Scott Adams: A Phone Conversation From My Cubicle With Dilbert's Creator

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Scott Adams and Dilbert

Nine hours a day, I stare at a computer monitor. I'm surrounded on three sides by cloth-covered panels that are nearly as tall as I am. My doorway cannot be closed. My neighbors' conversations (and, indeed, my neighbors themselves) drift in and out throughout the day.

Stuck to the walls with thumbtacks are the office worker's one sine qua non: Dilbert cartoons. Culled from newspapers, Internet printouts, and calendar pages, these business environment cartoons are sometimes the only anchors of sanity in an otherwise insane setting. They help us to laugh, lest we should cry.

It's the perfect place from which to call Scott Adams, creator of the funny pages phenomenon known as Dilbert, and wrest away a few precious minutes of his time. Hey, anything to break the monotony of creating yet another way to look at the same sales figures, right?

One of the most prominent characters--if not, indeed, the star--is Dogbert. Yet from looking at your virtual-tour of your typical day, it would seem that you are more of a cat person.

I had a dog when I was growing up that was not unlike Dogbert in personality. Her name was Lucy, and I think she was alive about 14 years and never came once when she was called. She had big floppy ears like Dogbert. So I think that's where I got that notion.

Personally, I'm just a slave to efficiency, and I like the fact that you can just give cats a little bit of water and some food, and they pretty much take care of themselves.

You took the famous artists test at age eleven. They told you to try again, when you were twelve. Why didn't you?

I think by the time I was twelve, I had figured out that I wasn't the only person who wanted to be Charles Schulz. But there was only one Charles Schulz. And I was kind of doing the math by then and figured out maybe I should try to be a lawyer instead. Unfortunately, I had reached that point where you start understanding the odds of things, and the odds did not bode well for becoming a cartoonist.

Was there any support at home to become a cartoonist?

No, my mother always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, including a cartoonist. But she thought 'lawyer' was a good bet, too.

On that Famous Artists application, you listed Al Capp as your favorite cartoonist. What was it you liked about Al, and who would you list today?

Well, I'm not sure I understood Li'l Abner all that much, but the drawing was just intoxicating. I think like every kid that age, I had dreams of being able to draw Daisy Mae at home alone. I guess I was just amazed that he was drawing in a style that I knew I could not reproduce, and there was no amount of practice that would ever allow me to do what he did.

What I personally like to read at the moment--my two favorites would be Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine. They're both new.

You have an MBA degree, and a background in engineering. Was there ever an attempt to go to art school, or were you still in the "odds against you" mindset?

You know, I don't remember thinking about it, but I'm sure I did, at some point. I probably weighed the alternative and decided--quite rationally--that, first of all, I didn't have enough talent, and secondly you couldn't make much money, and I definitely wanted the money.

When was it that Dilbert solidified for you as a submission idea? I mean, you were cartooning and submitting all along, but was there an epiphany moment when you said, "Ye Gods! This is the strip I was always meant to do!"

Well, I hadn't submitted anything until I submitted Dilbert. That was my only cartoon strip submission. The only other time I submitted was too some magazines, and that was really just one go-round. I sent off a bunch of stuff to some magazines once.

Dilbert kind of solidified while I was working at Crocker Bank in San Francisco in the mid-80s. I would always be sitting around doodling, because I was bored out of my mind most of the time I was there. He just became the character I doodled the most. He was kind of loosely based on a co-worker, at least physically, and I would draw him on my blackboard in my cubicle. Sometimes when I had to do presentations about the budget, I would include him in the presentation to liven it up a little bit.

People were always telling me, 'You know, you ought to do something with that.' So I guess one day, I just decided. I don't remember that there was some specific thunderclap or anything; I just decided that would be a good idea one day.

Once the strip got picked up, how fast was the growth?

It was slow. I think it launched in somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe thirty-five papers, and grew to maybe sixty-five in the first year or two. Numbers are always murky, because you sell to the newspaper and you know that they're paying you, but many of them buy it preemptively, with no intention of running it unless it becomes popular. You end up selling it to a lot of people who give you money but don't run it.

Then it kind of wallowed from 1989 when it launched until about 1993. It was really in fewer than a hundred paper, and it was just kind of hanging out. That's when I started running my e-mail address in the strip. I was the first syndicated cartoonist to do that. And people wrote in and told me something I didn't know, which was that they were loving the business-oriented jokes I was doing--which were very few--and they were kind of liking the rest of the stuff, but not so much. So I decided to change the focus of the strip and made it almost entirely business and very little generic stuff. It started taking off from there.

So the Internet really changed the direction Dilbert was originally taking.

Yeah, absolutely. E-mail was the first Internet related thing that changed it.

Then in 1995, we launched the website, and then a lot of people who were in locations where it did not run in the newspaper could see it. Then when the newspaper would have a poll and say, 'We're going to drop a cartoon and add something new; what do you want to see?' I was winning almost all of those, because people were already familiar with my work.

Dilbert now occupies--what I call--the "Peanuts Position" in many Sunday comics pages, that being the front-page, top slot. Any idea how many papers promote the strip that way?

You know, even I don't know how many of those I have. We don't keep any statistics on that.

You were doing Dilbert while simultaneously employed by Pacific Bell. Did they have any sort of reception to having a celebrity as an employee? Did they take any of the cartoons personally?

Well, when you say "they", a big corporation doesn't speak with one voice. There were definitely people who were big supporters and just thought it was funny and took it the way it was intended, as just humor. But there were other people who were far less generous, and early on there were some close calls. I did almost get fired.

Was there ever a situation where somebody said, 'The things that go on in our meetings stay in our meetings, they're not for you to broadcast to the world.'

No one ever said that, because I didn't use anything proprietary. It was all just general human business situations.

There's been a running, very playful "mock feud" against Little Billy and The Family Circus in the Dilbert newsletter. How did that get started, and how did it play out during "The Great Cartoony Switch-a-roonie", when you actually drew a Family Circus strip (and Bil Keane drew Dilbert)?

Well, I like Bil Keane. He's a nice guy. Really what I was doing was playing off the fact that the people who are big Dilbert readers who liked what I did, were very unlikely to be liking what he did, and vice-versa. So we had pretty much zero overlap in our fan base. It was just kind of fun to set up that distinction.

Obviously, the main focus of much of my work is on the comic "book" more than the comic "strip". Did 11-year-old, aspiring cartoonist Scott ever read any comic books?

Oh yeah. I was addicted to Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer.

The classics. Do you read any today?

You know, I wish it were easier to be a 43-year-old guy and read comic books.

I do too.

And I wish that I could get them in book form, like a 300-page Spider-Man. I'd buy that in a second.

Ever consider doing longer Dilbert scenes by way of such a medium--sort of like a middle ground between the strips and the animated show?

Not really, because I think you have to have more graphic visual appeal than I can muster.

Tom Tomorrow. He's gone on record in one of our interviews saying he really likes Dilbert, and thinks it's a very funny strip. But at one time there were some critiques leveled by him where he didn't think Dilbert was as much of a critique against office culture as it could have been. And to be fair, he was leveling that at the news articles focusing on Dilbert rather than at the strip itself. I've read his take on this, but never really saw a response from your camp.

Yeah, he was one of the critics. There was also Norman Solomon. There was a whole book called The Trouble With Dilbert in which Norman Solomon had the view that Dilbert was allowing the employees to simply laugh at their situations instead of revolt the way they should, and therefore I was actually part of the problem instead of part of the solution--which presumably would be more of a worker revolution. I definitely responded to that. But frankly, I can't remember the Tom Tomorrow criticisms specifically to remember what I might have said about that. I don't think I responded publicly to anything he said. Maybe I have, but I don't recall.

You attribute much of your success to the encouragement of cartooning veteran, Jack Cassady. Have you ever had the opportunity to meet him?

Not in person, but we've talked by phone and mail.

Have you had the opportunity to play Cassady to other budding cartoonists?

Well, because I publish my e-mail address, I get thousands of e-mail messages a year. Probably three a day, on average, are cartoonists who are asking me the same questions I asked Jack Cassady. I have a little file I send them all that tells them all the information--what web sites to look at, what materials I use, and really everything I know that would be useful to someone starting out. So I would say since 1993 you could multiply 365 days times 3 times 7 years.

That's a massive 'pay it forward' deal.

I do what I can. So far, none of them have succeeded, I might point out.

Where to next?

I'm actually preparing an e-book that no one knows about yet. You're actually the first. It will be a non-Dilbert, non-humor book. It's fiction but it's really more of a thought experiment. It's really hard to explain. But it'll be five bucks and it'll be available online... probably in May.