Years ago, neuroscientist Patrick House wrote a piece for Slate about how to win the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest, in which he offered the following test for a winning caption: “Is it too funny? Will it make anyone laugh out loud? If so, throw it out and work on a less funny one.” New Yorker readers are not looking for gutbusters. Mildly clever chucklers will do just fine.
“Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists” is, appropriately, the cinematic embodiment of this sentiment. Offering a documentary version of the magazine’s low-risk-low-reward sense of humor, “Very Semi-Serious” is a diverting, undemanding peek inside the publication’s cartoon department which studiously avoids any chortles, guffaws, or lols. This is a documentary about humor that might make you smile but will certainly never make you laugh.
That’s not really a criticism (except to the extent that it’s a criticism of the New Yorker’s famously milquetoast sense of humor). It wouldn’t be true to the spirit of the New Yorker to create a truly funny movie about its signature brand of hand-drawn humor. That humor has a long tradition, dating back to the publication’s founding in the 1920s and has notably featured James Thurber, Charles Addams, and Saul Steinberg, among many others. Little seems to have changed over the decades. The submission process is more open, and women cartoonists are regularly published, but the gags are still basically the same. When one cartoonist is told that his panel could have run in 1945, it seems intended as a compliment.
As with so many venerable establishment institutions, the current gatekeeper of the New Yorker cartoon section is an old white man—specifically Robert Mankoff, a bearded, bespectacled, frizzy-haired guy who acts as mentor and arbiter of humor to the cartoonists who pitch cartoons every Tuesday in his office. Mankoff reviews about 1,000 cartoons every week to select fifteen that will eventually make it into the magazine.
Director Leah Wolchok gets a little bogged down with Mankoff as he writes his memoir and deals with the tragic death of his stepson. His sense of humor is, practically speaking, the New Yorker’s. And that should give some indication that he’s not really all that captivating. More interesting are the profiles of various freelance cartoonists, a group of introverted oddballs who face weekly rejection and economic precarity to compete in this highly specific medium. These range from a quirky young woman drawing rainbows to an old man who has been submitting cartoons for five decades. There is a constant tension between developing one’s own voice and molding one’s humor to the New Yorker’s (and, thus, Mankoff’s) tastes. “People hate mimes,” Mankoff tells one cartoonist, and one gets the sense that careers are made and broken on such bits of pseudo-wisdom.
No one in the New Yorker cartoon process deserves more admiration and respect than the Mankoff’s assistant, who is tasked with reading through thousands of caption contest submissions every week. All to find the perfect punchline that will make no one laugh.