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HBO’s ‘Very Semi-Serious’ Sketches ‘Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists’

HBO's 'Very Semi-Serious' Sketches 'Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists'

Temperamentally, geographically and/or demographically, there’s seldom been a film that seemed a better fit for the Tribeca Film Festival than Leah Wolchok’s “Very Semi-Serious,” about the cartoons of the New Yorker magazine. Sophistication without constipation. Humor without frivolity. Punchlines. Fun. Characters? Wolchok’s got characters.

Central to her offbeat crew is Bob Mankoff, the New Yorker’s current cartoon editor, who also drew what may be the greatest cartoon of the modern era. (Exec on phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How’s never – is never good for you?”). But they also include the wry veteran Mort Gerberg and – in a field that includes the venerable 88-year-old George Booth, of the dogs, cats and flea-ridden humans – such relative newcomers as Emil Flake, Liana Finck and Zach Kanin, all of whom joined Calvin Trillin Sunday for a panel after the movie.

Mankoff is a garrulous sort who, as the movie shows, must deal each week with eager and almost sure-to-be-disappointed cartoonists who bring in their work for his perusal (the magazine prints about 15 a week and gets hundreds). He’s a solid centerpiece of the movie, and would have run a good panel, Trillin seeming to be sleepwalking through the proceedings. But how much can you say about a process that involves quirky, solitary people who thrive on his or her own warped perspective (and an ability to make it funny) but who, by definition, work profoundly alone? As Roz Chast says in the film, why even go outside? (“It’s so annoying in so many ways…”)


Still, some insight was delivered. Asked what has changed in cartooning — New Yorker cartooning in particular — Mankoff said it’s become a more personality driven pursuit.

“What’s changed is the idea that ideas arrive like a thunderbolt, that there’s this great idea hanging out there and you just have to be the first one to think about it.” Today, it’s more about the cartoonist’s idiosyncrasies and warped worldview.

Everyone on stage had a bit of a cockeyed perspective. Gerberg told a rather risky story about his Vietnam-era cartoon featuring a “obviously Jewish mother”’ carrying a protest sign saying “My son says end the war” a takeoff on the “My son the doctor” cliche. “I brought it into Jim Geraghty,” he said of the New Yorker cartoon editor from 1939-73, “and he said, ‘No, it’s not quite right…” This went on several times, with Gerberg making the woman’s nose bigger each time he submitted the drawing. Finally, in desperation, he made the nose smaller. “That’s it!” Geraghty reportedly exclaimed.

One of the more promising members of the new generation of cartoonists is Liana Finck, who exhibits a certain social awkwardness (“It might be Asperger’s,” she says in the film) but who framed the state of mind of being a New Yorker cartoonist in a way that was surreal, eloquent and impossible to write down or replicate. It got a round of applause. It also said a lot about where cartoons come from.

Look for “Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists” at New Yorker Festival on October 7, in theaters November 20 and on HBO December 7.

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