Dilbert's a weasel and so are you

The dot-com bubble was tough for cartoonist Scott Adams. But now that things suck again, it's boom time once more for disillusioned cubicle droids.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published October 21, 2002 5:43PM (EDT)

Quit your smug snickering at those handcuffed executives striving to look manly as they're squished into the back seats of unmarked FBI cars.

We're all a bunch of weasels, says cartoonist Scott Adams in his new book "Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel." Those corporate bad boys like Enron CFO Andrew Fastow are just the top of the weasel pyramid, having perfected the slippery backstabbing that all of us exhibit in our smaller-scale, sniveling, pathetic ways.

Adams built a one-man diversified media empire on his pudgy geek Dilbert, extending his brand as far as a line of health-food burritos, by deploying cutting variations on the theme "bosses are idiots."

But in his newest "Dilbert" book, he expands his thesis to include, as he puts it, "not just management but, dare I say, humanity." Splicing cartoons and e-mails from disgruntled readers in with his own musings, Adams takes aim at everyone from people over 40 to nature lovers, men and women in relationships and, yes, co-workers, like those "techno-weasels" who relish telling their clueless bosses that whatever they want "can't be done," before suggesting that yet another meeting be convened to discuss "setting priorities."

In a way, this is Adams is at his ur-geekiest, displaying the true geek's self-confidence (read: arrogance) that, having mastered one arena -- the workplace -- with his Spock-logical mind, he can deploy his superior brainpower to explain the foibles of the entire human race. His saving grace: He makes fun of his own overreaching. But his humor is still most spot-on when he stays back in the cubicles.

In the boom years, when spending more time with your co-workers than your family was considered a point of pride, not a sign of lifestyle psychosis, "Dilbert" spoofed the work culture that seemed to gobble up ever more hours. And, during that dot-com bubble, when geeks were chic, Dilbert was our iconic geek anti-hero.

But is laughing at workplace inanities still fun in 2002, when slack-jawed, bleary-eyed office workers, now doing the jobs of three people without the hope of a raise, are just happy that they have a cubicle to go to at all?

In a phone interview, Scott Adams told Salon why executives in handcuffs and still more layoffs in the headlines means times are good for "Dilbert."

Is it harder or easier to make fun of the workplace in a down market when people are clinging to whatever jobs they have?

It's much easier for me. My job is a little like an undertaker's if there's a big bus crash. It's bad for society; it's bad for the people on the bus.

Bad news in the economy kind of turns people toward "Dilbert." They like an outlet. My hardest times were during the dot-com bubble.


I couldn't get anyone to complain. And people would write to me and say, "I think that you're being too cynical."

Really, they were like: "Work? We're all becoming millionaires!"

Yeah. "All we do is show up and we're millionaires. What's not to like?"

So how did you deal with that in the strip?

I changed the strip a little bit so that the guys at work were becoming a little bit more insolent, and a little more secure in their jobs. They were kind of going with the times. But good times just aren't as funny.

And I see it in my e-mail now. When times are bad, personally I get angry and bitter, because I also had my own money invested in Enron and WorldCom and Tyco and about a dozen other names you would recognize for all the wrong reasons. So, I'm mad that things are bad, so that's good for my work.

Do people e-mail you more or less now? Do they have more to complain about now? Or, do they have less free time stuck at their desks to e-mail cartoonists?

I get a lot of e-mail from people who say: "Today's my last day. I've been downsized. Let me tell you this ..." They're unloading. They're trying to get their little final bit of revenge.

So do you still get as much e-mail as ever, or more?

It's probably the same, except it's angrier.

If most of us are a bunch of weasels, are these thieving CEOs and CFOs from the Tycos and Enrons just a more exaggerated version of the rest of us? Or are they an entirely different caliber of weasel?

Well, they're more effective.

Probably it's just a time-management thing. In the time that you can make a personal phone call from your cubicle, a CEO can merge two companies and cook the books and make a billion dollars. So it's probably a little bit just more effectiveness.

But also you have to look at who gets attracted to those jobs in the first place. It's no big surprise, for example, that a chef might be overweight. They like to eat. Shoe salesmen -- I have a theory that most of them have a foot fetish.

And my theory is that criminals, they're basically looking around saying: "Hey, it used to be that crime didn't pay. You mug a guy, all you get is a bad watch and $20. But you become CEO and that pays."

So I think that if you follow the money, the criminals have decided that CEO is a pretty good job.

Back in the late '90s tech-boom, there was this idea that geeks were kind of chic and cool.

I think I started that. I know I was telling everyone it was true, but I'm not sure if it took off.

Well, now that geeks aren't cool anymore, what does it mean for "Dilbert"?

What? They're not cool anymore? When did that happen? Who's cool now?

I've always felt that they were cool. However, I think that doesn't really matter. I think that all that matters is that people are angry and frightened. The two ingredients that make a good "Dilbert" comic.

Why do you think that there are so few movies about office life? With the exception of "Office Space," it seems like in film no one recently has really mined the humor of the work-world film, like you have in "Dilbert." And I wondered if you have any thoughts on why that is.

Yeah. When I did the "Dilbert" TV show, and as we've noodled about maybe a "Dilbert" movie someday, it all comes down to the fact that you can't make it visual. Because a lot of it is "Guy sits in front of the computer and moves fingers on keyboard." That's where all the action is. And inside that guy's mind he's really mad about something.

You can't really make it dramatic.

You need thought balloons, I think, which is why it works in a comic strip. And since you couldn't have much physical action in a comic strip even if you wanted to, you don't really notice that it's missing. It's mostly just people talking.

Plus, the whole idea of star power: You want people who are engaging to look at, and as soon as you put them in an office they would look like they didn't belong. They don't have the sallow skin and the dead eyes and the droopy shoulders that we know so well.

Will Dilbert be laid off?

He gets laid off every once in a while, but it doesn't last long partly because it's harder to draw things outside the office. I'm really good at drawing rectangles. Desk squares, cubicle squares, computer squares -- it all kind of works.

You wrote in your new book that the dot-com bubble generated a weasel feeding-frenzy, because it was like God had said: "For one day only, it's OK to steal." So, does a downturn make us more or less weaselly?

There is a weasel bubble in effect right now, if I can use that phrase.

The analogy to the stock market would be: They say that you know you're in a stock bubble when your cab driver is giving you stock advice. And right now, looking around, OK, it's no big surprise that your politicians are weasels and your CEOs, because those are the people who even try to get those jobs in the first place.

But once you start noticing that your historians are making stuff up and your figure-skating judges are rigging their events, and your priests are dating children and having better sex lives than rock stars, that's what I call a bubble. That's the cab driver giving you stock tips.

I think that we're in this gigantic, unprecedented bubble of weaselness.

But doesn't that imply that it will burst, like the stock market did?

It does. But maybe it's like an inverse bubble or something, because usually a bubble feels good when it's happening. And this is like a big bubble of something really bad. I don't know what happens when it burst. I guess we all become Buddhists or something.

We'll all become sincere.

And then I'm dead. Then that's the end of "Dilbert."

Do bad economic times cure companies of some of their insipid posturing about their "values" and all that sort of hoo-ha that "Dilbert" makes fun of, or do they cling to it on the way down too?

Money makes most problems seem less important.

I was just reading today about a company that has these motivational dollars. They're fake dollars that they give the employees to give to each other when they notice them doing a good job. Or the motivational rock is another one.

That's the sort of thing that you see when there is no money. When there is money, it's like: "Hey, Bob. You did a good job. Here's some more money." And who complains about that?

You always had the mission statement, but it didn't bug you if you were getting a lot of money.

You say that when you get complaints about stereotypes in your comic strip, the complaints never come from the people you're ridiculing themselves. Say if you make fun of clowns, the complaints never come from the clowns themselves, but from people who are offended on behalf of the clowns. Why do you think that is?

I think that most people have a sense of humor, but they believe that other people do not. And so it's kind of a superiority feeling, which is: "I know that if you made fun of me, I would recognize that it's just a joke. But these poor bastard clowns, they don't know a joke when you see it. How cruel of you to take advantage of these poor dumb clowns."

So do you respond to those comments?

Usually with sarcasm, sometimes with two-word salutes.

What is the worst work story that you've heard from a reader in e-mail recently?

My favorite is the boss who was too cheap to buy a shredder but they had a lot of documents that seemed like they needed to be shredded. So he would tear up each of those documents into tiny, tiny pieces by hand trying to emulate the functionality of a shredder. You've got to wonder how long that takes.

Do people often come up to you in person to confess about how life-sucking their job is, like telling a couples therapist about their marital problems at a party?

Oh yeah. In fact, I can hardly walk anyplace in public locally, because people know me, and I get buttonholed: "Boy, have I got one for you!"

Do they want their lives to show up in "Dilbert"? Is that it?

They usually want someone to be embarrassed, someone they're mad at.

Now, I will ask a humorousless, politically correct question. So, do you really think that the glass ceiling is mostly a red herring for the fact that women don't really want to be CEOs?

Well, it's something that you could test for yourself, and you can let me know if I'm wrong.

Go into any room that's got a mix of men and women, and ask them individually, so that other people don't hear their answer: "If you could be CEO, with all that comes with it, with all the hard work and all the effort to get there, would you want that job?"

And I think that what you'll find is that a healthy slice of the men, maybe a quarter of them, maybe more, will say: "Yeah, I'd absolutely want that."

And the women you'll find maybe one in the room.

So I don't think that you can compare two groups where one wants something and one doesn't want it as much. All things being equal, the group that wants it more is probably going to have more success.

I think women can handle emotional pain better than men, and that gives them kind of a super power in personal relationships that they can just make both of you miserable until that man gives up.

But men can handle humiliation better, like we don't feel slighted. We can basically be the bottom dog licking the paws of the top dog for 40 years, if when it's done we get a chance at being the top dog. Were somehow just built for that.

But a woman can't do that. I think a woman cannot suffer humiliation over long periods of time without thinking: "I think that I'd rather be doing something else."

I look at people as machines. The women are designed to handle pain really well, just kind of general discomfort, like wearing uncomfortable shoes, but also you see a lot of women in jobs helping the sick and people who've got problems -- social work -- because you can handle more pain.

Men, we like to watch other people have pain, like sports people. The only time we like to watch pain is if it's associated with either sports or humor.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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