It’s said that a writer should write what he knows*. For Scott Adams, a contract at Pacific Bell was an inspiration. The result, Dilbert, was picked up by United Media Syndicates. While the artwork was simplistic, the situations hit home with working readers. Adams based the characters on people he met on his contract. Dilbert is an amalgam of the engineers Adams worked with, while Alice and Wally were based on specific people. Alice was modelled on the lone woman engineer at the firm who felt she had to out-perform the men in all areas**. Wally, that model of corporate laziness, was based on an engineer at PacBell who couldn’t be fired after making a major mistake but was told he’d never be promoted; the engineer turned his intellect towards doing the least amount of work possible.
The strip focused on the day-to-day life of working at an unnamed tech firm and introduced a few terms into the English language. Anyone who has spent time in a large enough company has run into a Pointy-Haired Boss, or PHB, who has absolutely no understanding of what his people or even his department does. When Dilbert isn’t working, he spends his time with Dogbert, a dog with all of Dilbert’s intelligence and none of his morality. Dogbert gets to be the cynical part of Dilbert, saying what Dilbert would only think while abusing people for fun and profit. Meanwhile, Ratbert often represents the general public being abused by Dogbert.
The popularity of the comic strip comes from readers being able to, if not empathize with Dilbert, recognize similar situations in their own lives. Even if they’re not engineers, readers have dealt with PHBs, evil heads of human resources, and lazy co-workers. Dogbert says what many people think but can’t vocalize at work if they want to stay employed. The strip is meant for an adult audience, readers who are or have been in the work force, though people at tech firms get a bit more out of the situations.
In 1999, Scott Adams teamed up with Larry Charles, showrunner for Seinfeld, to create a TV series A live-action series was considered but the ultimate decision was to go with an animated Dilbert. The show aired on the former UPN, now part of The CW Network and lasted two seasons. The animated series had a head start on how the characters would look, thanks to the comic strip, but had a few other concerns to deal with. The first was mouths. In the strip, Dilbert, Dogbert, and Catbert, the evil head of HR, had no mouths. Facial expressions and, for the animals, wagging tails were enough to convey emotions. Word bubbles made it clear who was speaking. In an animated series, though, people expect to hear the characters speak and know which one was speaking through mouth movements. The decision was made to add the mouth when Dilbert, Dogbert, and Catbert were speaking, with the mouth disappearing when they were silent.
The other concern also comes from the characters speaking. Readers would have an idea of what the characters sound like. Even Adams stated as much in one of the DVD extras. The casting search needed to find actors who were, well, not that manly*** and, in Dogbert’s case, would sound like the voice came from a small, egg-shaped, cynical dog. The search resulted with Daniel Stern as Dilbert and Chris Elliot as Dogbert, both of whom fit the characters well.
The series brought in as many of the supporting cast as possible, though Bob the Dinosaur wound up with just a cameo despite appearing in the opening credits. Ted the Generic Guy was replaced in importance by Loud Howard; Howard’s schitck, being loud, was easier to do with an audio track. The episodes tended to focus on Dilbert’s office life, as he dealt with annoyances from Marketing down to the trolls in Accounting, but did highlight his home life and go to Elbonia. All the elements of the comic strip were in the show.
Helping to keep the the series close to the feel of the comic strip was Scott Adams’ involvement. He was listed as a producer and wrote or co-wrote several episodes. Being on UPN also helped; the network needed viewers and wasn’t willing to drive away existing fans by adding a love affair between Alice and Dilbert. The animation allowed Adams to experiment away from the three-panel format of the strip, giving him a chance to try out stories that would take weeks or even months in newspapers. The animation also let the scripts bend and ignore physics as needed.
Dilbert the series lasted two seasons on UPN. While it did well for UPN at first, the schedulers managed to channel the PHB in the second season and placed the show after Shasta McNasty, a series about a three-man rap band whose label goes bust when the band moves to LA. The audience for Shasta was unlike the audience for Dilbert, leading to the end of both shows.
As an adaptation, the animated Dilbert kept the feel of the comic strip. Adams and Charles worked to make sure that the voices fit the characters. The episodes had the mix of whimsy and cynicism found in the comic, and, ignoring the look of the computer equipment, are timeless****. Respect for the fans of the comic could be seen throughout the series.
Next week, Robocop.
* To a degree, it’s true, but it might be better to say that a writer needs to know about what her writes. Otherwise, all that would ever be published are autobiographies and coming of age stories, and that would get dull.
** Sadly, a state of affairs common in engineering due to the heavily male-dominated field.
*** Except for Alice, really.
**** “The Return” is funnier today thanks to the proliferation of online shopping. “Ethics” predated the Diebold voting machines and served as a predictor of the inevitable.