The movie for all those New Yorker subscribers whose bedside pile of waiting-to-be-read issues would be completely virginal if not for a post-mailbox perusal of their cartoons, Very Semi-Serious introduces the creators of all those one-panel gags. Buzzing attentively but not exclusively around cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, director Leah Wolchok strikes a pleasing balance between office minutiae and comic greatest hits; she gets enough face time with individual artists to please comedy nerds while keeping things wholly accessible to casual fans. An obvious match for this fest, it should also fare well beyond.
Cartoons “make the strange familiar, or the familiar strange,” we’re told here, and that generalization works with most of the artists Semi-Serious celebrates, from venerable weirdos Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson to brilliant newcomers like Ed Steed. Every Tuesday, Mankoff welcomes as many as can fit in the office to come pitch him their latest creations, looking through maybe 1,000 works to fill his weekly quota of about 15. (Anyone who’s ever looked at one with a cocked eyebrow, trying to figure out what’s supposed to be funny about it, will laugh at the cartoonists who try to convince Mankoff he just isn’t getting it.) David Sipress, a contributor since 1998, reveals with a slightly wounded smile that he was rejected for 25 years before selling the magazine a cartoon.
While we follow the mechanics of Mankoff’s operation, from his upper-level pitches with editor David Remnick to the drudgery of keeping a ‘toon database in hopes of not printing a new one that rehashes another artist’s joke, we also spend time with some of the actual artists. Roz Chast gets plenty of Wolchok’s attention, turning out to be considerably less frazzled than one expects; George Booth, who has had more than 800 cartoons run since 1964, possesses a weird hiccup-like laugh that suits his messy artistic world perfectly. Any longtime reader will be able to think of a favorite or two they don’t get to meet here (how about William Haefeli?). But squeezing more in might have meant not meeting up-and-comers like Liana Finck, a former New Yorker intern who owns up to her interpersonal awkwardness (“it might be Asperger’s“) and comes back to Mankoff week after week with work that’s always just a little too weird, even for him.
Finck’s quest to make her first sale is a sweet human-interest subplot here; a more poignant one follows Mankoff away from the office, as he and his wife grieve the son they lost. Mankoff is also working on a memoir throughout the film, and in a couple of scenes we see him with his editor. No matter how mighty they are in their own arenas, all are united in hope and fear while sitting on the wrong side of an editor’s desk.
Production company: Redora Films
Director: Leah Wolchok
Producers: Leah Wolchok, Davina Pardo
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, Deborah Shaffer, Bruce Sinofsky
Director of photography: Kirsten Johnson
Editors: Nels Bangerter, Scott Stevenson
Music: Max Avery Lichtenstein
Sales: Linzee Troubh, Cinetic
No rating, 83 minutes