Good times for Dilbert

Good times for Dilbert: By Janelle Brown. The world's best-loved cartoon engineer gets off on the tight job market, while his creator, Scott Adams, talks about Zippergate and the enduring stupidity of humankind.

By Janelle Brown
October 22, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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People are stupid. That, in a nutshell, is the observation upon which Scott Adams, the doodler behind the "Dilbert" comic strip, has built his empire. Over the last nine years, Adams has unleashed a daily flood of cartoons -- as well as books, calendars, a Web site and logo products galore -- documenting the inanity of the workplace. Dilbert, the bespectacled engineer, has become a subversive hero to geeks worldwide who are frustrated with bad management.

Adams recently released his 14th book, "The Joy of Work," which continues his tradition of mocking "induhviduals." A compilation of reader e-mails, comic strips, wry observations and suggested pranks, "The Joy of Work" is a guide to making the daily grind more fun. You, too, can bring humor and creativity to your job, while humiliating your inept coworkers and tedious bosses in the process!


Salon caught up with Adams on the press tour for "The Joy of Work" to talk about the evolving workplace, what Zippergate says about America -- and whether Dilbert is happy.

How has the workplace changed since you first started doing "Dilbert"? And how does your new book, "The Joy of Work," reflect that?

The balance of power has changed. At the moment, it's hard to get fired. And if you checked with all the people who had been downsized in the past, you'll find most of them are happier, and many of them make more money now, or are working for themselves. The whole stigma of losing your job went away and people are convinced that the risk of being fired isn't high. So in some way, people are more willing to say things and do things at work, take bigger chances, have more fun. If I listen to my e-mail, optimism is high.


I had a spy program, where I would ask people for their phone number at work and then I would call them and ask them what they were doing right now. I couldn't find anybody working. At a random call you'd always get them doing something personal: Playing on the Internet, or sending an e-mail to their boyfriend. That struck me as a really good sign -- there's more time to goof off.

The concept of "The Joy of Work" is that "Dilbert" was born and raised on downsizing, but now the job market is tight and we are secure, and we're having much more fun. I wanted to collect all the ways that people could abuse their boss and their co-workers, have more fun at their expense ... ways to be abusive and disloyal to your stockholders.

Dilbert's happier now?


Dilbert's much happier, yes. It's a good time to be an engineer.

But you aren't working as an engineer anymore, since you quit your job three years ago to do "Dilbert" full time. Do you find you're losing touch with the material since you aren't inside the office environment, in those cubicles, anymore?


It's easier in some ways, because when I was in the office I would spend seven hours a day just sitting in a little box with no stimulation whatsoever. But now I get hundreds of e-mails every day -- I try to read all of it -- from people telling me their experiences, which reminds me of my own hideous experiences. So it's actually a richer situation now.

You rely a lot on the suggestions of your readers. What percentage of the e-mail you get is really good material?

About 1 percent. The vast majority of the suggestions that I get are things that people already read in a "Dilbert" comic but don't know it. Or somebody who had read a "Dilbert" comic told them about it and somehow it got translated into "my friend did this."


Buzzword Bingo is a good example. It's a little game -- I think somebody at Silicon Graphics came up with it -- in which you take company buzzwords and make little bingo cards, and go to meetings and keep the card under the table. You listen to the boss, and when he uses the buzzwords that fill your line, you yell Bingo. I did a cartoon about that, which probably did more than anything to popularize the phrase. Now hundreds of people have suggested that I do a cartoon about Buzzword Bingo, which "someone told them about."

How has your audience changed since you've become so popular?

There are a lot of younger kids, far more than I would think -- probably half of my mail now comes from 12-year-olds.


There are some predictable stages with any kind of art: First, you're new and you're quirky, and the people who like "new and quirky" are rabid fans. Then you bluff your way and try to tell the media that you are much bigger than you are, and in turn they will make you much bigger than you are by writing about you. And then everybody sees you, and the people who got there first say, "We don't want to be here anymore, now everybody is watching 'Dilbert,'" and start looking for the next new thing. But the much larger group starts appreciating you for entirely different reasons -- because they think the dogs are fuzzy or they hate their boss. Dilbert's reached that mass level. And the fact that the kids are liking it is an indicator that it's seeped into areas I never intended.

A lot of the material you work with is very "geeky," clearly taking place at a software development company with computers all around. Have you found that as you've become more mainstream, you've had to cut back the geekiness of your content?

No, in fact, I've kept it about the same. It never was a lot. In fact, in the first few years of the strip a computer magazine asked if they could run all the computer-related "Dilbert" comics as reprints; United Media said yes and worked out a deal. But when they went to look for all the computer-related "Dilbert" comics, they only found three.

The computers are a part of Dilbert's environment so they're always there, but [comic strips] that actually address a computer, that are about a user-interface or something specific? One in a hundred. Maybe three a year, tops.


The new book, however, has a lot of computer-related pranks -- many involve writing computer programs.

There's a higher percentage of the geeks buying the "Dilbert" books than anything else on earth, probably. Probably 95 percent of the people who read "Dilbert" books use computers on various levels, and even those who wouldn't know how to write a program to whisper, "Hey Bob" could appreciate that someone could do it.

I read one of your recent "Dilbert" newsletters, "Induhviduals And Zippergate," in which you poked fun at some of the arguments in favor of impeaching President Clinton. What has the reaction been to that column, and what are your overall thoughts on Zippergate?

Certainly, the amusement factor of Zippergate is quite high. Zippergate drives home the fact that the media cannot give you unbiased information. When I did the Zippergate column I had to write a "clarification" right afterwards, because a lot of people who thought that Clinton should be kicked out wrote to me and said, "You've obviously taken sides, take me off the 'Dilbert' newsletter."


I made fun of these particular arguments that are weak -- totally false arguments like "Why isn't Clinton treated like a CEO would be treated?" People say that because I chose to pick on the arguments that were logically weak or factually wrong, and did not mention that there were also good arguments, that I was making a case. People were so used to biased presentation that they can't understand that you could just make fun of something and that's not an argument in favor or against anything.

Do you think that the sheer volume of media available right now is making people stupider?

No, I think people are about as stupid as they were when we were cave people. Evolution has not worked that fast. But the environment got more complicated, so that there are only a very few people who can actually look at all the facts in any situation and hold them all in their head and figure it out.

The two worst things happened because of technology. Everything got more complicated. Even the smartest people can't figure out things because it's a complicated world. But at the same time, because of this instant polling (and the Net will make this even worse, when everyone can vote at home on their couch while drinking beer) you have more democracy and less ability for people to understand the issues. You couldn't have two worse things at the same time.


And at the same time we have a proliferation of punditry, where everyone is offering opinions, so that people who don't want to sort through the material can just pick someone out and say, "OK, I like him, he's a good head. I'm just going to repeat what he says."

Yeah, and when you hear the man-on-the-street interviews, it really comes through. You'll see someone buying their groceries, and the interviewer will ask him, "What do you think about the president?" And they'll say, "Um, I think no CEO could act like that." It's just something they heard on TV -- they would never in a million years have said that if they hadn't heard it on TV.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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