Mike Rowe next to venting gas on torch bottles at Cash's Scrap Metal in St. Louis during one of the episodes of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel.
"Dirty Jobs" Episode Medical Waste. Mike Rowe.
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He is best known as the host of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" show, but Mike Rowe has also been an opera singer with the Baltimore Opera and on-air salesman for QVC. He continues to work as voice-over actor and appears in commercials for Ford Motor Co., Viva paper towels and his own line of Dirty Jobs cleaning products. He will be hosting a retrospective of "Dirty Jobs" on Destination America Saturday mornings at 9 a.m.
Where are you?
I'm in San Francisco. I have to say I love Pennsylvania. The whole state has been very good to "Dirty Jobs." We did a job outside of Pittsburgh. It must have been five or six years ago. It was at a coke plant. It was probably about the crapiest day we had on the whole show. A man was cut in half right before we arrived in one of those giant steel oven doors. It was such a tragedy. Nobody knew how to behave. Nobody knew what to do. I love the three rivers, don't get me wrong, but geez that was a rough day.
You do a cute commercial with your parents for paper towels. Are you an only child?
[Laughing] No, I'm the oldest of three boys. It's actually been one of the best things for me. I hadn't seen them in a long time and concluded the only way to fix that was to hire them.
So were you always the favorite?
[Laughing] I'm pretty sure I'm not their favorite. The middle son turned out to be much more traditional, you know, giving them grandchildren and living a neatly ordered life as an engineer in Florida. The youngest is as unpredictable as me, just in a totally different way. So yeah, they've got certainty in the middle and confusion on both ends.
You filmed "Dirty Jobs" without a script.
I don't believe, with the exception of look back specials, we ever did a second take. One of the things I wanted to do early on was to keep it as authentic as we could. We work so hard at building all these barriers to having an authentic experience. It's almost impossible. You can really see it between Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend and Beyonce lip syncing there isn't any real connected sense of actuality. On "Jobs" you are going to see what we see. It's not big-production storytelling. It is fly-on-the-wall verite, honest exploratory work.
You are very talented at off-the-cuff commentary. Is that a skill you've always had?
It's nice of you to call it a skill. My approach to TV, after I was fired from QVC for the third time in 1993, which by the way was the best training ground you could ever have, was to do it with the idea in mind [that] you are home with your friends watching it. With "Dirty Jobs" that really was kind of the mandate. We ended up calling it the truth cam. No matter what went wrong on the scene, whether it was a technical issue or just something wildly inappropriate, you could always turn to the truth cam and tell the viewer what was going on.
You seemed to stay away from controversial things like slaughterhouses or factory farms, so how did you choose the occupations?
We really didn't stay away from those things. The main reason is I wanted the show to be fundamentally a celebration of work and humor combined. Too often hard work is portrayed as drudgery. I suspected there was a lot of humor on the work site. In fact, sometimes, the grimmer the job, the better the sense of humor just out of necessity. But to answer your question, I had about 30 or 40 jobs in mind when we started that I thought would be good. This was a tribute to my granddad by the way. He had all these jobs, and that is how the show came about before he passed away. The network wanted more, so that is when I started begging at the end of every show for people to send in ideas. [Laughing] The minute that started happening, we were overwhelmed.
The list on your website of the jobs you've done is amazing
We did over 300. If it wasn't for my right knee and my attitude, we probably would've done 3,000.
Your job has allowed you so much access to people, places and situations. Are you addicted to that rush, the constant change?
I'm not an adrenaline freak. I don't enjoy heightened levels of risk. I'm fairly average in that way. It's odd. You really can get addicted to anything. The thing I got addicted to with "Dirty Jobs" was working with perfectly managed expectations. By that I mean the viewer understood to expect very, very little from me in the way of an actual competency or performance. This is my first day on the job every single day. It's Groundhog Day in the sewer.
It's difficult in TV to maintain because people work so hard in this industry to appear smarter then they are, prettier than they are and more competent than they actually are. I got addicted to not wanting to own the information or the knowledge. That is up to the person [we are working with]. I was really never a host on the show. I was a guest. The people we met were the hosts. The people we watched were the programmers, and I basically just held on for dear life.
What is the average salary for the jobs you did?
It's really tough. It's a really good question, though, because at a glance a lot of people would look at the show and say what we are celebrating here is the willingness to get dirty and hard manual labor, and by the way those jobs don't set the world on fire -- $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a year. You know, a decent sewage worker in a good size metropolis can make a lot more than that. It's all over the map. However, the thing people forget, or don't notice, is we featured 30 or 40 multimillionaires. You would just never know it because they are covered in crap or worse.
I think of this guy up in Maine pulling bloodworms out of the mud at low tide. This is a guy [that] if you passed him on the street you would probably give him a buck and say a little prayer of thanks that you are not him. I found myself feeling sorry for him. It's backbreaking work. I learned he paid for both of his homes in cash with money from pulling bloodworms. I learned this having a margarita by his pool. This guy is in on the joke. He is laughing all the way to the bank.
You've said that the people who do these jobs seem happier than many of the lawyers and bankers you have met.
I hate to generalize, but it's true. I don't want to put anyone in a box, but after a hundred of these things you can kind of step back and look at it as a kind of control group. The answer to that is a 400-page book I can't seem to finish. But your point is the big question: What do people with dirty jobs know that we don't? In a really general way, the answer is balance. The answer is completion.
So has higher education been over-glorified? Parents wanted their children to do better and not dig ditches or paint bridges.
It's bad math. It's normal and natural, and I completely understand the desire to want something better for your kids, but really how much better does it get for a lot of us? Fifty years ago, college needed a PR campaign and it got one. But it went too far, and college became the solution at the expense of all other roads. And now all other roads to knowledge are called alternative. I mean good God! We've turned so many dirty jobs into vocational consolation prizes. It's not that college is bad, of course not. It's great. If you ignore scholarships, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, you do it at your peril.
As an Eagle Scout and a big supporter of the Boy Scouts of America, what are your thoughts on them being more inclusive?
[Laughing] Yeah, that's not political at all, is it? The careful answer is, because I hate to generalize, I can't speak about the Boy Scouts' entire organization. I can only tell you what happened to me in my troop in Baltimore when I was 12 through 17. It absolutely changed my life. My troop was run by a former drill instructor and then a former police detective. It was almost paramilitary. It was very strict. There were a lot of kids in the troop who needed discipline. Frankly, I don't think I did, but I got it anyway. I was better for it. I went in shy, backward, stuttering, stammering and basically frightened of the world. I came out thinking anything, truly anything, was possible. I can't say anything bad about that.
I can't speak for the organization. I just know what happened to me, and without it I doubt seriously that we would be talking.
Membership is down from the peak years, much like skilled laborers.
The country needs the Boy Scouts, in my opinion. The country needs Future Farmers of America and Skills USA. Those are the three biggest youth organizations in the world. I do what I can with all of them. The Boy Scouts gave me a distinguished Eagle Award about seven months ago. I was actually humbled, and I don't use that word a lot. I am very unsentimental, and I wept. You are right. There is disconnect in the world, certainly in the country right now, about the definition of a good job and what it means to have meaningful work, and those organizations talk about those things head-on. They encourage individuality and self-reliance, and historically they have all encouraged consequences.
I get it. They are easy targets, kind of like the Catholic Church in some ways. So it is easy to take a shot, but it is also easy for forget the positive effect of those organizations on the country. I would think twice before we start disassembling them.