Geek yuks

Dave Barry may find a few laughs floating in cyberspace. But Scott Adams knows that real humor is grounded in human stupidity.

By Scott Rosenberg

Published November 18, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Computer humor" isn't exactly a promising label  there's something oxymoronic about it, like "educational TV" or "friendly IRS auditor." It doesn't cause one's pop-cultural antennae to quiver the way satires of, say, celebrity venality or political duplicity can. The idea, in fact, seems almost as hopelessly un-hip as the high-tech hype it's usually aimed at.

Life is way too short for more than a handful of RAM jokes. That hasn't stopped publishing houses from filling out their lists with quickie titles lampooning the same high-tech culture they're promoting elsewhere in their catalogs. Most computer-humor books are one-joke affairs  high-concept products that move directly from one-sentence proposal to easily-promotable title without ever stopping to accrue an actual, substantial text along the way.

"America Off-Line" (Cader Books/Andrews and McMeel) is a typical example. Author A.J. Jacobs takes one mildly amusing joke  what if you inverted a typical America Online guidebook and introduced readers to the wonders of the real world?  and spins it out through every conceivable variation.

"America Off-Line" invites readers to turn off their computers and enjoy the myriad pleasures of high-definition reality; provides guidance to using low-tech word processors (i.e., pencils) with their "delete buttons" (i.e., erasers); introduces such "interactive" experiences as writing letters to the editor and shopping via 800 number; and warns those accustomed to chat rooms against shouting "ANY HORNY FEMALES IN THE ROOM?" as they search for offline romance. Out beyond America Off-Line lies the even more exotic and diverse "Outernet," with its popular "World Wide World."

You get the picture. Jacobs expands a single chuckle-worthy concept into an ultimately tiresome joke marathon. What might have made a reasonably funny back-page New Yorker humor piece has, by the logic of the publishing market, become bloated and unfunny. By the time you finish "America Off-Line," if you bother to, you find yourself resisting its initial funny insight; after all, though there are a fair number of online junkies these days, they haven't exactly forgotten how to dial a phone or read a newspaper.

"America Off-Line" makes the mistake of targeting its satire at the inflated claims a service like AOL makes for itself, rather than at people's actual experiences with it. Veteran humorist Dave Barry is too adept to make such a goof; his new "Dave Barry in Cyberspace" (Crown) is plainly rooted in Barry's years of wrestling with unreliable hardware and appallingly buggy software.

The title is a little misleading, since most of "Dave Barry in Cyberspace" is about computers rather than the online world. Barry takes an Every-sensible-man's approach to the subject. A typical joke: "You should get a 'full-featured' word-processor, defined as 'a word processor that has thousands of functions that you will never have any conceivable use for.'" Or: "Contrary to what you may have heard, the Internet does not operate at the speed of light; it operates at the speed of the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Barry can be a hoot in small amounts  roughly the quantities featured on the CyberDave Web site, where you'll find repackagings of some of the book's funnier ideas, including Barry's spoof of a typical software installation routine. But the cumulative effect of a concentrated, book-length dose of his humor is to diminish its effectiveness. He's got the comic rhythms of a newspaper columnist, not a book author.

His list of bizarre-but-real Web sites (from "Cursing in Swedish" to the Flaming Pop-Tart Experiment) proves funnier than his attempt at a more ambitious short story about an online romance. And though his jabs at DOS and Windows reveal an intimate familiarity with their historical peculiarities, he doesn't end up providing any real comic catharsis for readers' frustrations with bad technology. "Dave Barry in Cyberspace" is amusing but hardly satisfying; it skims the surface of technology's absurdities without engaging any deeper emotions.

That's doubtless because most people, understandably, aren't terribly emotional about computers  despite the onslaught of technology ads that depict product-induced states of ecstasy and despair. One thing that people are emotional about, though, is their money and their work.

Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," understands this. "Dilbert" entered the popular consciousness as a comic strip set in a high-tech office, and was originally championed by Silicon Valley nerds who identified with the bespectacled, flat-topped title character. But as this year's "Dilbert Principle" and the new follow-up, "Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook" (HarperBusiness), make plain, Adams is less interested in spoofing the world of computer technology than in satirizing the business world that has grown up around it.

"Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook" is as single-minded, in its own way, as "America Off-Line." Chapters have titles like "Management Zombie Stare," "Cash Awards for Things That Would Happen Anyway" and "Taking Credit for Your Employees' Ideas," but the central theme remains constant: managers get paid big bucks for being ignorant, doing nothing and torturing their underlings.

To Adams, the workplace is a theater of sadism; comedy is simply a seasoning to make the raw horror palatable. Unlike its competition, "Dilbert" sustains the longer form of a humor book  even one that in part simply recycles old comic strips  because its creator is actually upset about something. It draws its heat not from some ephemeral technology trendlet but from an actual cultural war that continues to leave casualties. Forget computer humor; Scott Adams understands that the only reliable source of comedy is the record of human stupidity.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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