Perhaps the most famous scrutinization of New Yorker cartoons came from another trusted arbiter of Big Apple-based wit, the sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode written by actual New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan, Elaine Benes confronts the magazine’s cartoon editor and demands answers (on behalf of the rest of society?) for why a particular entry is supposed to be funny. Now, the makers of those cartoons might finally have a forum from which to explain themselves.
“New Yorker cartoons always seem to convey something we all feel but can never quite express,” says Leah Wolchok, one of the two filmmakers working closely with the magazine’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff on a documentary about the famous drawings.
Wolchok and Davina Pardo are a pair of independent filmmakers who balance their own feature projects with some for corporate clients. The two met while earning masters degrees in Stanford’s documentary film program and have wanted to collaborate ever since. They finally got the opportunity after Wolchok began paying attention to the signatures at the bottom of each cartoon and wondering about the people behind them. Thus began a cinematic journey that would culminate in the as-yet-unfinished film Very Semi-Serious, which has taken the filmmakers behind the scenes at The New Yorker and into the studios and homes of many of its best-known cartoonists–stirring up more passion the longer the production lasted.
“This film has been a labor of love for more than six years,” Wolchok says. “It was my baby before I had real babies.”
After so much time and money spent working on the documentary, though, the filmmakers have exhausted traditional documentary funding outlets and are now turning to the public with a Kickstarter campaign. Proceeds from this effort will go directly to completing production and 12 weeks of editing. It’s not a moment too soon either, as several of the early New Yorker cartoonists, including Leo Cullum and Bud Handelsman, have passed away since production began. It is the filmmakers’ wish to preserve as many stories as possible from that era while those who lived through it are still around.
Working on this project has given the filmmakers many surprises, including the sheer number of regular contributors, what kind of day jobs they have, the amount of times they submit, and how often they get rejected. One thing they haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of yet, though, is what exactly the average person thinks of New Yorker cartoons—whether they’re as incredulous as Elaine Benes on that Seinfeld episode.
“We’ve gotten some interesting feedback from our Kickstarter backers so far,” Wolchok says. “One guy said he’d donate as long as we devoted a segment of the film to explaining why New Yorker cartoons aren’t funny anymore. Another guy asked if it’s possible to give negatively to our campaign.”