Listen to Podcast of Tom Stern discussing CEO Dad.
Drawing a Life
Tom Stern has set out to create the next Dilbert. Can he do it? Here's his story.
by Ryan Underwood
Vaughn Meader, a comic who made an unfortunately brief career of doing impressions of John F. Kennedy, used to have a bit in which he would play President Kennedy eating dinner at home with his family. Suddenly, a question would come from off-camera, and Meader, as Kennedy, would shoot up from his chair, create a makeshift podium at the table, and carry out family business much as JFK would preside over one of his famous press conferences. (Something to the tune of, “On the questions of going, er, horseback riding this weekend, ah, Caroline, I say let’s move forward!”)
Meader’s bit about the Kennedy family was a hilarious take on how the great and powerful might deal with the humble and mundane details of life. Fast-forward two generations, and you’ll find the same tension fueling a new comic strip from Tom Stern, a part-time executive recruiter who says he’s out to create the next Dilbert.
Stern’s CEO Dad is Frank Pitt, an executive who rules the roost at the office but is cut down to size at home by two sharp-witted kids and a quietly omnipotent wife. He comically stumbles his way through fatherhood the best way he knows how: by treating it like a business. The only problem is that it’s hard to downsize the wife and kids – much to CEO Dad’s chagrin – whenever the going gets rough.
Thanks to corporate scandals lingering in the headlines, coupled with a growing anxiety about balancing work and family, Stern’s strip has raised some important eyebrows recently. For starters, Creators Syndicate, the home of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, formally launched CEO Dad in January, and already seven papers, including The Seattle Times and The Denver Post, have bought the strip. According to those in the business, that’s a blockbuster opening in the arcane world of comic-strip economics. Dilbert itself languished for its first couple of years with only about 35 newspapers, and took several years to build up to 100. Today, the strip runs in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries, and Scott Adam’s cube-dwelling dweeb has spawned a cottage industry.
Even before getting a syndication deal, Stern managed to snare CEO Dad a mention (and a panel) in Sue Shellenbarger’s popular “Work & Family” column in The Wall Street Journal, as well as a small item (and strip) in Forbes. More recently, Stern has started doing commentary for Public Radio International’s business show Marketplace, whose producers have asked him to develop some CEO Dad skits to be performed on the air. An appearance on Ed McMahon’s national talk-radio program led the über sidekick to promise that he would discuss the idea of turning CEO Dad into a television show with Aaron Spelling over dinner.
And if ambition is what it will take to make CEO Dad the next Dilbert, Stern, 48, has it. He’s an in-your-face, relentless marketer who doesn’t take no for an answer. Overwhelmingly controlling, he can come across as a pest in the service of getting what he wants. A longtime friend says Stern once talked his way onto Jerry Seinfeld’s private plane and then told Seinfeld all the things that were wrong with his act. “I mean, here’s Tom Stern, who’s made all of $9 over his lifetime in comedy, telling Seinfeld what he’s doing wrong,” the friend marvels. As Stern puts it, “I’m a recovering narcissist – but I haven’t fully recovered yet.”
Stern, who lives in a gated McMansion with his wife and two daughters in the hills just outside Los Angeles, made “many millions of dollars” as a headhunter throughout the 1990s, though he says it’s not from his own professional experience that he draws inspiration for the strip. CEO Dad comes mainly from Stern’s own childhood on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Alfred R. Stern, Tom’s father and ostensibly the model for the CEO character, made his fortune as a pioneer in the cable-television industry in the late 1960s.
But Stern’s CEO lineage stretches back even further. His great-grandfather was Julius Rosenwald, the man who in the early 1900s helped build Sears, Roebuck & Co. into a retailing behemoth. (Tom keeps Rosenwald’s old pocket watch with him.) In short, Stern has spent most of his life boxing the shadows cast by his powerful father and great-grandfather. Stern says his father just wasn’t able to connect with him in a loving, human, fatherly way. In other words, he ran the household as he did corporate headquarters – the core of what CEO Dad is all about.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m this poor little rich kid who had it so rough,” Stern says. “But comedy is what got me through my childhood, and I want to return to that.”
Stern spent the early part of his career in the brutal world of stand-up, first as a comedian, then as a manager. He made connections with such giants as Seinfeld and Jay Leno, but as with so many others in the biz, his act never quite caught on. (As one comedian friend of Stern’s put it, “It was hard for a room full of plumbers to laugh at jokes about the problems of growing up superrich.”)
Abandoning the impecunious life of a struggling comic, Stern turned to executive recruiting. By the mid-1990s, he was racking up commissions as an independent recruiter, courtesy of one of the most severe labor shortages the United States has ever faced.
When the economy tanked in 2001, Stern had already pocketed plenty of money and was ready for a new challenge that would allow him to spend more time with his family. The idea for the strip hit him one night at a dinner party he threw for several friends. Someone asked what his father was like, and Stern blurted out, “Well, he’s kind of a CEO dad.” The quip got some laughs, so he tried it out on other people who reacted the same way.
His original notion was to create a cartoon as marketing collateral for his executive-search business. He hired an artist to draw panels for all the gags he’d come up with, such as the kids having to vie for a corner bedroom, making allowance requests with PowerPoint, and listening to LBO-themed bedtime stories. Before long, thought, CEO Dad evolved beyond marketing material into the new adventure Stern has been seeking.
But to have any shot at becoming the next Scott Adams, Stern needed more than just a knack for promotion and an ironic take on growing up with his distant father. John Newcombe, Creator’s director of comic development who picked CEO Dad from a pile of unsolicited submissions, told Stern that to get a syndication deal, he’d have to fix the strip’s lousy artwork.
Using his family’s friendship with the famous photographer Richard Avedon, Stern found his way into the stable of cartoonists at The New Yorker. From there, he was introduced to C. Covert Darbyshire, a young artist and aspiring comedy writer. As a bonus, Darbyshire had also served a tour of duty in pharmaceuticals sales, so he had a good eye for business humor. After some wining and dining (not to mention guaranteed minimum payments and a cut of future profits), Stern hired Darbyshire to draw CEO Dad from his home in Austin, Texas.
“I’d say he’s like Larry David, and I’m like Jerry Seinfeld,” Darabyshire says, alluding to one of the duo’s favorite cultural references, Seinfeld. “Tom comes up with the big ideas, like Larry did, while I execute and add a little bit of polish like Jerry.”
Once Creators saw Darbyshire’s art paired with Stern’s words, the syndication deal was clinched. But even syndication is only one small step in a much longer, grueling process. Dilbert creator Adams says that anyone with above-par material can get a syndication deal; it’s what happens after a strip launches that really matters. “I had a hunch about what was happening in the early 1990s, like with downsizing, Adams says. “Luckily for me, I create d Dilbert at right about the same time the media wanted to put a face on what was happening in the office.”
Could CEO Dad’s timing be right, too? Cynthia Nash,The Seattle Times’ director of content development who has one of the first to pick up the strip as a test comic, says the trick to having a good comics page is getting the right mix of topics. “I think CEO Dad has a huge resonance with modern families,” she says. “There are lots of people, both men and women, who are fully engaged with work but who still want to play and important role in the family. I think this strip tackles those issues in a very charming way.”
Newcombe offers a bit more caution in his assessment of CEO Dad’s chances. “It’s typical that we don’t recoup any money on a comic strip for five years or so,” he says, adding that Charles Schulz’ Peanuts, the gold standard for comic strips, took many years to get off the ground and might not have lasted long enough to make it in today’s market.
For his part, Stern remains confidently undaunted. "I'll go down swinging till there's no more bat in my hand!" he booms, startling the other patrons enjoyong their meals at a small trattoria near is house in Woodland Hills, California. Of course, there's just one caveat to that vow: Unlike CEO Dad, he'll call it quits early if his family asks him to.