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The Dilbert Principle; Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook

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The new Michael J. Fox sitcom, Spin City, about a deputy mayor and his government-office cronies, was one of the few hits of the new fall season, but recently the attractive actress who played Fox’s girlfriend left the scene. Carla Gugino found herself out of a job not because she wasn’t pleasant, sexy, charming, etc. — but because the show’s producers decided that they wanted the show to be more of a workplace sitcom and less a romantic comedy.

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Given the inordinate amount of time most of us spend daily in intimate proximity with fellow human beings whose medicine cabinets we don’t share, the workplace — whether defined as a proper office, a classroom, or the coffee shop where friends hang out — all but substitutes these days for a family unit, both in private life as well as in popular culture. (One form of proof: Many of today’s top TV shows, from The Drew Carey Show to ER to NewsRadio, create families out of colleagues.)

In such an era, is it any wonder that the comic-strip tribulations of a mouthless, bespectacled, mushroom-headed drone who, with his coworkers, toils away in anonymous cubicles at the whim of a pointy-haired management-dummy boss have become so hugely popular? In Dilbert, syndicated in 1,400 newspapers in 35 countries, 39-year-old cartoonist Scott Adams, who famously drudged in a cubicle himself at the Northern California headquarters of Pacific Bell for many years, writes about what he knows: the idiocy of bosses, the tyranny of coworkers, and the tiny daily stupidities of office life. Encouraged by a huge response from office workers around the country, Adams gathered a bunch of his observations about useless meetings, low employee morale, and the like, wrote a witty text to frame his strips, and came forth last year with The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle’s-eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management & Other Workplace Afflictions, which rose to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and has remained in the top 10 for 37 weeks. Then he rustled up some more management tips — ostensibly recounted by Dilbert’s scheming canine companion — to make Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook. And once again Adams struck gold. A third book, The Dilbert Future, is due out in May. Fox Broadcasting is working on developing a live-action Dilbert TV show. Additional books, calendars, and spin-off tchotchkes are also under way. (HarperBusiness will publish four more hardcover books in the next five years, and Andrews & McMeel hopes to roll out calendars and softcover collections of strips for the next seven.) And the simply drawn character, with his perpetually curling tie and short-sleeved shirts, has landed on the covers of Newsweek, FORTUNE, and TV Guide in recent weeks.

Is this nebbishy comic-strip hero worth all the adulation? Frankly, yes. In nailing the Kafkaesque world of office existence, with its petty humiliations, meaningless jargon, and spirit-shriveling tedium, Adams captures the lunacy of our little lives just as surely as Pogo or Peanuts or Doonesbury did in their primes. There are echoes of Dave Barry’s ”idiots prevail” philosophy in Adams’ work, and of Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy comics, too (Dilbert’s bizarre superior owes a debt of thanks to Cathy’s boss, Mr. Pinkley).

But in sticking to an office setting, Adams gets to dig deeper than his forebears. (Here’s a pithy example chosen at random from The Dilbert Principle: ”Is it likely that your boss is a visionary who can predict the future even though he can’t operate the computer on his desk?…Or is it more likely that the future isn’t much brighter than your boss?”) Boiling all of human existence down to the relationship between management and workers reduces contemporary life to its psychological essence. ”This isn’t the ‘me’ generation of the eighties,” Dilbert’s boss warns an overworked, outspoken underling in one comic strip included in Dogbert’s. ”This is the ‘lifeless nineties.”’ With Adams around, we can remember to smell the roses every once in a while — or at least implement a feasibility study about the concept.
The Dilbert Principle: A
Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook: A-

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