If you’ve picked up a newspaper in the last 30 years, you’ve likely seen a “Dilbert” comic strip. Creator Scott Adams’ first edition of the workplace cartoon was published in 1989, and it grew into a cultural phenomenon thanks to its ability to hilariously – and accurately – capture the humdrum of the office milieu.
On Friday’s show, Adams, who is also the author of the new book Reframe Your Brain, joined Megyn to discuss how “Dilbert” evolved into the comic we know and love today, when he knew it was truly successful, and where it is today.
The Origin Story
Adams was working a corporate job at Pacific Bell when the first “Dilbert” comic strip was published. It was in a handful of newspapers at the time, and it wasn’t solely based in the office. “It was not a workplace comic,” he recalled. “It was sort of generic stuff at home. He would hang out with his dog, Dogbert… and sometimes he would be in the office.”
As Adams remembers it, the launch of “Dilbert” in the late eighties and early nineties coincided with people first starting to use email. His email address was published along with the cartoon, and he began hearing from readers. “People would write to me on email – which was brand new then – and would say, ‘I don’t have anybody else to write to on email because I just got email and you’re the only person I know, but I thought I’d give you this advice,’” he said.
While Adams believes people were more interested in corresponding via email than actually talking to him, their “advice” was to write about Dilbert in the office more often because that’s what they enjoyed most. “So, I started putting him in the office and things started to take off,” he said.
When He Knew He Had a Hit
Even before “Dilbert” reached the heights of appearing in some 200-plus newspapers and his 1996 book The Dilbert Principle topped the bestseller list, Adams knew he was onto something.
Once he started focusing more and more on Dilbert at work, Adams would hear from readers who were essentially turning his comic strips into their own DIY books. “People would email me and say, ‘We took your comics, and cut them out, and organized them by topic – like these about marketing, and these about sales, and these about engineering – and created a binder,'” he shared.
While he initially thought it was “weird” that people were memorializing his work in that way, Adams, who has an MBA, said his business background eventually kicked in. “I thought, well, I did go to business school and this is like a little flag telling me something – maybe I should write a book,” he said. “So, I wrote a book and it was a number one bestseller.”
Adams believes that experience holds a lesson that anyone can benefit from. “The way that you can tell that something is going to work is if people take your product in its terrible form – and the early versions of the comic were not very good – and they extend it,” he shared. “That is a guarantee that you’ve got something that’ll work.”
Dilbert’s Second Act
Earlier this year, “Dilbert” was dropped from most publications after comments Adams made about race (you can watch Adams and Megyn discuss the controversy here). He joked that he was 65 years old and “looking for a way to retire” when he experienced the ramifications of cancel culture, and he has been enjoying his own version of retirement since.
In today’s day and age, Adams views retirement as still working every day but “doing stuff you want” with “nobody telling you what to do.” That is why he chose to start publishing “Dilbert” himself on Locals and via subscription on X (formerly known as Twitter). “Now I can make the comic as edgy as I want,” he concluded. “Most people have said it’s the best it’s ever been because I can go places I couldn’t go when I was merely a newspaper cartoonist.”
You can check out Megyn’s full interview with Adams by tuning in to episode 638 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.