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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 01/29/2009

The Interview: 'Dilbert' Creator Scott Adams

By Michael Cavna

For many of his readers, it's easy to view cartoonist SCOTT ADAMS as a former real-life avatar of his oppressed officeworker, Dilbert. But chat with Adams for even a short time and you observe why Adams was able to leave the Land of Cubicles for fame and fortune and speaking engagements galore: Adams, as opposed to Dilbert, seeks danger.

Not physical danger, mind you, but rather financial danger and career risk. Professionally, he courts reasons to live perilously -- whether he's entering high-risk ventures or promoting his own licensing deals through his comic strip, which he did in recent days to a fair amount of controversy.

Playing the shill game. (United Feature Syndicate) Enlarge Comic

This week, Comic Riffs caught up with Adams to ask about the thrill-seeking life of a Cube Fugitive who doesn't have to don an upturned tie:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So what kind of reaction did you get after you publicized your new licensing deal [for the file-transfer company] in last week's "Dilbert"?
SCOTT ADAMS: The comic purists were saying: "Oh my God, the world has ended." But people who work in Marketing who have blogs were saying: "This is interesting," and they were looking at it as a business model. The strips were a controversy and a point of entry for the business, so it worked on a lot of levels.

MC: So now, do you think any other cartoonists might follow your lead and plug a product?
SA: I think it depends on how seriously the cartoonist takes himself -- whether the cartoonist is a purist. When the artist -- and I use that word loosely in my case -- only wants to make people happy, then it's [not such a big deal]. But for the purist, the only person who benefits from this [sense of purity] is the cartoonist. It's a feeling that's not rational.

MC: Have you heard much hue and cry directly from editors over the "" strips?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Enlarge Image

SA: I haven't heard anything directly through United Media -- no editors have contacted me or them. One newspaper decided to run an editorial note, paraphrasing that they didn't support a mention of a real product in the strip. ... But to everyone who saw that editorial note, that made "Dilbert" look a little more dangerous than it was before. I bet it increased readership. [Editors] aren't stupid -- they know the game. ... But without the risk of somebody getting mad, it's not exactly humor in my book.

MC: As a former cubicle worker yourself at Crocker Bank and Pacific Bell, when did the personal workplace cynicism really set in for you? Was it gradual, or was there an "a-ha" moment?
SA: It was gradual. Things happened each and every day. If you're looking for [one moment], though, it was when my boss told me that a white male couldn't get promoted. Then, the absurdity of the situation freed me to pursue my own agenda without guilt.

MC: In your recent 20th-anniversary treasury "Dilbert 2.0," you talk about one boss who had it in for you over your workplace strips. Did you get in corporate hot-water often?
SA: It doesn't take many people to have a bad sense of humor to get in trouble at a corporation. Forty-nine out of 50 can have a good sense of humor, but [it takes] only one person in management and you're screwed.

MC: Throughout your career, you seem to try to sneak subtly subversive things into your strip. Are you drawn to pushing the boundaries or subverting the censors?
SA: I have a perverse attraction to risk. Not physical risk but emotional, financial risk -- anything than can't kill you immediately. It's like a loose tooth that you push on with your tongue. But it seems to have worked. Humor without danger doesn't work as well. What makes anything from "Saturday Night Live" to George Carlin to Stephen Colbert funny is somebody taking a risk. ...
If you're me, "Dilbert" was born out of the legend that I could risk getting fired from my [day] job at any moment. Then, when that sense of danger was taken away, there was the danger of getting kicked out of newspapers.

MC: In your latest book, I like your anecdote about "apologizing" for offending people who have the last name "Dork."
Have your ever regretted a strip, though, that you later thought went to far?
SA: There's one comic I regretted, that I pulled back from the pipeline [before it ran]. It wasn't really funny. I wrote it before the
first Gulf War -- Dogbert makes some comment about the first George Bush's wife and her appearance. ... Once we declared war on Iraq, the cartoon suddenly went from crass and tasteless to obscene, thanks to events.

MC: You also say in your book that when the job market and economy are good, that's bad for you as a cartoonist -- that's when your [corporate] snitches dry up. So given recent economic doings, can we look forward to "Dilbert" being as funny as ever?
SA: Yeah, I think it may be another boom time for "Dilbert" -- and I'm not happy about that. My investments have been hurt. ... But if the bus goes into the ravine, as they say, it's good for the undertaker.

By Michael Cavna  | January 29, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Have to say, I really enjoy how Scott Adams takes chances with Dilbert. It's a far more edgy strip than people think. (As a past and present cubie, I know many of the tropes he is serving up raw!)

Keep up the great work, Mr. Adams!

Posted by: dbitt | January 29, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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