CARTOONISTS ARE a different breed, often oddly distinct in their similarities. I’ve sat in a band of cartoonists and discovered that half of us were left-handed, for example, or that one-third of us were drawn to racket/paddle sports that engage our sense of the spatial.
So what might be discovered among a subset of that group, even: the magazine gag cartoonist? What type of talent, let alone personality, is attracted to dreaming up often a dozen single-panel cartoons a week, perhaps scribbling in isolation, then submitting your sketches to an editor — an endeavor that traffics in a high rate of rejection?
According to Bay Area-based filmmaker Leah Wolchok, there’s much to be gleaned from the screen.
As an avid fan of The New Yorker, Wolchok has spent long months working on a documentary about the magazine’s cartoonists — from the personalities to the process. And she’s noticed some commonalities. Like clowning skills, say. Or musical instruments.
While focusing her film on about a dozen cartoonists, Wolchok found that one-fourth of her subjects juggle — one (Liam Walsh) while also riding a unicycle. Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff both juggles and is fond of ping-pong. And Matthew Diffee juggles and clawhammers the banjo.
Which raises any frequent trait: playing instruments. “The biggest commonality [is] music,” Wolchok tells Comic Riffs. “Lee Lorenz plays the jazz coronet. ... Mort Gerberg plays piano. Zach Kanin plays harmonica. ... Mick Stevens plays the saxophone and George Booth sings and plays the Jew’s-harp.
“They’d make quite the band.”
Wolchok and film partner Davina Pardo plan to feature such small, wonderful discoveries in “Very Semi-Serious.” her documentary project that — with just hours to go — has hit its $75,000 goal, and aims to hit a “stretch” goal of $80,000 to further aid the film as it is prepared to enter into festivals.
Wolchok approaches this project with a passion: She became an avid New Yorker reader while an English major at Yale, and soon became a “Cartoon Firster” — ex-staffer Nancy Franklin’s coined term for those readers who flip to the cartoons before moving on to the articles. And after Mankoff launched the popular reader Caption Contest in 2005, she says she became a “Back-Page Firster” — turning immediately to the feature anchored at the end of each issue.
Wolchok’s attempts at winning — and learning that her entries weren’t so unique — sparked her to find out exactly what kind of minds were capable of such clever cartoons.
Wolchok — who got her master’s in Documentary Film at Stanford, and has worked on such acclaimed docus as “Ask Not,” about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy — will focus on a dozen cartoonists in her film, from veterans like George Booth and Sam Gross to younger talents like Liana Finck
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Wolchok to talk financial crowd-backing, cartoonist bonding and banjos:
MICHAEL CAVNA: What drew you to this subject — are you a longtime fan, and/or a visual artist yourself?
LEAH WOLCHOK: Love for The New Yorker skipped a generation in my family. My mom recently told me that her parents used to subscribe to the magazine in the 50s when she was growing up in Savannah, Georgia. But we didn’t get The New Yorker at home. I didn’t discover the magazineuntil I started reading the short fiction in college.
I wish I could draw. My 4-year-old is almost better with a pencil than I am. But I love to laugh, and I have always appreciated the value of humor to build relationships, as an entry point to controversial issues, and as a coping mechanism for the unexplainable moments in life.
MC: How long have you worked on this, and how long a project do you envision this to be?
LW: Like most independent documentary filmmakers, I have worked on this project on and off for an embarrassing number of years. When I first pitched the idea, I was co-producing “Ask Not,” a documentary about the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which was broadcast on PBS. And then I had two kids. It’s been more than six years since I started developing the film, and I anticipate we’ll finish editing next spring.
My head spins when I think about how many thousands of ideas cartoonists will have sketched by the time this film is done.
MC: This seems like such a natural and overdue subject — has it never been done before?
LW: This is the first feature documentary with such tremendous access to The New Yorker’s cartoon department. Two other filmmakers have interviewed New Yorker cartoonists in their documentaries. Lynda Ely made “Funny Business,” which incorporated her personal narrative as the goddaughter of Charles Addams. And a student at [the School of Visual Arts] recently made a short film about the cartoonists’ weekly lunch.
MC: This is quite an undertaking in terms of interviews. How many interviews [will the film involve]?
LW: We’ve interviewed 12 cartoonists. We’re trying to capture an eclectic mix of artistic and comedic sensibilities and a range of generations.We filmed the legendary Sam Gross, who has more than 25,000 cartoons neatly organized in his Upper East Side studio. And we also spent time with one of the newest cartoonists, Liana Finck, a young graphic novelist who recently sold her first cartoon to the magazine.
There are still many more people we’d like to interview, but we know we can’t possibly include everyone in the feature-length film. We’d like to make a companion project to the film, a series of short portraits of New Yorker cartoonists.
MC: Can you tell us more about the work you’ve done so far — the footage you have, and what you’ve seen behind the scenes?
LW: Davina [Pardo] and I are collaborating with an experienced team and we’ve developed great relationships with all the cartoonists we’ve met. We’ve filmed at the New Yorker offices and in the cartoonists’ studios; in jazz clubs and cartoon classes; in the homes of Caption Contest lovers and haters; at playgrounds and park benches; with hot-dog vendors and dog walkers; shoeshiners and taxi drivers — classic New York scenes that have been the backdrop for countless New Yorker cartoons. We even filmed a killer ping-pong match between Bob Mankoff and Puzzle Master Will Shortz.
MC: Tell me about you'd background: Where are you from ... and how did you come to know what your life's work would be?
LW: I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. I was educated in public schools
until I went to Yale. That was quite a culture shock. At Yale, I discovered the art of documentary filmmaking, almost by accident. I knew I wanted to study film, but I was an English major, and a Monday-night history of documentary class was the only film class I could get into as a non-film major. I remember writing a letter to my professor, Michael Roemer, at the end of the semester, begging him to tell me how I could become a documentary filmmaker. Senior year, I took a documentary seminar with D.A. Pennebaker. Pretty amazing to get feedback on my footage from a pioneer of cinema verite. Later, I got an M.A. in Documentary Film from Stanford.
One of my first jobs in film was as a P.A. on the gay romantic comedy “Trick,” which premiered at Sundance. I wasn’t very good at lifting equipment, so I got assigned to the makeup and hair department. The highlight of that summer was the all-night shoot inside a West Village bar, where my responsibility was to use glycerin and a spray bottle of water to make all the extras look sweaty.
I was painfully shy as a kid. All that time spent not talking taught me how to listen and observe. As a documentary filmmaker, I am a professional observer. It’s a true privilege to be invited into someone’s life and then craft their stories into a film.
MC: What has most surprised you so far about how New Yorkers are created or curated?
LW: A short list of surprises:
Each cartoon bought by the magazine is checked by hand against a library of bound volumes of captions to make sure nothing too similar has ever been published in the magazine. The pages have yellowed, and some of the books are held together with tape. Here’s one of our favorite volumes.
Even some of the most beloved cartoonists only sell 10 cartoons a year to The New Yorker.
Marc Philippe Eskenazi, assistant cartoon editor, goes though thousands of caption contest entries each week. He sits and sorts and laughs, or doesn't laugh, at each entry. Quite a feat to take on each and every week. (He reverses the colors on his monitor and wears sunglasses to protect his eyes from fatigue).
MC: What's the status of the film — is there more to shoot?
LW: We’re about 75-percent of the way through production. I’m hopping on a plane tomorrow to interview Christopher Guest and Jamie Lee Curtis, who are huge New Yorker cartoon collectors.
MC: So, after all these interviews: What [do you think] the enduring magic of The New Yorker cartoon is across the decades?
LW: The New Yorker cartoon is a snapshot of its moment in history, and yet the humor often transcends time. A New Yorker cartoon gives you permission to pause — and then laugh, or sigh, or complain you don’t get it. Even if just for a minute. What a gift in our interconnected and overconnected lives.