Sitting in his office last week, the New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff pulled away from the drawing board directly in front of his chair to turn to the computer perpendicular to it.
He had a very un-cartoon-like display to point out: analytics conducted by the data firm Survey Monkey. And he had a most nonquantitative subject to which they were applied: The New Yorker caption contest, the weekly invitation to readers to submit a pithy quotation under an oblique image.
“Look at this. Look how many people used the word reckon in this one,” he said, pointing to a Western-themed cartoon. They all thing they’re being original but they don’t see all the other entries the way we do. So even if one of them is the funniest I’ll often pick something else. If so many people are going one way, I like to go the other way.”
That eccentricity and delicate contrarianism characterize Mankoff, the grand poobah of The New Yorker cartoons, those simply drawn, sophisticatedly conceived images that dot the weekly’s pages.
Those same traits, it might be said, grace Leah Wolchok’s “Very Semi-Serious,” a new documentary that debuts Monday night on HBO after premiering earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Walking viewers through a longstanding media tradition, “Semi-Serious” examines both the sensibility of the New Yorker and the offbeat artists who (hope to) fill its pages.
Sporting his trademark mane of salt-and-pepper hair, Mankoff, 71, has had his cartoons published in The New Yorker since 1977 and has been a decider of everyone else’s since 1997. It is the latter job that provides some of the most colorful scenes in the film. Every Tuesday, dozens of artists -- they include old-timers like Mort Gerberg and younger ones such as Farley Katz -- queue up outside Mankoff’s door and peddle their wares, fishmonger style, hundreds upon hundreds of images, all vying for as few as 16 slots. Mankoff looks at them in turn, always measured, but clearly conveying his thoughts on each. Some artists go years without selling a cartoon, and others go hundreds of drawings before making a final round.
“I think it’s an absolute throwback and it’s consonant with what the cartoon is, which is a throwback notion,” Mankoff said. "[Cartoonist] Matt Diffee said in the film that with all the digital changes, this is still about what’s created with a paper and pencil. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.”
The final round that follows after Mankoff makes his selections offer some of the most behind-the-scenes moments of the film; in it, The New Yorker editor David Remnick makes decisions from Mankoff’s winnowed-down list, an at once collegial yet charged affair in which the managing editor Silvia Killingsworth looks on semi-nervously.
What’s clear from Mankoff is that there is no overarching taxonomy to the cartoons that get in, apart from a general perspective, articulated by him in the film, “to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.” Mankoff can come at humor from an academic point of view, and the humor can tend to the cone-headed, which is why phrases such as “theory-of-mind” (a cartoon that imputes meaning to a character) or “mashing-frames together” (a cartoon that requires a triangulation of sorts between different realms of knowledge) often come up in the context of these cartoons. These are the rubrics that the cartoons fall under, and that’s why these are cartoons for which you might use the word rubric.
Then again, many of them might merely be summarized as clever jibes at modern life (or, as the famous “Seinfeld” bit had it, office politics). “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?” is the Mankoff-penned classic about the middle-management reschedule squirm, later repackaged as its own kind of meta reference with a man hoping to chase away the Grim Reaper.
Others jokes just go to the comically surreal like the dog who learns to control his Pavlovian instinct--"And then it hit me -- I’m salivating over a goddamn bell.”
Wolchok, a first-time filmmaker, became interested in the cartoons when coming upon the magazine in earnest in college and spent years wooing Mankoff. “He said it was the people above him that didn’t want a documentary. Maybe I believed him at the time. I don’t think I did,” she said drolly.
Admittedly at first reluctant (though he said it really was the Conde Nast owners who were the source of the resistance), Mankoff soon became game, even when a personal tragedy strikes him and his family, causing the doc’s production to be temporarily stopped and the movie to take a more melancholic turn. He can also be seen writing his best-selling memoir during parts of the film, its own kind of therapy.
Despite the many traditions associated with The New Yorker cartoon, Mankoff said he is eager to shake things up. He acknowledges minority and female representation still has some ways to go, but said he has sought to bring in more diverse voices to the stable of older white men; among them is Liana Finck, an extremely shy woman who finds expression in cartooning, as well as younger voices generally, such as the gnomic Ed Steed, a young man who grew up as a shepherd in the Western U.S. but burst on to the scene with a LeBron James-like prodigiousness, thanks to his sharp eye.
Mankoff also suggests some changes may lie ahead for the caption contest: he’d like to open it up more around the world, which could mean getting rid of the prize -- a signed copy of the winning cartoon -- for legal reasons. He also is considering bringing a greater crowdsourcing element to the first round of winnowing, long done by Mankoff and an assistant.
Wolchok said that even with such tweaks, she believes the elegant timelessness remains. “I feel like New Yorker cartoons are just enough, which is what we often want right now,” she said. “So much comedy is just about going over the edge -- think of a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch, where [they] take something and keep spinning it wilder and wilder, or a certain Hollywood comedy, or even a Charlie Hebdo. That’s why the New Yorker last -- it’s just enough.”
There is also something about the magazine’s propensity for the sly comment, especially in the wake of collective tragedy or experience. A longtime favorite of mine is J.C. Duffy’s post-9/11 quip that, “I figure if I don’t have that third martini, the terrorists win,” a cartoon that tapped into a grieving mood while gently poking fun at our own self-serving rituals around it.
But ultimately the movie shows, and a conversation with Mankoff demonstrates, that the more notable lesson may not come from a particular cartoon but the act of getting to one in the first place. “The thing I’ve learned about the creative process doing this job is that even people who are good aren’t good a lot of the time,” Mankoff said. “But that’s OK. Because the bad ideas informs how you get the good ideas.”
“Just as long,” he added, “as you’re not being normal. There’s no advantage to normal.”