The best part of director Leah Wolchok’s documentary Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists—aside from cartoonist Roz Chast’s hilarious explanation on why she spends most of her time indoors—is observing Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, meeting artists in person and assessing their work.
As we see in the film debuting on HBO December 14, Mankoff regularly welcomes well-known artists like Mort Gerberg, who has had 262 cartoons published in the New Yorker, into his office, but he also sits down with cartoonists who have yet to establish themselves—a rare gift given how difficult it is for creative people just starting out to get face time with the gatekeepers at magazines and other potential outlets.
“Anybody can come and see me. I want them to come see me,” Mankoff tells Co.Create, noting the in-person sessions give him the opportunity to nurture talent. “When you’re trying to communicate a craft and a philosophy, the best way to do it is in person and with consideration and humor,” he says. “I’m a big believer in technology, but there’s also no substitute for real human interaction and all the cues you pick up when somebody is coming in to the magazine for the first time or the second time or the tenth time.”
Any artists who wish to test how serious Mankoff is about finding new talent are encouraged to email cartoon assistant Colin Stokes to set up an appointment. Artists with less exposure have been joining the ranks of greats like Chast in rising numbers.
“We’re getting more women cartoonists in the magazine. We want more diversity in terms of ethnic groups, too,” Mankoff says. “We’re committed to it, and we hope that when people see this movie, especially young people, they will want to come on by.”
Before you pack up your portfolio and head in to see Mankoff, here are some tips on how to approach the single-panel cartoon the publication has famously featured since its launch in February of 1925.
“I think what’s unique about the New Yorker is the wide range of humor it embraces,” Mankoff says. “It can be crazy. It can just be a straight gag. It can be observational humor. It can be a comedy of manners.”
Mankoff is open to pretty much anything that will get a laugh, though he displays an aversion to humor involving mimes in Very Semi-Serious. “Mimes! People hate mimes,” he declares when an artist shows up in his office with a cartoon featuring the silent characters.
And he admits to Co.Create that he isn’t a huge fan of puns. “Puns tend to be too formulaic for my taste but not always,” he muses.
While snarky humor and aggressive putdowns are popular these days, it just isn’t the New Yorker’s style to make people feel bad. “Our humor is sort of benign. It’s self-reflective,” Mankoff says. “The people we’re putting down in our jokes are mostly ourselves.”
Most of the cartoons featured in the New Yorker are single-panel cartoons, so you don’t have time to build up to the punch line. “You need to be brief. People are going to look at it for a second or two,” Mankoff says.
You can look to the work of the late James Thurber to see how it’s done. In Very Semi-Serious, Mankoff talks about Thurber’s ability to sell a gag with one word, citing a Thurber cartoon that pictures two guys fencing. One is shown lopping off the head of the other, and below that image is the punch line, which is simply, “Touché!”
Even the people who seemingly are the most successful at the New Yorker have work rejected. “In fact, everybody is rejected much more than they’re accepted,” Mankoff says. “I think that the people who succeed learn that sweet are the uses of adversity—it means that failure is much more important than success. You learn from failing and not from succeeding, and you build the resilience that is necessary to go on.”
In the film, cartoonist David Sipress, who has had 502 cartoons in the New Yorker, says his work was rejected for 25 years before he got his first yes in 1998.
True artists are critical of their work. “I always say the difference between an amateur and a professional is an amateur really likes everything they do. A professional is usually dissatisfied and is not certain that this idea is great,” Mankoff says, noting that the satisfaction for a professional “is continuing the process, trying to improve and trying to please themselves—if they’re not trying to please themselves in what they’re doing, it’s useless—but at the same time they have to understand that it’s not really pleasing me, it’s pleasing the broader New Yorker audience that I’m sort of a conduit to.”
Mankoff advises artists to produce at least 10 cartoons a week. “They say, ‘Why 10?’ And I say, ‘Because nine out of 10 things in life don’t work out,'” he says.
You are going to produce a lot of subpar work, but that’s part of the process. “To me, the fact that someone has a lot of bad cartoons doesn’t mean anything. Most jokes that anybody generates are bad,” he says. “All you care about is the good ones.”