of The New Yorker cartoons, what makes a good cartoon, and introduces several old, and new, prominent cartoonists. The background is always of New York city and I, personally, don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many New York Jews in one film that’s main point wasn’t that they were actually New York Jews. Regardless, part of this movie’s appeal for me was that it reminded me of my family and of home.
The cartoonists are a fascinating group, extremely talented and diverse in their personalities. They are great real life characters for the movie to follow and a great deal of the film discusses how differently a truly great cartoonist sees the world. Connecting real life to its appropriate exaggeration is a cartoonist’s quest. With each cartoonist that appears on screen, text appears with their name and the number of cartoons they’ve had published in The New Yorker. In the cartooning world, you are still well regarded if you haven’t been in The New Yorker, but it certainly ups your street cred. The cartoonists of old share how there used to be a far wider market for one panel print cartoons, but now many of those magazines have closed. The New Yorker, however, remains a stronghold.
The new generation of cartoonists is introduced, soft spoken, young men and women, who come in and present pages upon pages of sketches and quips. Often, they are rejected, but the movie allows you to see the editor turn to the camera and say, “He see’s the world differently, I look forward to what he’ll produce,” or “Her artistic voice is fascinating.” There’s a lot of rejection in the movie, lightened by its expectation as cartoonists file into Bob Mankoff’s office with seemingly hundreds of cartoons. You follow the entire process of a cartoon being published, its initial acceptance by Mankoff and his presentation to the editor-in-chief, David Remnick. On the table are two wire baskets, yes and no. The New Yorker publishes about 15 cartoons per issue and David Remnick has the final say on all of them.
A steady hold is maintained on the study of cartooning, but the film fluidly meanders around the other issues surrounding the magazine. The film covers the magazine’s move from their historic offices in Time Square to the newly built Freedom Tower. At 1 World Trade Center, the staff settles in and an older cartoonists mutters about how the barren rows of cubicles in no way looks like The New Yorker. Mankoff’s describes how he opened up the cartoon submission process so that there is a specified time in which an artist can just call, request time to be in front of the editor, and they will be given an opportunity to show their pieces. The magazine is clearly changing, but with an eye toward staying true to its roots.
The documentary’s full title is “Very Semi Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists.” Its glib and, in my opinion, only partially accurate. As it bounces from subject to subject, it maintains a focus on the oddities and brilliance of professional cartooning. I am not generally one to watch documentaries, but this one is relatively brief and casually riveting, the kind of sensible oxymoron that The New Yorker specializes in.
Image credits: The New Yorker