Very Semi-Se­ri­ous

VERY SEMI SE­RI­OUS: A Par­tially Thor­ough Por­trait of New Yorker Car­toon­ists, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 2.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

There was a time when The New Yorker stood near the pin­na­cle of so­phis­ti­cated Man­hat­tan cul­ture, when its colum­nists and con­trib­u­tors, and es­pe­cially its car­toon­ists, were larger-than-life celebri­ties, the stuff of (and com­men­ta­tors on) the gos­sip and the nightlife and the folk­ways of the city at the cen­ter of the world. As Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s found­ing editor, put it in the mag­a­zine’s ini­tial prospec­tus in 1925: It “is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The names of car­toon­ists like Peter Arno, He­len Hokin­son, Saul Stein­berg, Charles Ad­dams, and Whit­ney Dar­row Jr. con­jured up in­stant recog­ni­tion for their style, con­tent, and char­ac­ter; Hokin­son’s ladies be­came part of the lan­guage, Ad­dams’ gothic fam­ily be­came part of the cul­ture, Stein­berg’s clas­sic View of the World

From 9th Av­enue epit­o­mized the stub­born iconoclasm of New York­ers.

What a time that would have been to cap­ture on film! It is hardly the fault of film­maker Leah Wol­chok that she came along in a dif­fer­ent era, when per­son­al­i­ties have di­min­ished, the field has flat­tened out, and the medium has left its salad days be­hind. The mag­a­zine still pub­lishes some very funny car­toons, and there are still a few names that reg­is­ter, no­tably that of Roz Chast, whose off­beat draw­ing style and quirky sense of hu­mor have made her the most rec­og­niz­able fig­ure of the cur­rent crop. But even Chast was not an ob­vi­ous fit ini­tially; she re­mem­bers that peo­ple would ask Lee Lorenz, the car­toon editor who dis­cov­ered her, if he owed her fam­ily money.

The New Yorker’s car­toon editor since 1998 has been Robert Mankoff, who is the cen­tral fig­ure in Wol­chok’s film. We sit with him in his of­fice as he sifts through stacks of roughs and chats ami­ably with the car­toon­ists sit­ting across from his desk. He es­ti­mates that he looks at 1,000 car­toons a week and prints 15, which makes for odds con­sid­er­ably worse than those of get­ting into Har­vard. Mankoff is a lanky Ich­a­bod Crane of a man, with long, wavy gray hair, a beard, and lots of teeth that dis­play promi­nently when he laughs, which, un­sur­pris­ingly con­sid­er­ing his line of work, is of­ten. His own best-known New Yorker car­toon has a busi­ness­man say­ing on the phone, “No, Thurs­day’s out. How about never — is never good for you?” This cap­tion has pro­vided the ti­tle for the mem­oir on which he is cur­rently at work. Old- timers like Mort Ger­berg re­mem­ber when

The New Yorker was the first stop of many for car­toon­ists mak­ing the weekly rounds with their draw­ings. It paid the best, but there were plenty of other mag­a­zines pub­lish­ing gag car­toons. Like aban­doned, half-for­got­ten rail­way sta­tions, they’ve all left the field. Th­ese days The New Yorker is pretty much the only port of call for a van­ish­ing breed of artists, who do not give up their day jobs. Wol­chok shows the mag­a­zine strain­ing for di­ver­sity to fit the mod­ern world. An old film clip catches a fleet­ing glimpse of Chast slink­ing through a gath­er­ing of New Yorker car­toon­ists, the only woman in the bunch. Both Mankoff and the mag­a­zine’s editor David Rem­nick take credit for the push to­ward greater in­clu­sive­ness. They’ve been more suc­cess­ful in terms of gen­der than race, but it’s still largely a white boy’s club.

The movie is at its best when it lingers over the car­toons and pulls back the cur­tain to show the process of sub­mis­sion to the mag­a­zine. This has tra­di­tion­ally been done in per­son or by mail (as of this Jan­uary,

The New Yorker has ended the mail or email route, go­ing in­stead to a web­site). Mankoff culls his fa­vorites, then takes them for the fi­nal say to Rem­nick, who some­times has to have them ex­plained. Our in­ter­est slack­ens when we go, inevitably, to up-close- and­per­sonal vis­its. The bulk of that time is de­voted to Mankoff, whose fam­ily has re­cently suf­fered per­sonal tragedy. He and sev­eral of his car­toon­ists talk about the dark side, the suf­fer­ing, and the un­happy child­hoods that lay down the ground­work for a hu­morist’s view of the world.

Per­sonal tragedy is one thing, na­tional tragedy an­other. The is­sue that fol­lowed 9/11 was to have no car­toons; in the end it in­cluded one, a poignant draw­ing by vet­eran Ge­orge Booth of his usu­ally manic vi­o­lin­ist sit­ting in stunned si­lence. (The fol­low­ing week, hu­mor was back, led by a Leo Cul­lum car­toon of a woman say­ing to a man at a bar: “I thought I’d never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket.”)

To­ward the end the movie fo­cuses on a pair of moves. The Mankoff fam­ily moves to a new house, to es­cape the ghosts of its loss. And the mag­a­zine, a Times Square fix­ture since its in­cep­tion, re­lo­cates to the World Trade Cen­ter, mov­ing in with that site’s legacy of ghosts.

A doc­u­men­tary tends to ap­peal to the fairly nar­row slice of the pub­lic that cares about its topic, and this one, sad­dled with its la­bored, jokey ti­tle, is no ex­cep­tion. It won’t pull in the Fast and Fu­ri­ous crowd, but it will raise a smile to the lips of devo­tees.

Guardian of the jokes: car­toon editor Robert Mankoff

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