What’s Worth Watching: ‘Very Semi-Serious’ on HBO for Monday, December 14

Very Semi Serious; A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists
Kristen Johnson/ HBO
Bob Mankoff, Farley Katz. photo: Kristen Johnson/courtesy of HBO

Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists (Monday, Dec. 14, 9/8c HBO)

“You have to have a reason to look at the world differently,” says Emily Flake, one of a rising new generation of New Yorker cartoonists, in explaining the craft that has entertained readers since the fabled magazine’s origins some 90 years ago. In the smart and smartly titled documentary Very Semi-Serious, filmmaker Leah Wolchok follows the process that one of this tribe refers to as “a weekly humiliation,” as veteran and wannabe cartoonists line up to submit their ideas and drawings to cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. His philosophy: “Cartoons either make the strange familiar or the familiar strange.”

The droll, precise—and, yes, strange—cartoons to which many of us turn immediately when a new issue arrives represent a very specific skill set, and it’s illuminating to peer over the shoulders of Mankoff and editor-in-chief David Remnick as they make their snap judgment calls. (It’s pretty clear why certain panels don’t make the cut.) Just as intriguing are the glimpses into the lives and quirky personalities of Mankoff and some of his more prolific contributors, including George Booth and Roz Chast. There can be a pretty steep learning curve, as young hopeful Liana Finck discovers as she tries to tailor her offbeat and sometimes oblique style to Mankoff’s coaching that “a cartoon shouldn’t be a struggle.”

There are plenty of LOL moments as a flurry of classic and contemporary cartoons are displayed, the camera often panning slowly from the image to the punchline caption. Speaking of which, one of the more startling asides shows Mankoff’s assistants numbly sifting through countless entries in the weekly caption contest from the back of the book. Their pains result in our pleasure, of course, and it all reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons, where the caption reads: “I say if at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.”