In a 1988 interview, Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed bitterly described what he thought newspaper comic-strip syndicates really wanted: a sitcom strip drawn by a disaffected office worker whose work was simplistic enough to be legible no matter how small comics pages became. The following year, as if on cue, Scott Adams' comic strip Dilbert made its debut. In a featurette on the DVD compilation of the animated TV adaptation of Dilbert, Adams discusses how he turned his soul-sucking office environment into a comic, and how he worked his day job for six more years before that strip became popular enough to support him. But since then, Dilbert has become a marketing and merchandising phenomenon, spawning dozens of books, calendars, and other product lines, as well as the 1999 cartoon adaptation. Surreal and hyperbolic in tone, but still achingly familiar to anyone who's ever worked in corporate America, Dilbert the strip achieved its popularity by mocking common managerial stupidity and illogical corporate policies. Still, in accordance with Breathed's prediction, the strip is simplistic and static, easily reproduced on a shrinking comics page, and too rigid and small-scale to hold viewers' interest over the course of a half-hour TV show. In adapting Dilbert to the screen, Adams and his co-producer, Seinfeld writer-producer Larry Charles, turned some of the strip's one-shot character jokes into series regulars, opened up the action into a much wider field, made the art more three-dimensional and complex without losing the strip's characteristic look, and replaced the setup-punchline dynamic with longer, more elaborate, and significantly more ambitious story arcs. In the process, they lost much of the strip's universality, as they replaced jokes about brainless business-world contradictions with increasingly bizarre plotlines about aliens, mutants, the afterlife, the computer that rules the world, and—in the pilot episode—Dilbert's transformation into a giant chicken. But by not slavishly following the strip's tone and format, they left room for an engagingly weird, fast-paced show that found its own oddball rhythm and quirky sense of humor. A strong stable of familiar character actors (Daniel Stern, Chris Elliott, Larry Miller, Jason Alexander, Maurice LaMarche) helps add characterization to the two-dimensional stars, while smart, low-key, high-concept writing centering as much on attitude as on one-liners helps keep the show fresh over its 30-episode run. At times, Dilbert the TV series seems too dry and restrained to be truly funny; at other times, the characters' restraint is the only thing reining in the stories' excesses. But when it finds a balance, the show is far funnier and more creatively colorful than the strip that spawned it, a surprise that even Breathed likely couldn't have predicted.
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