Review: HBO looks at New Yorker’s cartoon process

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“Very Semi-Serious” may be the funniest documentary ever made. How could it not be? It’s about the cartoons in The New Yorker.

It’s also about the people who draw those cartoons and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s process in choosing the 15 or so cartoons that run every week. But director Leah Wolchok’s camera inevitably ends up focusing on dozens and dozens of the cartoons themselves, and they are an absolute riot.

Drawing cartoons is a part-time gig for most of the artists — The New Yorker pays $500 for a cartoon and no one artist is guaranteed that their submission will get in every week. So these are works of love and inspiration for the most part — one artist works at a furniture store, another writes for “Saturday Night Live,” another is a teacher.

Every Tuesday, the cartoonists line up outside Mankoff’s office, and one by one they come in and show him their weekly submissions. He shuffles through each group, sometimes pointing out why they’re too obscure or why the joke falls flat, often asking what a specific object is. It’s a brutal process, but the cartoonists seem necessarily thick-skinned.

Mankoff is dealing, as is obvious from reading the magazine, with a great many regulars, some of whom have been publishing in The New Yorker since the 1960s. So part of his mandate is to find and nurture new talent like the thoroughly odd Ed Steed, a soft-spoken young man who just showed up one day and blew Mankoff’s mind.

As for the uncaptioned cartoons in the back of the magazine that readers submit captions for: They are judged by one poor schmuck who reads endless jokes on a computer screen. Talk about losing your sense of humor.

‘Very Semi-Serious’


9 p.m. Monday