"Dilbert" Comic Strip
Scott Adams is the mind behind "Dilbert," a comic strip that spoofs the absurdities of corporate life in topics ranging from diabolical bosses to moronic marketing ideas to the very cubicles that encompass most office workers. Taking aim at every facet of the business world, Adams is the keen spokesperson for the "Dilberts" in the world. His strip is featured in 1,700 papers around the world and debuted as an animated prime-time television series in the fall 1998.
Scott Adams was born in June 1957 in Windham, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. His father, Paul, was a clerk at the post office, and his mother, Virginia, was a homemaker who also worked on an assembly line. As a child, Adams admired cartoonists. "I always wanted to be Charles Schulz and work for Mad magazine," he recalled in America's Network. At age 11, he ambitiously submitted a lengthy application to the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut, supplying information about himself. He told the school that he was a "C" student who had been interested in art for "about four years" and that his favorite artist was Al Capp, who penned the comic strip "Li'l Abner." He expressed a desire to create sports and animal drawings as well as cartoon strips, and answered "yes" to the question, "Are you willing and able to study at home and work by yourself?" The application also asked, "Why would you like to become an artist?" Adams replied, "It could be a good job when I get older. I like to draw." He was also required to include several samples of his work and received a "B" from the test grader. However, he was not accepted, because at age 11, he was too young. The letter from the Famous Artists School explained that he could enroll at age 12, but he never followed up.
Adams lives in Dublin, California, with his girlfriend Pam Okasaki. They have two cats, Freddie and Sarah. Most of his time is spent reading the hundreds of e-mail messages that readers supply each day, as well as working on his web site, The Dilbert Zone (http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert), which is one of the most popular sites on the web. He also gives interviews and speeches. Like Dilbert, Adams is a "techie," someone who enjoys technology for its own sake.
After high school, Adams went to Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, where he got the worst grade given in a drawing class. Practicality overcame creativity, and he got a bachelor's degree in economics instead. After graduating, he was hired in as a teller at Crocker National Bank in San Francisco in 1979, where twice he was robbed at gunpoint. He worked there for eight years, and went on to get his master's degree in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley. Throughout his career, he held a number of "humiliating and low-paying jobs," as his Harper Collins biography stated.
Adams worked as a computer programmer, financial analyst product manager, commercial lender, budget manager, strategist, project manager, and eventually, as an applications "engineer" at Pacific Bell, where he was employed from 1986 to 1995. There, he was responsible for figuring out how to make the ISDN lines run properly, a telecommunications position that he chose because he "thought it would be a happening industry," as he remarked to Patty Wetli in America's Network. For a time, he admitted to Robert McGarvey in Entrepreneur, he was a manager himself, in charge of a group ranging from 7 to 15 people. Also along the way, he became a certified hypnotist.
This string of corporate positions gave rise to Adams' now-famous "Dilbert" comic strip. As he sat in boring meetings, he considered the ludicrous nature of the business world and began doodling his thoughts. He lampooned his boss and coworkers, developing the character of Dilbert to reflect his feelings of disillusionment. Dilbert is the typical cubicle dweller frustrated with the incompetence of corporate management. His cohorts include Dogbert, the corporate consultant whose goal is to conquer the world; Catbert, the evil human resources director; and Ratbert, a lowly worker rodent. Dilbert's world also includes his pointy-haired boss, named Boss, and his coworkers Alice and Wally. In 1988, while the strip was still a collection of sketches, Adams caught a television program about cartooning and wrote to the show's host, Jack Cassady, to ask how he could break into the business.
Cassady returned a hopeful letter and Adams started at the top, sending his comics to the New Yorker and Playboy. When he was rejected, Adams decided he probably was not good enough, and set aside his dream. Cassady sent him another encouraging letter, however, which convinced Adams to keep trying. Among other places, Adams mailed his work to United Media, which picked his strip out of the thousands they receive each year and began syndicating it in 1989. "Dilbert" began appearing in about 50 newspapers to start, and by 1998, it was reaching more than 1,700 papers worldwide. In 1993, he was the first comic artist to print his e-mail address ([email protected]) in the strip, inviting readers to contact him, and he also set up a web site called The Dilbert Zone.
Adams kept his job at Pacific Bell for several years while fulfilling his contract to United Media to draw "Dilbert." It was at the office, in fact, that the character was christened after Adams held a "name-the-nerd" contest. He told Training magazine that he kept both jobs for the extra money and medical benefits, and because it "prevents me from becoming a hermit, which I have a real ability to do. I'm not the most social creature in the world." He also admitted, "Of course, I get a lot of material from there (Pacific Bell), so it is a source of constant inspiration. Probably the more interesting aspect is that when you don't need to work there anymore, it's a completely different experience. It still takes long hours, but things that would frustrate you if you knew that you just couldn't escape them don't frustrate you if you know you could leave any time you want." His boss finally hinted in 1995 that he should resign, although Adams does not feel that "Dilbert" had anything to do with his departure.
Adams noted that his bosses never contacted him about the strip, although he assumed they must have heard about it. He was profiled in a number of periodicals, and "Dilbert" became extremely popular in offices nationwide. By the mid-1990s he also had published a number of collections of the "Dilbert" strips in books, including Dogbert's Clues for the Clueless, 1992; Shave the Whales, 1994; and It's Obvious You Won't Survive by Your Wits Alone, 1995. Later, he also came out with Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook, 1996, as well as more collections. Adams also released a book featuring a young Dilbert that was designed to help kids use and understand computers.
By the end of 1997, Adams had over 20 books in print, many of which hit the New York Times bestseller list. On April Fool's Day, 1998, the socially conscious corporation Ben & Jerry's introduced a new flavor of ice cream called "Dilbert's World Totally Nuts!" after Adams's hilarious character. "The thing that's special about this is that it's the first Dilbert product that doesn't have any bitterness," Adams commented wryly. To kick off the enterprise, Ben & Jerry's, with permission of United Airlines, set up cubicles at New York City's La Guardia airport and offered free samples. They even wrote checks to some lucky fliers, refunding the price of their airline tickets.
In the fall of 1998, United Paramount Network (UPN) debuted the Dilbert animated prime-time series, with Adams and Larry Charles, the Emmy-award winning producer of Seinfeld and Mad About You, as executive producers. Fox had developed a live action Dilbert in 1997 but decided to shelve it. UPN programming director Tom Nunan, quoted in the Business Wire, said the series was a good fit for the network because "it's smart, slightly subversive, and has broad appeal." Also in the Business Wire, Charles remarked, "Like the Dilbert strip, the television series will explore the surreal subculture of the corporate world, with its rigid rules, rituals, languages and customs, thereby revealing the absurdity of the society at large."
Social and Economic Impact
Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly summed up the social significance of Dilbert, writing, "In nailing the Kafkaesque world of office existence, with its petty humiliations, meaningless jargon, and spirit-shriveling tedium, Adams captures the lunacy of our little lives just as surely as Pogo or Peanuts or Doonesbury did in their primes." In an Associated Press article printed in Newsday, Robert E. Cole, a business professor at the University of California at Berkeley, noted, "I think he's extraordinarily skillful at tapping into the kind of dissatisfaction and stupidity that most American workers experience in the workplace."
Adams undoubtedly hit a nerve among workers, writing about the numerous frustrations of office life, including low morale, dumb dress codes, bad decisions by bosses, power-hungry coworkers, senseless meetings, and the like, especially targeting faddish management concepts such as empowerment, business process re-engineering, and total quality management. He also explained the power structure as a root cause of worker dissatisfaction in modern corporations in Industry Week, saying, "Lots of employees want to be creative and have control. But how do you run a company that way? Ideally, companies want a few creative people and lots of competent followers. But most employees want to be the creative ones."
Chronology: Scott Adams
1968: Applied to Famous Artists School but his application was denied.
1979: Began working for Crocker National Bank.
1986: Began working as applications engineer at Pacific Bell.
1989: United Feature Syndicate launched "Dilbert" comic strip.
1992: Published first book of "Dilbert" selections.
1993: Published e-mail address in strip, asking readers to write to him.
1998: Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream introduced "Dilbert's World Totally Nuts" flavor.
1998: Aired first Dilbert animated television series.
Adams expanded on this with Robert McGarvey in Entrepreneur, telling him, "Employees are constantly being put in situations where their expectations of what they are getting are rising. Empowerment is a good example 'We're going to give you lots of power!' But then they are told 'Check with me before you order that pencil.' So employees are in a position where they see all these little contradictions, and those contradictions make them feel powerless." Adams, in addition, outlined the age-old battle of capitalism: "There's a constant battle. The employer is trying to get you to work more for free, and the employee is trying to do less work and get paid more."
Adams is also known for putting into words The Dilbert Principle, also the title of one of his books published by HarperBusiness. As he outlined in Entrepreneur, "The Dilbert Principle explains why there are so many incompetent managers. It holds that the least competent people are promoted into management so that you don't waste your good people on trivial issues like writing mission statements and holding meetings. What managers do doesn't add a lot of value." Using light, sarcastic humor, Adams sheds light on the power struggle between workers and management at all levels and between workers and colleagues, which allows millions of unhappy employees each day to find a little solace in the fact that they are not alone.
Adams also accuses firms of instituting policies that have little or no meaning to the average worker and tend to condescend to them. "When companies go to employees and say stuff like, 'Quality is No. 1' or 'The customer is No. 1,' that seldom works," Adams told Industry Week. "In my ideal company, I'd say to the employees, 'You, personally, are No. 1 you! and then your family and then your coworkers.' And somewhere after that is the customer and the stockholder. Of course, it's often in your family's and your coworkers best interest to treat customers as No. 1. But let's not lie to workers. They're smarter than that."
The appeal of "Dilbert" has not been limited to just corporate American culture. It reaches about 150 million fans around the world in about 35 countries, and was the first syndicated strip to appear on the World Wide Web. It remains one of the most popular Internet entertainment sites, with 4.5 million hits each month. The Dilbert Principle is the best-selling business book in history, spending 27 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Adams's strips, by lancing the sacred cows of the business world, have altered the way many people view corporations and bosses. Perhaps the corporate world will benefit from the mockery and become a better place in which to work, or maybe not. Adams remarked in Newsday, "My goal is not to change the world. My goal is to make a few bucks and hope you laugh in the process."
Sources of Information
Contact at: "Dilbert" Comic Strip
United Media, 200 Madison Ave., Fl. 4
New York, NY 10016
Business Phone: (212)293-8500
Barrier, Michael. "'Dilbert' Creator Thinks Small." Nation's Business, October 1997.
Brown, Tom. "Decoding the 'Clueless' Manager." Industry Week, 3 July 1995.
Cawley, Janet. "Corporate Raider." People Weekly, 3 June 1996.
Filipczak, Bob. "An Interview with Scott Adams." Training, July 1994.
HarperCollins Publishers. "Scott Adams." New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. Available from http://www.harpercollins.com/authors.
"High Flying April Fool's Surprise Launches Ben & Jerry's Newest Flavor, Dilbert's World Totally Nuts." Business Wire, 31 March 1998.
Locke, Michelle. "Dilbert's Dad/Scott Adams' Goal: Yuks, Bucks." Newsday, 23 February 1997.
Luscombe, Belinda. "Adams' Family Values." Time, 21 October 1996.
McGarvey, Robert. "The Adams Principle." Entrepreneur, September 1997.
Newsmakers, 1996 Cumulation. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. "Books: Comic-Strip Relief: If You Have to Ask Who Dilbert Is, You Don't Work in a Cubicle. EW Looks at Why the Quirky Character is Suddenly as Popular as the Office Water Cooler." Entertainment Weekly, 31 January 1997.
"Short Takes: Dilbert, Dogbert, Wally and the Gang Head for TV." The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 12 February 1998.
Snider, Mike. "'Young Dilbert' Teaches Kids About Computers." USA Today, 15 September 1997.
Thatcher, Mike. "The Truth about Cats and Dogs." People Management, 19 December 1996, 30.
United Media, Inc. "The Dilbert Zone." New York, NY: United Media, 1998. Available from http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert.
"UPN Announces the Primetime Animated Series Dilbert from the Popular Character's Creator Scott Adams and Emmy Award-Winning Producer Larry Charles." Business Wire, 10 February 1998.
Wetli, Patty. "Dilbert Exposed!! Meet the Man Behind the Dweeb." America's Network, 15 July 1994.
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