Still from Very Semi-Serious, 2015, directed by Leah Wolchok. Courtesy of Kristen Johnson and HBO.
Very Semi-Serious, a documentary by first-time director Leah Wolchok, follows a gaggle of cartoonists and one colorful editor who produce work for The New Yorker—a magazine that, perhaps, boasts the most intellectual cartoon consortium in the world. Bob Mankoff, the department’s grizzled and energetic editor, acts as this doc’s narrator. From his perspective, we peer behind the scenes of the iconic publication: he meets with editor-in-chief David Remnick to show him the latest laughs, reads hundreds of cartoon submissions, listens to pitches from young hopefuls and old hats, and draws his own funnies, always stippled with his signature tiny dots. Though Mankoff claims he can’t draw very well, he concedes that “the marks you make on paper outlast you—and they have the spontaneity that life has.”
But Mankoff doesn’t hog the spotlight; we also venture inside the home of the legendary Roz Chast (one of the few, the proud, female cartoonists), spend time with Mort Gerberg, and meet a plethora of emerging artists who arrive in Mankoff’s office gripping their best work beneath their arms. The selection of greenhorns includes Ed Steed, a strange and soft-spoken Brit with an original perspective; and Liana Finck, a young girl with a wobbly voice who admits she might have Asperger’s. There’s a touching back-and-forth between Mankoff and Liana, as he tells her she’s not mainstream, and her work isn’t quick or punch-liney enough—but it’s still good. Liana keeps trying, and eventually makes her New Yorker debut.
A cartoon is a bit like a poem. It’s an utterly simplistic expression; there is no gadgetry, no technological interference. All you need is pen and paper; the art can exist outside of all context. Of course, sometimes context is actually the point; the film, for example, touches on how the cartoons changed post-9/11 (“We’ll need to declaw the cat,” reads the caption on one drawing of a woman and her pet passing through airport security.)
Our narrator alleges that funny people are like boxers; they shouldn’t get into fights outside the ring because they could hurt someone. Being funny makes it easy to be cruel, and Mankoff has to hold himself back. But he seems plenty affable on camera, joking with colleagues, and bantering with his wife. “Aren’t you supposed to pretend like they’re not here?” she asks when he can’t stop gabbing to the film crew. “You can break the fourth wall,” he defends himself, grinning.
Perhaps the best part of Very Semi-Serious is seeing all the cartoons. They are amusing, disheartening, sly, and insightful, often at the same time. “Being funny is being awake,” says Mankoff. “It’s like living at two different levels at once. You’re in the world and you’re out of it, looking at it.” I spoke with Mankoff about how the magazine’s cartoons are evolving, the limits imposed on cartoonists’ material, and the personalities of people who are “funny.”
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Since your tenure as editor, what’s changed about New Yorker cartoons—either in terms of content or the kind of cartoonists who are employed?
Bob Mankoff The cartoons have evolved. They’re a little bit more meta; the humor is almost about humor itself, more self-referential. A younger group of people are doing that. That’s part of the message of the film. There’s more diversity, and more women cartoonists, some of whom are doing cartoons that are indistinguishable from men’s cartoons. We’re very serious about diversity—we’re always looking for more. Even in the magazine, everyone you’d see in a cartoon in the past was white—but that’s not the case anymore. We have a course taught by Emily Slate at the School of Visual Arts that will draw on more diverse cartoonists, more people of color. There’s a lot of convenient excuses you can make for why things aren’t more diverse. It’s not that those excuses don’t have some validity—but it’s up to us to inconvenience ourselves. There’s no way cartoons can be all things, to all people, at all times. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be more things, to more people, at more times.
AJG How specific to New York are these cartoons? Do people in other countries find them as funny? Is humor culture-specific?
BM I don’t know how they’d be received in outer Mongolia. Something might be lost in translation. Our books get reprinted in China and Japan. Tip O’Neill said all politics are local—that’s true of cartoons also, to some extent. They tend to be about upper- or middle-class urban concerns. That’s what we like to make fun of. Artisanal stuff, Groupons, all the first-world problems that first world people never stop bitching about. Louis C.K. has a whole routine about that! That’s still part of humanity. I made a joke on Amtrak the other day, when I couldn’t get the Wi-Fi but the person next to me could. That was the problem. Those are the things we tend to make fun of.
AJG Is there anything you can’t show in the cartoons, something that’s taboo or goes too far?
BM Within the context of the New Yorker, it’s not anything goes. It’s an empathetic environment, people are easily offended. If you do a cartoon in which a woman is saying, “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week, but I’m already really annoying,” you get a hundred letters about people with Celiac disease. They miss the point. We’re not making fun of the disease; we’re making fun of the millions of people who clearly don’t have it, but who think all their problems will be addressed by being gluten free. Our brand is tasteful humor. We’re tying one hand at least behind our back—we’re not gonna be gross, or get laughs by being offensive. That’s a fairly easy way to get laughs; the transgression will make people laugh. That doesn’t mean it should be banned in the rest of society. There’s a space for tasteless humor. But that’s not our space. There’s a Jack Ziegler cartoon, where there’s a gallows and steps for the gallows, and then also a ramp for the handicapped. Everyone will laugh at that, but if you were in an audience, you’d laugh and then go, “Ooooh.” So everyone knows you’re a good person. Humor teaches us that you can be a good person but also have bad thoughts. It just means you’re a human being. We’re not Puritans.
AJG There’s a sweet moment in the film when your wife says: “You get a lot of material from me!” Do you ever steal jokes from her, or do you just use her for comedic inspiration?
BM I use her as comedic inspiration. I did a joke where she was pissed off at me for some very good reason, probably. She was sitting in the chair—and with my wife, I know that if she’s pissed off, you can’t make lovey-dovey right away. She’s not like that. I have to approach it through humor. I approached her and said, “How is your snit coming?” I made that into a cartoon. Sometimes I’ll pick up a phrase someone will say. My daughter said, “It’s not personal, it’s religious.” And I’ll think: Where is the best setting for that?
“It’s not personal, it’s religious.” Cartoon by Bob Mankoff, August 2014.
AJG What was the filming process like, with Leah following you around. Was it more pressure to be nice to the cartoonists you were reviewing because you were on camera?
BM We didn’t have any creative control at all. It was all Leah. To some extent, people had filmed at the New Yorker before, because people are interested in the cartoons. There was a show with Ted Koppel, a 60 Minutes in March, but a lot of that goes way back. Leah started this stuff in 2008. I have a performance aspect to my personality, whether cameras are there or not. I like to have fun when I’m not completely morose. I had a great relationship with Leah and the film crew, just by joking and kidding around. Leah herself was wonderful; it was this group of bright young women doing this stuff. Sometimes film can be tiring, like when you’re reshooting. But I felt it was for a cause I wanted to promote: I’m out there, but I view myself as a rep of New Yorker magazine and the cartoonists. Almost a titular head of it. I do ceremonial things, like if there’s a ship that’s called the U.S.S. New Yorker Cartoon, I’ll have to cut the ribbon. The cause is the special thing people do here, and the special people who do it. I wanted people to know about that.
AJG A lot of the cartoonists we see in the film are eccentric, or socially awkward, and look almost like cartoon characters themselves. Is there a cartoonist “type?” Or did Leah just focus on the oddest people she could find?
BM They’re really there. Those parts were compelling and true. What’s the opposite of eccentric? Centric. Normal. It varies. There are people who are normal and people who are quirky. For example, when you actually look at the people in the film, Liana Finck is sort of quirky. Ed Steed is very young; he’s diffident and little bit laconic and shy, and they put a microphone in his face. But Mort Gerberg, one of the older cartoonists, is a pretty normal guy. To some extent, the pressures of the creative humorous life push through a little bit that way. The stresses and the pressures. In a way, it’s like the question of: Are comedians also depressed? Maybe we just focus on the depression because it seems like an ironic contrast with what they’re supposed to be. Maybe the patterns of thought involved in being a humorist or comedian skews you to viewing the world in an eccentric way, and probably from a very early age—constantly seeing things for what they are, as a dualist. It’s completely normal andabsurd at the same time, almost everything we are as human beings. Every time I walk into One World Trader Center with all that security, I think: “Oh, we’re preventing terrorists from coming in here who will obey orders, who are polite.”
AJG David Remnick is the ultimate decider of what goes into the magazine. But if the person who became editor-in-chief wasn’t particularly funny or didn’t have a sense of humor that coincided with your own, how would you deal with that?
BM We’d have to kill them. We’d have to send a drone. (laughter) I think one of the requirements to be the overall editor is that you are the overall editor of this magazine, of which humor, cartoons, “Shouts and Murmurs,” are all components. Your sensibility has to incorporate that. When Tina Brown took over, she had an excellent sense of humor, but with her it was more of a delegation. She came from another country. David has a very good sense of humor, but that doesn’t mean that we agree. Humor is something that’s hard to agree on. I know this from the caption contest. It’s enormously subjective.
AJG Why does the magazine make it a point not to publish a cartoon referring to a topic that’s also written about in that week’s issue?
BM I think it gives the magazine a type of space, a type of freedom, where it doesn’t seem like one thing is tied to the other. By creating a little bit of a parallel universe—maybe you can get away with things a bit more. I don’t know how many cartoons you’d want about ebola anyway. You as a person, or I, we can be talking seriously and then we can switch, in a moment, to being playful. When you make a joke, it’s not necessarily tied to what you’re saying. It’s almost a relief from the strain of always being serious. The cartoons give a relief from the magazine itself—which is very serious.
AJG Do you have to be able to draw well to be a cartoonist? Or is being an intelligent comedian more important?
Roz Chast’s first cartoon for the New Yorker, July 1978. Courtesy of HBO.
BM I think it’s combined. It’s different from being a comedian—most of those things wouldn’t work as cartoons, like what Louis C.K. does. It’s part of his personality. Cartoons have to work separate from any personality, by themselves. The drawing is important—but it’s complicated. There can be good drawings, or bad-good drawings, when it’s too tight or too representative. And there can be good-bad drawings, where it’s not great craftsmanship, but it’s perfect for the cartoon and has a certain charm, like a Tom Waits or Bob Dylan voice. It’s not technically right, but it’s right for the material. At the same time, we have more and more people, thanks to David, who are drawing fantastically. Also people who are drawing whimsically, like Roz Chast; her drawing is right for the topics she deals with. Sometimes the more serious the topic, the more whimsical the drawing.
AJG Do you have an all-time favorite New Yorker cartoon?
BM There’s been 80,000, in every genre, from crazy silly to wonderful to observational. Let’s say you took that cartoon of Jack Ziegler’s, with the gallows; it tells us we’re all humans. It reminds me of the George Lowe quote: “Jokes don’t degrade us, they tell us we are degraded.” It’s almost like original sin. We understand this is the human clay we have to deal with, even if we’re gonna make progress. A meaningful cartoon, like by Roz Chast, where a person is looking at obituaries, and they all read: “3 years younger than you; 12 years older than you; your age, on the dot.” How am I going to compare a cartoon like that with “Paninis of the Old West,” where a villain is tying down paninis on the railroad tracks?
Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists premiered on HBO in December 2015 and is now available on demand.