It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Few people were greater fans of The New Yorker cartoon caption contest than Roger Ebert. Out of an approximate 200 submissions, one received first place, though several more have been published online, both by Ebert and New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. After Ebert’s death in 2013, Mankoff listed some of the funniest entries made by the late critic, and noted that the last one—written a week prior to his passing—was for the image of a chef lying in a coffin. Though Mankoff admitted that it didn’t rank among Ebert’s best captions, he imagined the critic would have quipped, “Hey, give me a break. Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
It’s easy to see why people like Ebert would be so taken with the droll charm of New Yorker cartoons, which essentially serve as cultural criticism. They can accentuate the absurdities of everyday life with sketches that are at once spare and expressive, silly and sophisticated. There’s no doubt that most critics who watch Leah Wolchok’s playful documentary, “Very Semi-Serious,” will find the array of cartoonists interviewed eminently relatable, in part because their cherished work will never pay the bills, thus rendering day jobs a necessity. There’s a particularly poignant cartoon where a boss matter-of-factly informs his employee that, “We have a new financial model where you don’t get paid anything.”
Catnip for writers and humorists of all stripes, Wolchok’s film provides delightful breakdowns of various cartoons, examining the comedic rhythm of their design and detail. Occasionally the camera will pan down an elaborate drawing before lingering on a succinct caption of deadpan understatement. Unlike “Wordplay,” Patrick Creadon’s 2006 profile of New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, “Very Semi-Serious” is not limited to the story of one man and his many admirers. At a brisk 83 minutes, the film does live up to its tongue-in-cheek subtitle promising “a partially thorough portrait of New Yorker cartoonists,” though Wolchok does an admirable job of providing amble screen time for numerous artists—both veteran and aspiring—while enabling us to survey their distinctive styles (the most iconic of which belongs to Gothic satirist Charles Addams).
Part of the New Yorker cartoons’ appeal lies in their timelessness. It’s startling to observe how a cartoon from the publication’s inaugural year of 1925—juxtaposing an ape hanging from a branch and a commuter clutching the handle of a subway train, accompanied by the caption, “700,000 years of progress”—could’ve been dreamed up yesterday. Mankoff refers to one new cartoonist, Ed Steed, as a genius in how he creates imagery that could’ve resonated in any era. Oftentimes his drawings don’t require a caption in order to elicit a laugh. The same cannot be said of Liana Finck, another fresh-faced, soft-spoken talent whose submissions rely heavily on her own handwritten captions. Though she has difficulty in getting her work published, one hopes to see much more of it in The New Yorker, since it’s among the funniest featured in the film. I especially love her sample sketch entitled, “The Wisdom of Used Tissues,” in which crumbled kleenexes lie on the ground, wistfully musing, “At least we’ll have our memories.”