Like Live From New York!, the Saturday Night Live documentary which also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, underscores the difficulty of making a picture about a venerable institution, Very Semi-Serious chooses to slice the story in a much different and more intimate way. Bob Mankoff, the longtime editor of The New Yorker cartoons, which appear in various forms throughout the magazine, is both a coach and a mentor, struggling with his team to remain open while editorializing. On a weekly basis he checks in with his talent, offering criticism and guidance. Amongst those are emerging talent including cartoonists Linana Finck, who is still a work in progress, and Ed Steed, a young staff favorite who is wise beyond his years.
Chronicling the editorial process, history and conception of some of the cartoons it runs, Very Semi-Serious seems rather shapeless in passages, bouncing between past and present. The transitions and storytelling aren’t quite as polished and organic as they could be. Structural quibbles aside, first-time filmmaker Leah Wolchok has chosen some interesting subjects, a few who are rather eccentric and shy. Finck and Steed especially provide some self-deprecating humor that enhances the historical elements. We learn other alumni of the cartoon strip are essentially part-time cartoonists working in other creative industries. Many generously share with Wolchok (and us) works in progress of ideas that have yet to hatch.
On the historical context front, Wolchok chronicles several flashpoints in the history of The New Yorker’s cartoons from their introduction in 1964, including the first cartoons published in the wake of 9/11 and the recent Charlie Hebdo attack. Shooting over the course of a few years, the film also captures some intimate details of Mankoff and family as he struggles to find humor himself in the wake of a family tragedy. He compartmentalizes his work and personal life with some introspection while his cartoonists talk about their work with the same introspection: much of their humor is rooted in family, domestic situations, the media and, of course, the New York rat race.
As messy and ambitious as it is, Very Semi-Serious offers a unique insight into the present goals and evolution of The New Yorker cartoons, which are aimed, we learn, to poke fun at the kind of folks who buy and read The New Yorker: the upscale, Whole Foods shoppers with two kids and a degree from a good school. The intentions of the cartoons shift over time, from calling attention to funny things in the every day to deep cultural criticisms. Like this documentary, each cartoon serves its purpose.
Very Semi-Serious premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens on November 20th.