At one point in “Very Semi-Serious,” the New Yorker’s cartoons editor Bob Mankoff is asked to describe the work of several of the legendary artists with extraordinary wit that have passed through the hallowed halls of the magazine. Recounting a who’s who that includes Charles Addams, Peter Arno and William Steig, he stops at James Thurber to admire his “immediate, visual and comic” approach, as if he were describing it as an ideal for the magazine’s hand-drawn interludes, which he’s curated for nearly the past 20 years in addition to 20 before that when he was exclusively a cartoonist.
Perhaps there is no greater praise for “Very Semi-Serious” director Leah Wolchok than to say Mankoff could just as easily be describing her film about the history of his department, a documentary that literally can coax a laugh a second in places where it presents one cartoon after another, though as one might expect the people who create them are equally amusing. Elegantly filmed with nimble, honorific string accompaniment to elucidate the quick wit of its subjects, “Very Semi-Serious” never falls into the trap of being the musty mashup of reminiscences it easily could’ve been given the 90 years that it covers, but instead serves as a lively look at the process and the unique personalities that have led to such a vibrant tradition.
If Mankoff introduces himself as the “world’s most proficient dotter” in the film’s opening moments, furiously pounding his pen into the pulpy flesh of the canvases for one of his own cartoons, it’s up to Wolchok to connect the dots, using Mankoff’s rise through the New Yorker as the backbone of “Very Semi-Serious.” Described by New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick as being “somewhere between being a coal miner and a brain surgeon” in his task of selecting from the hundreds of submissions that come his way on a weekly basis, most presented to him in person, 10 at a time, Mankoff does indeed sound like a doctor as he delivers fast and sharp verdicts on the cartoons he sees, encouraging to everyone, but not to the point where a kind word seems like a put-on.
Once Wolchok begins to speak to various contributors both past and present including veterans such as George Booth and Roz Chast (showing off her collection of international canned foods with unique labels) to newer cartoonists like Zach Kanin and Emily Flake, who flit across the screen as bright bursts of light despite the proclivity of many towards very dark humor, you understand why Mankoff is an ideal fit to be in such a position, careful not to let the inmates run the asylum, but clearly enjoying each of their brands of personal craziness that lead to such creative work. Though the film can’t help but suggest that some isolation from the outside world helps to view it in the skewed perspective necessary for the New Yorker — it finds a wunderkind in Ed Steed, an English twentysomething of suspiciously few words — it also finds its affecting dramatic arc in watching someone come out of their shell, tracing the journey of Liana Finck, a former intern at the magazine who, in Mankoff’s words, “hasn’t [quite] found the rhythm of the joke” to accompany her eccentric doodling, but persists at Mankoff’s request.
It helps “Very Semi-Serious” to have Mankoff in a reflective mood when the film picks up, nearing the publication of his memoir “How About Never – Is Never Good for You?”, about which he says, “I didn’t tell a lot of truth…I wanted it to be funny.” Wolchok seems to get to have both, spending time with Mankoff in the company of his wife Cory, who may be even funnier than her husband, and frequently showing how the professional and personal are intertwined for all of its participants. The film touches on the magazine’s response to 9/11, how women struggle to break through the largely male-dominated field and the day jobs most have to support their cartooning, all handled with just enough investigation to feel provocative without interfering with the general lightness of tone. (The film also cleverly uses subtitles to give each of its subjects an instant authority, by listing how many cartoons they’ve drawn, or conveying other bits of information concisely.)
However, “Very Semi-Serious”’s most intriguing notion may be its consideration of institutions. Ending just as Mankoff and company move into the new Conde Nast offices at One World Trade Center, the film lets the 84-year-old Mort Gerberg ruminate about how his time has passed as other New Yorker vets adjust to the new settings. Building something that will outlive them all, they’ve constructed an alternate history with humor that is bound to outlast even their latest digs, but still change is difficult and keeping vital remains a constant struggle. By capturing that in such an eloquent way, “Very Semi-Serious” proves to be something else likely to endure.