‘Dilbert’ creator marks 20 years of cubicle-ismWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
For 20 years, cubicle drone Dilbert has focused his pupil-less eyes on the world of offices and business. Before Ricky Gervais, Mike Judge and Steve Carell, Dilbert pointed out the dysfunction and contradiction in the workplace.
Creator Scott Adams lived the MBA dream just long enough to get a taste for the illogical dynamics that sometimes power American business. His comic strip is published by more than 2,000 newspapers; more than 20 million “Dilbert” books and calendars have been sold, and “Dilbert” is the most widely read comic on the Internet.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, a 600-page hardcover book, “Dilbert 2.0: 20 Years of Dilbert,” collects more than 2,000 annotated strips and comes with a DVD that includes every “Dilbert” cartoon from 1989 to April 2008. Adams, who has recovered from a vocal cord condition that left him without the ability to speak, spoke to Toledo Free Press Nov. 19 from his California home.
Toledo Free Press: Your voice sounds strong.
Scott Adams: Yeah, it’s like a miracle. You cannot imagine it. Whatever you think it was like, it was worse.
TFP: Are you under restrictions? No Christmas caroling this year?
Adams: I haven’t tried to scream yet. I don’t have any medical restrictions, but there are things I can’t do that will come back to me over the course of the year.
TFP: The book is a thorough and thoughtful collection. How long has it been in the making?
Adams: I got a phone call sometime about this time last year, where my publisher said, “We would like to come up and talk to you.” And I thought, “Huh, I wonder what this is about,” because they don’t usually fly out; usually they do stuff by telephone. So, I knew they were going to ask me to do something that wasn’t going to be easy. We got together in January 2008, and they said they wanted to do this, but it’s going to be a god-awful amount of work and an impossibly short time frame. Not only did I want to do it, I wanted to do extra. So we pumped it out in the first several months of this year.
TFP: Did you revisit all the strips and read them all again? That must have been a journey of introspection for you.
Adams: Yeah, I had to reread every comic several times and pick the ones I thought belonged in the book, and was there any story behind them, or were there good examples of something. I had forgotten so many of them, so I got to read them just like a consumer. So I read them and if I laughed, I figured maybe somebody else would laugh. It was a strange experience.
TFP: What lessons returned to you as reviewed the strips?
Adams: One of the skills of a cartoonist, and one I didn’t learn until maybe 1993 or so, several years after I had started, is that the things I think are funny are very different from the things my readers think are funny. I got that advice from Bill Keane, who does “Family Circus.” I was giving a talk one time to a bunch of newspaper editors, and he stood up after my talk and said, “You are what I call a cartoonist’s cartoonist. You make cartoons that would only appeal to other cartoonists.”
When he said it, it just made me mad, because he was one of the big fish in the pond, and I was just starting out and I thought he was just stomping on me, but over time it became the best advice I’ve ever gotten professionally.
Because I learned when I started putting my e-mail address on the strip, people would write to me and tell me which ones they liked and which ones they didn’t. I learned that there was just a huge difference between the ones I thought were funny and ones the public thought were funny and that was his point. I can write a comic that I know will appeal to other people. It doesn’t ring my bell as much as it does theirs. That’s a skill you develop over time. And the comics that don’t make it are because those cartoonists haven’t recognized that difference.
TFP: As you celebrate the anniversary and look back on 20 years, is there a danger in that nostalgia, in maybe getting too caught up in where you’ve been, or has the experience renewed your energy as you move forward?
Adams: You do get a little trapped in your own success. I can’t do anything too wild with the characters because people expect them to be a certain way, do certain things. But there’s also a benefit, like “Seinfeld” in season five, for example. They don’t have to explain who George is. He can just be George.
TFP: Twenty years in, how is your mental process with coming up with fresh ideas? Are you still having fun?
Adams: It’s somewhere like a weird mix of fun, addiction and job. If somebody said to you, “It’s your job from now on to eat ice cream,” that first reaction is “Woo-hoo, my job is eating ice cream!” Then the second thing they say is, “You have to eat a barrel a day. It would be fun if there was less of it. What makes it a job is that there is a certain amount you have to produce.
TFP: In the book’s introduction you talk about the great influence Charles Schulz and “Peanuts” had on you. Did you ever get to meet him?
Adams: Yeah, I actually did. We lived in the same general part of California.
I met him once when I first got my contract, when I went to a gathering of cartoonists. He just walked in the door, and my manager, who is also his editor, introduced us and I practically crapped my pants. At that point I had never even had a cartoon published. I still remember what my girlfriend at the time said. “You know, I am your greatest fan,” she said. He looked at her and he said, “You know, when people say, ‘I’m your greatest fan,’ I always wonder, what makes you so great?” Then he excused himself and walked away.
TFP: Have you ever used that line on a fan?
Adams: Not yet. You have to have a certain Charles Schulz aura. But after that, I had lunch with him once and talked to him on the phone once or twice. We had a casual connection.
TFP: What did Schulz think of “Dilbert”?
Adams: When Dilbert first came out, I heard he hated it, mostly because it was so poorly drawn. But over time, he handed me one of the best compliments. He said I knew how to “draw funny,” which is different from drawing well. And it’s a distinction that, coming from him, means a lot.
TFP: Will we ever see another 50-year career like Schulz had in comics?
Adams: You never want to say you’ll never see something, but the nature of newspapers has changed and there’s so much competing media that probably no one can could ever capture that much of the market like he did.
TFP: Now that you’re married, is there any temptation to show more of Dilbert’s home life, maybe take him into a similar domestic situation?
Adams: That’s exactly the type of thing that you get locked into with success. You change it too much and you start losing the people that liked him because he was what he was. A lot of my audience is guys who are engineers and in technology, and the vast majority of my people are not, you know, lucky in love. To me it’s always funnier if Dilbert has a never-ending series of girlfriends, but I don’t rule it out. It’s entirely possible. Someday it might happen.
TFP: Do you see your influence in “awkward workplace” shows such as “The Office?”
Adams: Well, you know, I can never be so egotistical as to say that these people must have looked at my work for influence. I wouldn’t go that far. Because Dagwood worked in the office too, so I’m not the first. It would be hard to say I was an influence. Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell are literally geniuses and they bring something to it.
TFP: What happened to the “ultimate cubicle” you had built?
Adams: It was dismantled. The problem there is, the entire purpose of the cubicle was originally to give workers some flexibility, have their work style meet their needs, with more storage, less storage, make it a U or L shape, whatever works, but companies saw cubicles and said, “Hey, if we make everyone of them just alike, we can save a lot of money. It started as a noble idea, largely to benefit the workers to give them better work space, and it turns into a cost-saving idea.
TFP: Is there someplace where you collect all the Dilbert merchandise and memorabilia?
Adams: I have a storage facility that has just tons of stuff in there, everything from press clippings to all my books, and now in my office, I have tons of stuff in my closet so, it’s kind of spread over a few different places.
TFP: Is there any proposed Dilbert product you turned down?
Adams: Dilbert lingerie.
Adams: Yeah, and there was a request for Dilbert ash trays. We’ve had a number of licensing requests from fast food places, burger places, but I’m a vegetarian, so although Dilbert is not one, I just didn’t feel like getting behind it, so I don’t mind if anybody eats meat, I just didn’t feel like it.
TFP: Any chance the Dilberito will return?
Adams: I don’t think it will be returning. The problem was that I was a little fish in a big industry, and crime is such a huge problem even with the big vendors, the household names. They were thieves. I’ve worked at a lot of businesses and a lot of places, but this industry is unique in that there are crooks. You have to be pretty big to deal with that, and it was just more than I could bite off.
TFP: How will comics like “Dilbert” evolve as daily newspapers continue to decline and disappear?
Adams: “Dilbert” is already the biggest syndicated comic on the Internet, and that’s been true for a long time. We’re very aggressive; we’ve got the widgets, and we’ve got the mash ups where you can make your own punchlines. We’re already on cell phones and will obviously move into them more. And if you have an iPhone, you can look at the Web site and read the comics. My BlackBerry and the iPhone and most of the phones that will come out in the next generation, Dilbert will be there.
Scott Adams blogs here.