Scott Adams and ‘Dilbert' are still going strong after 20 years

by Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

17 April 2009


Scott Adams, the wry genius who, for 20 years has delivered daily doses of workplace farce via his “Dilbert” comic strip, is struggling with a case of writer’s block. And quite frankly, he’s ticked off about it.

Perched in front of a 21-inch computer monitor in his Dublin, Calif., townhouse office, Adams can’t quite nail down just the right zinger of a punchline for a strip that will appear next month in 2,000 newspapers and 70 countries. But that’s not what has him so peeved. No, it’s the warm, relaxing bath he took the night before - a rare bit of self-indulgent down time that he blames for his current brain cramp.

“It’s probably the first bath I’ve taken in seven years or so. I just wanted to lay there and not do anything,” he explains. “But now I’m blaming that bath for the fact that I can’t draw a comic today. All morning, I’ve been thinking if I hadn’t taken that bath, I wouldn’t have lost my edge.”

OK, so the man is a little high-strung. But his stubborn resistance to slowing down is what has allowed Adams, 51, to keep cranking out his comic strip and best-selling books, while also writing a daily blog, managing two restaurants, overseeing construction of a new home and playing on an over-30 soccer team that, he admits, does not instill fear in its opponents.

And his relentless “edginess” enables Adams to give voice to millions of disgruntled cubicle dwellers slaving under the tyranny of pointy-haired bosses. As he points out, “There’s a certain amount of anger you need to draw ‘Dilbert’ comics.”

Make that anger and pain. As “Dilbert” celebrates its 20th anniversary, it is riding a water-cooler resurgence tethered to all the dire news stories about America’s economic woes. In January, the strip’s bumpy-headed hero was fired and saw his investments tank. And in recent months, Adams has crafted clever comics dealing with government bailouts, mergers, downsizing and bank failures.

Is it any wonder he’s sort of feeling like an undertaker at a bus crash?

“You don’t want to be happy about the bus plunging into the ravine, but on the other hand, it’s good for business,” he admits. “Whenever there’s more angst and unhappiness, it’s fodder for humor.”

In that sense, it certainly beats the dot-com boom era, when giddy workers were sitting on piles of cash and Adams experienced his “worst time as a cartoonist.” These days “Dilbert” seems to be benefiting from a misery-loves-company dynamic.

In February, the strip’s Web site and home to Adams’ blog (www.dilbert.com) logged 1.5 million visitors, making it one of its busiest months ever. And then there was the recent story line that had a defiant Dogbert blasting politicians at a bailout hearing. It made the rounds across the Web, and Adams claims it’s probably the most popular strip he’s done in several years.

As for Dilbert himself, well, it just wouldn’t be right if the dweeby engineer was immune to the cruel realities of the economic meltdown.

“When I get together with my friends, there’s a shocking number of them who are out of work, or who might be out of work soon,” Adams says. “So it didn’t make sense for Dilbert to be the one happily employed guy in the world. It was time for him to go with the flow.” (Dilbert was eventually rehired - at a much lower salary).

That kind of relatability long has been the fuel for “Dilbert” - many strips ideas come from readers who e-mail Adams with anecdotes from their workplace. And it’s a key factor in “Dilbert’s” rise from humble beginnings to an iconic piece of pop culture that has spawned an animated TV series, a computer game and merchandise ranging from T-shirts to plush toys.

Still, for the intensely driven Adams, it may not be enough.

“I have to admit that it doesn’t meet my wildest dreams only because I’ve got pretty wild dreams,” he says before sharing details of a phone call he had years ago with Charles Schulz in which the late cartoonist mentioned that the billionth “Peanuts” greeting card had just been sold.

“That’s a billion with a ‘b.’ And that’s just one (licensing) category,” Adams marvels. “Think about it: What other artist has ever done anything that had a ‘b’ in it for billion? There’s nothing that approaches that. His estate will probably make more in one year than what I make in my whole career. There’s success and then there’s success.”

Does that get Adams down? Actually, it does.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bug me a little bit,” he says. “I’m certainly aware that most people would be happy to be in my position. But whatever personality trait that causes you to work 10 years straight without taking a day off to make all this stuff happen is the same thing that prevents you from enjoying it. The hunger doesn’t go away. It just transforms into hunger for something else. ... And it’s not a good thing, by the way.”

For the past several years, much of Adams’ extra energy was devoted to coping with a debilitating disorder that not only robbed him of the ability to draw on anything but a computer, but seriously impaired his speech. The ailment, known as spasmodic dystonia, causes a person’s vocal cords to clench involuntarily while speaking.

“Not being able to talk was frustrating beyond belief. It’s like your entire personality is submerged, and when you’re around people who don’t know you, you’re treated like you’re mentally challenged,” recalls Adams, who through his own research, found a doctor who used a rare surgical procedure to restore his speech last fall.

At his side through much of the ordeal was longtime friend Shelly Miles, whom he met while working out at a local gym. Adams married her aboard a rented yacht in 2006 and became stepfather to her two preteen children.

“She’s helped me become happier and more content than I have been in a long time,” he says.

Scott and Shelly are in the process of building their dream home in Pleasanton, Calif. - an 8,000-plus square-foot stunner that will contain a number of green features, as well as such oh-so-cool amenities as an indoor tennis court, a Christmas tree storage closet and, yes, even a small, out-of-the-way bathroom for the family cat. Just call it the house that Dilbert built.

You can also call it Adams’ latest obsession. Designing the home, he says, has been an exhilarating process - one that appeals to both his “arty and geek” sides and has him dropping by the construction site several times a week.

“Each visit makes me feel like life has more meaning,” he says. “There is something about the creativity of the process and the physical nature of a house that produces a good feeling like none other. It somehow makes sense of all the work I’ve done to get to this place.”



The first “Dilbert” comic strip appeared April 16, 1989, in only about three dozen newspapers - and none in the Bay Area (“I had to have a friend mail me one,” says creator Scott Adams). Here’s some more “Dilbert” trivia:

—“Dilbert” was rejected by every major syndicate before being accepted by United Media.

—In 1993, Adams became the first syndicated cartoonist to include his e-mail address in the strip. It opened a dialogue between the artist and his fans, who used it to flood Adams with ideas for the strip.

—The e-mail address was a fortuitous move also because it keyed Adams into an overwhelming demand for more workplace-related strips. Until that point, Dilbert spent most of his time outside the office. Once “Dilbert” became more workplace-oriented, its popularity soared.

—Dilbert’s physical appearance is modeled after someone Adams worked with whose identity never has been revealed. “The human prototype of Dilbert is totally unaware that he’s the guy,” Adams says.

—Dogbert is loosely based on Adams’ childhood pet beagle, Lucy.

—Before “Dilbert,” Adams earned an MBA at UC Berkeley and appeared to be on a career track in business management. His last “real” job was at Pacific Bell.

—“Dilbert 2.0: 20 Years of Dilbert,” the coffee-table book that chronicles the comic strip’s rise to glory, covers 600 pages, features almost 4,000 strips and weighs in at 10-plus pounds.

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