Absent of structure, but not devoid of charm, Very Semi-Serious is a typically mild niche documentary. Surveying the workings of The New Yorker’s cartoon department and the lives of its contributors, director Leah Wolchok portrays an ecosystem of meek, pleasant artists who devote their lives to mining their neuroses for comic effect. With the assistance of her de facto protagonist, cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, Wolchok offers a quick and dirty history of the department, its artists, and its perennial comic tropes. Very Semi-Serious is too broad to fully delight in the bureaucratic and artistic processes that drive the film’s warmth and occasional vigor, but it’s a reliable engine of comedic self-analysis.
In a lone attempt to overcome a sleepy, slideshow mode of presentation, Wolchok inserts various single-panel, black-and-white gags into establishing shots of New York City. A hot dog vendor becomes a grousing pitchman, resting construction workers become emblems of obstinance. These shots do the quick (and only) work of situating the magazine’s voice within its city, though the film’s supporting cast is populated by freelance artists working in New York. The presence of these overwhelmingly white, male, well-to-do voices serves to explain the magazine’s comic fixations: strangers betraying their arrogance at parties; a liberalist distrust of authority and commodification; animals interrupting the sex routines of unhappy couples.
Though Wolchok ignores the cartoon department’s near-complete lack of ethnic voices, she’s keen to give some face time to its lack of age and gender diversity. Mainstays Roz Chast and Emily Flake, the magazine’s most famous female cartoonists, represent two poles of creativity: Flake works assiduously to rib readers while avoiding stereotypes; Chast is a more quirky talent, seen here showcasing her collection of canned foods. (She’s also shown in archival video of a staff function, slinking through a crowd of suited men having their pictures taken.) This dichotomy of approach is mirrored with subplots involving two younger cartoonists, Liana Finck and the sui generis Edward Steed, who are pointing the magazine’s irreverence toward deliciously random abstraction. Both are painfully recalcitrant subjects, who speak as though they’ve never been asked a question before.
Steed and Finck are a far cry from the magazine’s more mainstream cartoonists and its editor who are quick to pimp the clichés of a comedian-obsessed culture. Unhappy childhoods are alluded to, and people are constantly saying things like “Humor has to follow seriousness” and “Being funny is being awake.” Wolchok seizes such platitudes as the backbone of her film, using them to pivot from one segment to another, sometimes with an off-rhythm fade to black and a clumsy intertitle, often with an overlong montage of pans over cartoon panels. (Unsurprisingly, 9/11 gets a chapter, as do extraneous biographies of some New Yorker luminaries.)
Like The New Yorker Radio Hour, the magazine’s bland new public-radio show and podcast, Very Semi-Serious feels like part of a somewhat needy branding initiative. The film is deferent to the publication’s hallowed aura, and doesn’t seem to aspire to much more than proving that there are nice, talented people behind its walls. If, amid its stream of micro-narratives and biographies, the film has an arc, it belongs to Mankoff. Along with bearing the load of the New Yorker’s comic reputation, he’s portrayed as a talent recruit, dispatcher of crude dismissals, budding memoirist, and a caring family man reckoning with personal tragedy.
Mankoff capably indulges the film’s penchant for sentimentality, but he’s a great deal more fun in the office, lording over weekly open submission days and trying to explain jokes to magazine editor David Remnick. Here, the film exhibits and partially justifies the magazine’s respect for tradition, though there’s room to perceive an irritating self-regard and aversion to change. (Mankoff describes Finck’s work as “amateurish,” but having a “unique sensibility.”) Very Semi-Serious is most fascinating in these moments, leaving Mankoff to do his part in the process of creating one of the world’s great magazines. Whenever the film reaches to contextualize or criticize that work, it seems hopelessly meek and unsteady.