Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for Shockya. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.
Director: Leah Wolchok
Written by: Leah Wolchok
Cast: Bob Mankoff, David Remnick, Roz Chast, Mort Gerberg, Liana Finck
Screened at: HBO, NYC, 9/9/15
Opens: November 20, 2015
When I was taking freshman English with Professor Charles Vivian in 1954, I had an assignment the likes of which I never experienced before. We were asked to write a one-page interpretation of a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, a periodical that I’d heard about only vaguely. I flipped the pages and chose one by Charles Addams, perhaps the most prolific cartoonist for that magazine during the fifties. In those days there was no Internet with which to copy information so I was on my own. During the private conference with Dr. Vivian, the professor asked whether I’d ever heard of Addams, since some knowledge of the man would be advisable if one is interpreting one of his works. “Write what you know.” I didn’t know. But however naïve my interpretation of the cartoon, that day in ’54 inspired me not only to find out more about the artist, famous for his darkly-humous, macabre characters, and even more important, I became a regular subscriber to the New Yorker.
It was with special excitement that I attended a pre-opening screening of “Very Semi-Serious,” an HBO documentary about New Yorker cartoons—now featuring about fifteen such drawings per issue and a touchstone for cartoons since its birth in February 1925 when the magazine sold on the stands for 25 cents. (It’s now $7.99.) My anticipation was rewarded. “Very Semi-Serious” is just that: serious drawings designed to make readers laugh, including some on the subject matter of Death personified by an Ingmar Bergman style black-cloaked figure carrying a scythe. Unlike what we see in a Bergman feature like “The Seventh Seal,” Death is funny, and the human beings with whom he walks away meet their fate with bemusement but not rage.
Leah Wolchok’s doc,which serves as a funny, uplifting look behind the scenes at the cartoon department is a delight. You don’t have to be a New Yorker reader to understand the cartoons, some of which are not altogether simple, but it helps. It helps not because you need to be familiar with the New Yorker but because if you read it regularly, you’re the kind of person who is drawn to this classy periodical and hence to its cartoons.
A large part of the movie’s delight is its narration. Bob Mankoff, a prolific cartoonist who became the head of that department, emcees the film, demonstrating conferences he holds with both veterans of the field and newbies. The magazine pays $500 for each accepted cartoon, but the competition is fierce. Mankoff receives “hundreds” of entries each week by mail and by personal conference, spends a few seconds thumbing through each, and by some kind of osmosis picks the lucky fifteen. One must wonder at some of the choices, however. One cartoon shows a man who wakes up with his frightened wife to tell her “it’s the dog,” the drawing showing the family dog opening the window like a burglar. But other cartoons are a gem. Mankoff’s favorite, one whose caption became the title of his memoir, shows a potential boss on the phone telling the caller, “How about never. Is never good for you?”
To call “Very Semi-Serious” an eighty-three minute product placement for the New Yorker would be insulting, however true. The magazine is probably one of our classiest, on par with the Atlantic and The New York Review of Books. There are doubtless people who don’t relate to most of the articles—some of the fiction virtually requires that the readers be upper-middle class and the ads for Lexis, diamond engagement rings and bespoke suits serve little more than to arouse envy among people who can ill afford these luxuries. And there may be quite a few who cannot understand what’s funny about many of the cartoons. But not an issue goes by without a reader’s finding at least some to be uproarious, and if not uproarious at least wildly original. “Very Semi-Serious” is itself an original.
Unrated. 83 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-