“Being a single panel cartoonist is like being a poet,” said Bruce Eric Kaplan. “If you think, oh this is my career, I’m going to have health insurance, I’m going to have a great house, that’s just not the reality of it.”
I’m a big fan of documentaries that go behind the scenes at workplaces like a magazine. It’s fascinating to see how the work gets done, and learn about the people who make it all come together. I’m a more recent subscriber to The New Yorker, so I was excited to see HBO’s new special, Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists.
Similar to the documentary The September Issue, which looked at how a Vogue issue is produced, Very Semi-Serious follows the inner workings of The New Yorker’s cartoon department.
So how do the cartoons make it into the pages of The New Yorker? In the film we meet Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, who sheds some light on the process. Each week about a thousand cartoons are submitted to the magazine, some by mail, others delivered in person by the hopeful cartoonists themselves, giving Mankoff the tremendous undertaking of sorting through, and ultimately choosing about 15 cartoons.
And there is a method to this madness.There is something in particular that makes a good cartoon.
“In each instance, our expectations are defied,” Mankoff said in a 2013 Ted Talk, “In each instance the narrative gets switched. There’s an incongruity and a contrast.”
In interviews with some of the published cartoonists, you see different backgrounds, ages and points of view. Each cartoonist has a different perspective on the world and has their own quirks and eccentricities that help to inspire their work. And maybe unsurprisingly, most of these cartoonists have day jobs and are submitting work to The New Yorker on the side.
Mankoff started off in their shoes — he was first published in The New Yorker in the 1970s, and had a contract by the 1980s. He then created the Cartoon Bank, a website that acts as “a visual vault of thousands of New Yorker creations, as well as a secondary source of revenue for the artists.” In 1997, he stepped into the role of cartoon editor, ushering in a new era for the magazine.
“I had to change the approach and get new talent,” he told The Washington Post, “…It’s the humor of today — it’s more absurd, more meta. When they use a cliche, they almost destroy it.”
Here’s a look at The New Yorker’s favorite cartoons from 2015.