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Dilbert author reveals his theory of humor

Humor in the Workplace
Scott Adams.
Lecture Series Committee.
Room 26-100.
Nov. 1.

By John Jacobs

Staff Reporter

My friends and I were shocked to see Scott Adams's picture in The Tech before his lecture. Except for his glasses, he looks nothing like Dilbert. Our next question was, is he as funny in person as in his comic strip? We weren't disappointed there, either. His lecture was more than funny, it was fascinating. It was definitely the best lecture we'd ever seen in 26-100. It was intimate, personal, and much more.

He began the lecture by talking about his beginnings. He started out innocently enough -- by doodling. He showed us some of his first drawings of Dilbert and Dildog (not too much later to be known as Dogbert), and explained the evolution of the characters. Dilbert, as we might have suspected, is based on someone in Adams's real life, but someone whose identity Adams wouldn't even hint at. While Adams knows no dog like Dogbert, the character has evolved into a character who says what Adams wants to say, but won't, wary of the social retribution. (When you think about it, you realize a dog can say what he wants to.) Adams showed us "the letter that changed [his] life," a letter of support from someone already in the cartooning industry, which he received after he'd given up and gotten an MBA and his present job at Pacific Bell. Adams relapsed, and not long after, got his break.

From there, he went on to discuss his "formula for humor." We scientific types might have guessed that it was that easy. But it isn't -- Adams' formula is simply his strategy for avoiding writer's block. For the first frame, he simply throws one of his characters into a setting. In the second and third frames, he uses his "theory" on humor, which he talked about later, to embellish some logical progression, and in the fourth, he twists on that progression, making the reader laugh. The point is, he doesn't necessarily know where he's going with a strip until he's done.

Adams discussed his theory of humor. For example, most people find jokes funny that are at the expense of stupid people (who don't even know they've been made fun of), bosses, rich people, royalty, or elected officials. Most aren't willing to laugh at senior citizens, or disabled people. We laugh at humans acting greedy, petty, or vain. We don't think anything is funny about love or hate. Something is humorous, according to Adams' theory (and he's doing pretty well with it), when it's bizarre, cute, mean, clever, naughty, or recognizable. A strip must have at least two of these characteristics to be successful, but the more, the merrier.

He shared some of his fan mail with us, showed us some of his comic-strip blunders and some strips the syndicate wouldn't run because there are too many people out there who take things much too seriously, who can also read a newspaper. He humorously talked about little nuances of his second career; he still works his day job, partly because it provides him with material. When he opened the floor to questions from the MIT community, they embarrassed me by asking really bad ones. Whoever said that there's no such thing as a bad question lived a pretty humiliating life. None of the questioners seemed to mind, though, even when Adams wittily replied at their expense. The good questions had interesting answers. For instance, there's no reason gravity doesn't apply to Dilbert's tie. Adams simply thought Dilbert looked ridiculous with a straight tie. Adams demonstrated on the overhead and, sure enough, the way Adams draws it, Dilbert looks .<\f>.<\f>.<\f>well, not very funny. "People also ask me why Dilbert doesn't have a mouth," he said. He proceeded to draw a mouth on him, and, again, it just didn't look right. (If you want to see the overhead, I have it. Unless Adams starts drawing Dilbert with a mouth and a straight tie, it will be worth something someday.)

What strikes me about the success of Scott Adams is that he is one of the first of a new breed of writer. He has the ability to blend the classic elements of humor into a single strip. He is a pioneer of a relatively new art form. He is well-adapted to the media of a new generation, a media of sound bites and short attention spans, a media that gets a bad rap because it's frequently misused. Adams is showing us how it should be done. Also, he makes us laugh. May he live to be a thousand (unless he gets senile).