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“Very Semi-Serious”: New Yorker Cartoonists in a New Film

verysemiserious“Can I come back?” asks cartoonist Liana Finck of Bob Mankoff, longtime cartoonist for—and now cartoon editor of—The New Yorker.

Finck has brought some of her work to Mankoff’s office at the magazine, and received thoughtful feedback but not the break-in acceptance she was hoping for. It’s a sweet and poignant moment in director Leah Wolchok’s documentary Very Semi-Serious, which chronicles New Yorker cartoonists past and present and the process by which Mankoff makes his selections. In Finck’s words are reflected a near-universal hope for success and an equally commonplace fear of rejection. The warm and thoughtful film is filled with such touching, relatable and, unsurprisingly, funny moments. It had its world premiere in April of 2015 at the Tribeca Film Festival (where it was announced that 33% of the festival’s feature filmmakers this year were women, the highest percentage in its 14-year history) and will be shown on HBO starting December 7th after a brief theatrical run.  

Finck is a former Lilith intern whose work has been appearing regularly here since she was in high school—and she did keep trying with The New Yorker, eventually landing several cartoons there. On October 2, Finck and New Yorker cartoonists Mort Gerberg and Emily Flake, along with Mankoff, took part in a panel discussion after the film, moderated by widely adored New Yorker cartooning fixture Roz Chast, part of the annual New Yorker Festival. (Chast’s interview moments in the film are often laugh-out-loud hilarious—as when she explains that she prefers indoor settings to venturing out: “The temperature’s never right—it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too sunny, it’s too rainy…there are branches!” And who knew she had a collection of vintage cans?) The fact that three of the five people onstage for the panel were women reflects the deliberate efforts The New Yorker has made, under editor David Remnick, to break out of the old-boys’-club mold.