There's a small, pleasing feeling you get when you stumble across a New Yorker cartoon that speaks directly to you. You've probably found it on your first scan of the magazine, which probably occurs days or months before you'll read any of the stories, and you probably want to send it out to friends. You look at it for a few seconds and then, in an instant, it lands — the drawing, the caption, the joke, bam. It lands in your head, and brings with it some off-center wisdom about human nature and, perhaps, some pathos.
HBO's "Very Semi-Serious," Monday at 9 p.m., is an engaging documentary about New Yorker cartoons – who creates them and why, which editors select them and why, and what they have to offer readers beyond a break from pages and pages of Adobe Caslon type. The full title — "Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists" — is cumbersome and self-consciously quirky, but the film is mostly breezy and straightforward. By the end, you have a better understanding of the art and of what kinds of temperaments and skills lend themselves to it. When you listen to Roz Chast talk about her preference for indoors over outdoors, for example, her work somehow comes more into focus.
Most of the film revolves around Bob Mankoff, the personable guy who took over the job of New Yorker cartoon editor from Lee Lorenz in 1997. Mankoff sees some 1,000 cartoons a week, and he selects the best to show to magazine editor David Remnick, who places Mankoff "somewhere between a coal miner and a brain surgeon." Every Tuesday, a group of cartoonists shows up at the New Yorker offices — in Times Square at the beginning of the film, at 1 World Trade Center by the end — and one by one they sit at Mankoff's desk while he makes pronouncements on their pieces. To his credit, Mankoff doesn't mince words; one cartoonist calls Tuesdays "my weekly humiliation." He also doesn't push away old-timers such as George Booth and Mort Gerberg, even as he expresses a desire to bring new cartoonists into the fold.
Some of the best material in the film takes us out of the New Yorker offices and into the lives of the old-timers and the newcomers. Mankoff says he generally looks not just for gags but also for a personality behind the gags, for a consistent point of view that will serve the artist over time. The nature of that singular quality — a slightly askew but cohesive perspective — becomes clearer, and at times humorous, the more time we spend with the cartoonists. One young woman, Liana Finck, is excruciatingly shy, as is an extremely talented young Brit named Edward Steed, who says almost nothing to Mankoff while transmitting terror through his wide blue eyes. They definitely seem like a special breed.
"Very Semi-Serious," directed by Leah Wolchok, always comes back to Mankoff, which is a good thing. He easily articulates his taste and his knowledge of the art, and he serves as a solid anchor. Along with his wife, Cory, he provides the most moving segments of the film, as the two talk about the then-recent death of their son, David. It's a painful topic, but not out of place. For Mankoff and for many others, the best cartoons aren't just an opportunity for laughs.
A Partially Thorough Portrait
of New Yorker Cartoonists
On HBO, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m.