Dilbert is a popular American comic strip. Written by Scott Adams, the comic is known for its heavily satirical humor about a micromanaged office, featuring an engineer as the title character. The strip has run in newspapers since April 16, 1989, spawning several books, an animated television series, a computer game, and hundreds of Dilbert-themed merchandise items.
The comic strip originally revolved around the engineer Dilbert and his pet dog Dogbert, with most action taking place in their home. Many plots revolved around Dilbert's engineer nature or his bizarre inventions. These alternated with plots based on Dogbert's megalomaniacal ambitions. Later on, the location of most of the action moved to Dilbert's workplace at a large technology company, and the strip started to satirize IT workplace and company issues. The comic strip's popular success is attributable to its workplace setting and themes, which are familiar to a large and appreciative audience.
Dilbert portrays corporate culture as a Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy for its own sake and office politics that stand in the way of productivity, where employees' skills and efforts are not rewarded, and busy work praised. Much of the humor emerges as we see the characters making obviously ridiculous decisions that are natural reactions to mismanagement.
Themes explored include:
- Engineers' personal traits
- Lack of style
- Hopelessness in dating
- Attraction to tools and technological products
- Esoteric knowledge
- Lack of practicality
- Incompetent and sadistic management
- Scheduling without reference to reality
- Failure to reward success or penalize laziness
- Penalising employees for failures caused by bad management
- Failure to improve others' morale, lowering it a lot
- Failure to communicate objectives
- Handling of projects doomed to failure or cancellation
- Sadistic HR policies with flimsy rationale
- Corporate bureaucracy
- Stupidity of the general public
- Third world countries and outsourcing ("Elbonia")
Dilbert is the main character in the comic strip. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an engineer. Although his ideas are typically sensible and revolutionary, they are seldom carried out because of his powerlessness. He is easily frustrated by the incompetence of his co-workers and is often sarcastic and snide. He is perpetually single as a result of his poor social skills.
Dilbert usually has no visible mouth or eyes, and in all but the early strips his tie usually points upward. While Adams has offered no definitive explanation for this, he has explained the tie at least as a further example of Dilbert's lack of power over his environment. A second explanation given by Adams in the Dilbert FAQ is that he is just glad to see you. Adams has also hinted that the tie may be displaying an aversion to him. In more recent strips the mouth has been drawn on occasion when Dilbert is eating, surprised, furious, or nervous, and in the TV series his mouth is drawn when he is speaking. Many of the other "-berts" look very much like he does, with glasses and no mouth (with the exceptions of Ratbert and Catbert).
Although he is Dilbert's pet dog, Dogbert rarely acts like a pet. One of his dreams is to conquer the world and enslave all humans, and he has achieved this status several times through methods such as hypnosis and masquerading. However, he often quickly relinquishes his post due to boredom, if someone foils his chance, or his conviction that people do not deserve to have him as leader due to the ongoing peace that results.
Despite this dislike for humans, he is known to protect and help Dilbert when he falls victim to sinister motives. For example, he has saved him from Mr. Tidy, the robber-disguised-as-a-cleaning-man, by having the dinosaurs flush Mr. Tidy down the toilet, and rescued Dilbert from the trolls in accounting several times.
Dogbert has made many ventures into the business world, often as a consultant who hypes new trends to the Pointy-Haired Boss. In these positions, he typically takes advantage of stupidity and gullibility. For instance, when hired as a consultant to create a new company logo, Dogbert proposed using a piece of paper with a circular stain from his coffee cup as the Brown Ring of Quality, and then charged a large consultancy fee. (The ring may have borne a certain sneaky similarity to the Lucent logo.)
An alter-ego of Dogbert is Saint Dogbert, Dogbert's religious form. Dogbert created this form as a method to eliminate the "demons of stupidity", a group that includes "buzzword-spewers", "clueless morons" and "people who press a button extra to do the job" (Ctrl-Alt-F4-Del, instead of Ctrl-Alt-Del, the soft reboot, for example).
Another alter-ego is Nostradogbert, a parody of Nostradamus. Here, he is a psychic, albeit an evil one. For example, he created a chain e-mail curse that, if read and sent to others, would turn both the reader and sender into a dog, but if that letter wasn't read, the person would die (most people chose the curse over death). His nemesis is John Stossel.
Before the strip was syndicated, Dogbert's name was "Dildog". Editors noted that any printing error obliterating the g in that name would wreak havoc, and the name was changed to Dogbert.
Ratbert (or to his scientist master in the early scripts, XP-39C²) was not originally intended to be a regular, instead being part of a series of strips featuring a lab scientist's cruel experiments. Ratbert soon realized that he was the subject of a hideous macaroni-and-cheese experiment (the scientist made him eat huge amounts of it; he writes in his notebook that it causes paranoia in rats) and escaped, eventually finding a refuge in Dilbert's house. He was not initially accepted by the residents, especially Dilbert, who was highly prejudiced, and closed-minded against rats. However, he finally allowed Ratbert to become a permanent member of the household.
As a simple rat, and having been specially bred to be susceptible to peer pressure, Ratbert is very gullible and innocent. Sometimes, his actions can become quite annoying. Like Dogbert, he has made inroads into business, once working as an intern, a conciere and applying for a position in marketing.
As with Ratbert, Catbert was not a planned regular. In this case, he was introduced for a series involving an attack on Ratbert, who was acting as an optimist. When the two got home (and after Bob shows his stupidity by stomping on Ratbert's head instead of Catbert), Catbert rebooted Dilbert's computer. Dogbert eventually forced him to leave.
Readers of Dilbert enjoyed the character so much that they spontaneously named him "Catbert," encouraging Adams to bring him back. He was reintroduced as the "evil director" of human resources, and in a parody of typical cat behavior he "plays" with his "prey", coming up with sadistic and illogical policies to enforce on the employees. He often works in tandem with the PHB.
The Pointy-Haired Boss (often abbreviated to just PHB) is notable for his gross incompetence and unawareness of his surroundings, yet still retaining power in the workplace. In the Dilbert TV series, and occasionally in the comic strips, he is notably smarter and more actively evil.
The PHB's real name is not known, although in one episode of the TV series he signs for a package using his line dancing pseudonym, "Eunice". Adams has said that this is because it is easier to imagine the PHB as one's own boss when he is not given a name.
The Pointy-Haired Boss is mostly bald, except for sideburns that rise up in points. Scott Adams has admitted that the Boss's odd hair was inspired by devil horns. He used to have jowls at first because Scott wanted the character to look gruff, but the boss ended up looking dumb instead. The transformation of his hair has been a gradual process. In early strips, when he was simply "balding" the Boss was very cruel and uncaring (shocking people with electric belts or wanting them to work 178 hours a week, although there are only 168 hours in a week -- he expected the employees' families to contribute a few hours). However, when the hair reached its current state of outright pointiness, he became a complete imbecile. The Boss is childish, immature, ignorant, and rude, yet also annoyingly cheerful and oblivious to his own actions.
The Boss' family sometimes makes an appearance in the strips, and are frequently present as being as incompetent as him. In 1998, the Boss's son, who hid in the attic for four years instead of attending college, was hired for the company and made VP of marketing due to his complete lack of knowledge. Years later, the Boss’s wife was hired as a receptionist for the company. Both the Boss’s wife and son share his trademarked hairstyle, as do many managers in the comic strips.
The term "pointy-haired boss", or "PHB", has become a generic term for managers who do not understand what their employees do for a living, but try to pretend they do.
Within Dilbert's company the Boss represents middle managment. The corporate CEOs and vice presidents of the firm are constantly changing and are usually minor characters without developed personalities.
Inspired by a co-worker of Adams at Pacific Bell, Wally is a lazy employee always trying to work the system, although he is very capable at his occupation. In Highly Defective People, Adams explained that his co-worker at Pacific Bell wanted to avail of the generous severance packages being offered by the company during a period of downsizing, which were actually better than a potential retirement package; he thus embarked on a mission to get fired. Adams was inspired by this co-worker's serious dedication towards this goal, and the concept of a completely shameless employee with no sense of loyalty became Wally.
Due to his obsession with coffee, Wally's idea of "work" is simply carrying around a cup of the beverage, of which he drinks hundreds of cups a day. He also has a notable lack of hygiene. There is, in fact, a group of people that look like him, which led to Wally once being arrested for impersonating a dead man (and, since he gave the police a fake name, also caused Asok's career to go down the tube). Wally has no feelings for other people around him, so to him, it's okay to irritate people, ask poor Asok for frivolous things during budget requests, and do things at work that are forbidden by policy. For example, he got rid of Dilbert's monitor when company policy asked the employees to get rid of office equipment they never used, since Wally technically never used it; and turned a cubicle into a pool.
Wally's doctor is a veterinarian.
In the animated series, we discover that Wally was once a great programmer. He is used later in the episode to solve the Y2K bug while being hypnotized.
Alice is a hard-working engineer who works with Dilbert. She has copious curly hair, which transformed into a large and distinctive triangular hairstyle when the character became a regular.
Alice is rarely rewarded for her hard work, although she was for a time the highest paid engineer in the company. She stands in contrast with Wally, who does no work and is rewarded nearly the same. Alice also suffers all the problems of being a female engineer. She has no tolerance for the discrimination she experiences. As a working mother she is likewise often frustated by the lack of compassion shown by her co-workers.
Alice has a short temper. Her anger is frequently expressed in physical violence, and she is known for her "fist of death". In the past she has, among other things, kicked an Elbonian into his own hat, and once slapped a man so hard he travelled backwards in time.
Asok (pronounced "ah-shook") is a brilliant IIT graduate and an intern in Dilbert's company. The character is named after a friend and co-worker of Adams' at Pacific Bell.
Asok often solves difficult problems in a few keystrokes, but he is still naïve to the cruelties and politics of the business world. As a result, he often ends up being the scapegoat for his coworkers' antics. Despite the fact that he has completed five years as an intern (as of 2004) and performed the functions of a senior engineer, Asok has been denied permission to be a regular employee and the usage of company resources for his work.
Asok is also trained to sleep only on national holidays, a trait that he allegedly carried over from his alma mater.
Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light
Phil serves as ruler of heck and punishes people for minor infractions not worthy of damnation in hell, such as using copier paper for the printer or stealing a chair from another cubicle (both of which Dilbert has done). He also serves as manager of limbo, which in the strip is a subsidiary of heck. He is the PHB's younger brother, though this is rarely mentioned.
Originally, Scott Adams planned to have Satan become a regular member of the Dilbert cast, but eventually softened the character after suggestions by his editor. Instead of a pitchfork, he carries a spoon, and has a tail with a rounded end (although Adams has "forgotten" about this once or twice). Instead of damning people to eternal flames he darns them, as in "I darn you to heck." On occasion, he also wears a cape.
The Elbonians are the residents of a fictional fourth-world country that appears in the comic strip, named Elbonia. The country is presumably in Eastern Europe and is said to be a newly developing nation which has only recently embraced capitalism. Most of the nation is covered with waist-deep mud. Adams created the country in order to allow for a "foreign" aspect in Dilbert without using any specific location, in order to avoid a backlash by readers who may be from that region. Dilbert's company often uses Elbonia as a source of cheap labor and general outsourcing.
Almost all of the Elbonians have beards (even the females), tall hats, and mittens. Their technology is very outdated: "phones" are actually cans attached to the ends of strings and the means of "air transportation" (the sub-par Air Elbonia) is flinging people from a giant slingshot (something Dilbert hates to do because he loses his luggage and gets head-deep into mud). Elbonians are commonly portrayed as idiotic and backward, yet the PHB seems to approve of outsourcing programming or documentation tasks to them. For many years the country has been mired in a civil war between the left- and right-handed Elbonians.
Some strips reference a "North Elbonia" which is Communist and appears to be loosely based on North Korea.
A spinoff comic strip called Plop follows the life of an Elbonian with no hair, which is a rare trait.
- The World's Smartest Garbageman - Philosopher and scientist. Sometimes solves extremely complex problems for Dilbert.
- Dilbert's Mom - Homely but intelligent. Often openly uncaring towards her son.
- Dilbert's Dad - An unseen character in the comic strip (although he appears in the animated series) who lives at the all-you-can-eat restaurant because he hasn't eaten all he can eat.
- Bob, Dawn, and Rex, the Dinosaurs - Not extinct, just (usually) hiding; Bob issues wedgies to the deserving, and is often a lackey in Dogbert's schemes. He told Dilbert he was a Thesaurus, although admitted it was a joke. Dawn claims to be a "nobodysaurus", and since Rex is their son, Bob is presumably of the same species as Dawn.
- Carol - The PHB's misanthropic and bitter secretary
- Tina - The brittle tech writer, feminist. Once had a crush on Dilbert.
- Stan - The all-too-slick marketer. Temporarily turned into a weasel by the power of suggestion.
- Ming - Webmistress. Once dated Mordac.
- Mordac - Preventer of Information Technology. Once dated Ming.
- Ted - The Generic Guy.
- Hammerhead Bob - Summoner and buttinski of long, boring conversations.
- Trolls - Sadistic trolls from the accounting department whose bodies are 95% saliva.
- Loud Howard - Another coworker who, despite appearing in only one comic strip, became a regular character in the TV series.
- Zimbu - A monkey who humiliates Dilbert and Wally by constantly outperforming them. Adept at programming with his tail.
- Bottleneck Bill - Shaped like a bottle and true to his namesake, believes that "anything worth doing is worth delaying".
Dilbert in popular culture
The popularity of the comic strip within the corporate sector has led to the character of Dilbert being used in many business magazines and publications (he has made several appearances on the cover of Fortune).
The Toronto Star and San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, run the comic in the business section, separate from other comics, which together have their own section. This is done in much the same manner that Doonesbury is now often carried only in the editorial section due to its pointed commentary.
It is the basis of a popular (though unproven) theory suggesting that the morale at a given workplace is the inverse of the number of Dilbert comic strips taped and posted at various desks and cubicles. A larger number of Dilbert comic strips reflects general frustration with the bureaucratic administration at the company, whereas a generally satisfied workforce sees less identification with the character of Dilbert, and consequently fewer Dilbert comic strips are displayed as mementoes. An office with no Dilbert strips, however, does not necessarily have high morale — rather, it may indicate that a truly authoritarian administration has prohibited employees from displaying them.
The adoption of Dilbert as an icon for corporate America has led to Scott Adams being criticized in some circles for allowing his creation to be adopted and embraced by the very same corporate world he was rebelling against when he created the strip.
Terms invented by Adams in relation to the strip, and sometimes used by fans in describing their own office environments, include "Induhvidual." This term is based on an American English expression "duh!". The conscious misspelling of individual as induhvidual is a pejorative term for people who are not in the DNRC (Dogbert's New Ruling Class). Its coining is explained in Dilbert Newsletter #6 (http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert/dnrc/html/newsletter06.html).
The strip has also popularized the usage of the terms "cow-orker" and PHB.
Some fans have used "Dilbertian" to analogize situations in real life to those in the comic strip.
In 1997 Scott Adams masqueraded as a management consultant to Logitech executives, with the cooperation of the company's vice-chairman. He acted in much the way he portrays management consultants in the comic strip, with an arrogant manner and bizarre suggestions, such as comparing mission statements to broccoli soup. He convinced the executives to replace their existing mission statement for their New Ventures Group, "to provide Logitech with profitable growth and related new business areas", with "to scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings".
In order to demonstrate what can be achieved with the most mundane objects if planned correctly and imaginatively, Adams has worked with companies to develop "dream" products for Dilbert and company. In 2001 he collaborated with IDEO, a design company, to come up with the "perfect cubicle", a fitting creation since many of the Dilbert strips make fun of the standard cubicle desk and the environment it creates. The result was both whimsical and practical.
This project was followed in 2004 with designs for Dilbert's Ultimate House (abbreviated as DUH). An energy-efficient building resulted, designed to prevent many of the little niggles which seem to creep into a normal building. For instance, to spare time from having to buy and decorate a Christmas tree every year, the house has a large yet inapparent closet adjacent to the living room where the tree can be stored for later holiday seasons.
Compilations of newspaper strips
- Always Postpone Meetings with Time-Wasting Morons — April 16 (first strip) to October 21, 1989
- Shave the Whales — October 22, 1989 to August 4, 1990
- Bring Me the Head of Willy the Mailboy! — October 5, 1990 to May 18, 1991
- It's Obvious You Won't Survive By Your Wits Alone — May 19, 1991 to December 13, 1992
- Still Pumped from Using the Mouse — December 14, 1992 to September 27, 1993
- Fugitive From the Cubicle Police — September 28, 1993 to February 11, 1995
- Casual Day Has Gone Too Far — February 5 to November 19, 1995
- I'm Not Anti-Business, I'm Anti-Idiot — November 20, 1995 to August 31, 1996
- Journey to Cubeville — September 1, 1996 to January 18, 1998
- Don't Step in the Leadership — January 12 to October 18, 1998
- Random Acts of Management — October 19, 1998 to July 25, 1999
- Excuse Me While I Wag — July 26, 1999 to April 30, 2000
- When Did Ignorance Become A Point Of View? — May 1, 2000 to February 4, 2001
- Another Day In Cubicle Paradise — February 5 to November 11, 2001
- When Body Language Goes Bad — November 12, 2001 to August 18, 2002
- Words You Don't Want to Hear During Your Annual Performance Review — August 19, 2002 to May 25, 2003
- Don't Stand Where the Comet is Assumed to Strike Oil — May 26, 2003 to February 29, 2004
- Seven Years of Highly Defective People: Scott Adams' Guided Tour of the Evolution of Dilbert — 1997; A grab bag of strips from 1989 to 1996, with handwritten notes by Scott Adams
- Dilbert Gives You the Business — 1999
- A Treasury of Sunday Strips: Version 00 — 1999; Color version of all Sunday strips published in newspapers from 1995 through 1999 (typical compilations have black and white Sunday strips)
- What Do You Call A Sociopath In A Cubicle? Answer: A Coworker — A compilation of select comic strips from 1989 to 2001
- It's Not Funny If I Have To Explain It — 2004; Another grab bag of strips from 1997-2004, with Adams' handwritten notes, again
Animated series episode guide
(name followed by the production number)
Dilbert animated series, episode 212
- The Name - 101
- The Competition - 103
- The Prototype - 102
- The Takeover - 106
- Testing - 104
- Elbonian Trip - 105
- Tower of Babel - 108
- Little People - 107
- The Knack - 110
- Y2K - 109
- Charity - 111
- Holiday - 112
- The Infomercial - 113
- The Gift - 201
- The Shroud of Wally - 202
- Art - 203
- The Trial - 204
- The Dupey - 205
- The Security Guard - 206
- The Merger - 207
- Hunger - 208
- The Off-Site Meeting - 209
- The Assistant - 210
- The Return - 211
- The Virtual Employee - 212
- Pregnancy - part 1 - 213
- The Delivery - part 2 of Pregnancy - 214
- Company Picnic - 215
- The Fact - 216
- Ethics - 217
- Official Dilbert website (http://www.dilbert.com)
- Comedy Central's Dilbert site (http://www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows/dilbert)
- Website for Dilbert's Desktop Games, by DreamWorks Interactive (http://www.dreamworksgames.com/Games/dilbert/)
- Dilbert in "BSA Engineers" propaganda (http://www.bsaengineers.com/)
- Complete list of Dilbert characters (http://www.triviaasylum.com/dilbert/diltriv.html)
- A detailed treatment of the word "Induhvidual" (http://www.logophilia.com/WordSpy/induhvidual.asp)
- Searchable archive of text from Dilbert strips (http://www.bfmartin.ca/finder/)
- Dilbert Creator Fools Executives (http://www.mit.edu/~jcb/humor/scott-adams-mgmt-consultant)