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Posted at 10:43 AM ET, 07/16/2008

Dirty Job: Catching Up With Mike Rowe


It's all a blur for Mike Rowe. He set out to make a living for himself on the fringes of TV -- a local home show hosting gig here, a voice-over there -- with at least six months off each year. But almost two decades after he first wowed QVC audiences and local D.C. area househunters, the host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" is a certified cable superstar -- beloved by an adoring public that either wants to be him or be with him.

Fans crowd Discovery channel message boards to talk about the guy, MySpace abounds with dozens of Rowe-related pages: "Mike Rowe for President" and "Hot 4 Mike Rowe" among them. And one only need to a quick Google search to find legions of blog-enabled fans professing an often scary devotion for the guy.

Is it Rowe's boyish good looks, his raw machismo, his charm or his ability to make the mundane seem like the coolest thing going that keeps us coming back? What is it about this guy? In an attempt to find out more, I talked to Rowe last Friday about Shark Week (July 27 - Aug. 2), the inspiration for "Dirty Jobs," his new appreciation for hard work and his campaign to rehab the working man (and woman's) image and, finally, where he comes down on the flat front vs. pleated debate.

Liz Kelly: My readers have been clamoring for me to interview you for a while, so many of the questions today are coming directly from them.

Mike Rowe: I love it that they "clamor." You know, it's a good word and should be used more.

Liz: I'm guessing that you're in the midst of getting ready for Shark Week?

Mike: Well, Shark Week for my purposes is over. A couple of the big shows on the network each did an hour this year. A few years ago we did three hours, but this year we're just doing one. So that's a long way of saying I shot all I'm going to shoot for it a month ago, up near Greenland of all places.

Liz: Greenland? Tell me more...

Mike: Yeah. Me slowly freezing to death. It's funny. I hate to do anything twice, which is why I like "Dirty Jobs" so much. Every day is kind of different. And when Shark Week came around this year they said it'd be great if I could go back to Australia or South Africa, but I felt like it's always the Great Whites and the Tigers and the Hammerheads that get all the press and I thought it might be fun -- in the same way that "Dirty Jobs" celebrates anonymous, unknown people -- if we went after an anonymous, unknown shark.

So, we did some research and found out that the Greenland Shark is this big, slow-moving creature that is just now starting to be studied. Nobody knows much about them except that they live under all the ice of the Arctic ocean. So, rather than the sun and the sand and the fun, we somehow got to a little town about 10 miles this side of the Arctic circle and met some local Inuit people and scientists and started digging holes in ice and looking for Greenland shark. It was 25 below zero and an amazing little adventure.

Read the rest of the interview after the jump...

Liz: Well, that sounds like fun.

Mike: Very cool, except somebody cut the line and we ended up having to spend a night on the ice. I don't even know how cold it got. It was almost two months ago and I'm still not entirely thawed out.

Liz: You mentioned that "Dirty Jobs" is a good fit because you like to do something different every day. Is that brilliance of mind or ADD?

Mike: A little of both and some serendipity. I've been in the TV business for a long time and I didn't get into it because I was motivated by the same levels of money and fame as a lot of people. I got into it because it let me have six, seven months off a year. It was a fun way to work and still have a life. I was a perpetual freelancer and I pitched "Dirty Jobs" to Discovery because I was trying to get them to hire me as their specials guy -- the guy they send to Everest, to the Titanic, to Egypt, whatever. And to help launch it they wanted three hours of something specific and different from me.

So I pitched them this idea called "Somebody's Gotta Do It" that I'd actually been doing for a couple of months up in San Diego San Francisco for CBS. And "Somebody's Gotta Do It" was a tribute to my father and grandfather -- mainly my grandfather, who was one of those guys who was born hardwired to do any mechanical thing. He built the house I was born in without a blueprint. I was just in awe of the guy -- he built my first car, stone mason, steamfitter, architect, brick layer.

He just knew how to do it. He lived next to us and all my life I grew up with he and my dad doing that stuff. And the sad truth is I didn't get the gene. I'm not that guy. I want to be and I can fake it, but I'm not authentically that. So, I ran into entertainment to escape all of that. When I made the deal with Discovery, this was a throwaway, just three shows to launch this other larger deal. And I really did it just to shut my dad up for a while. He'd been making fun of my career for 15 years and I thought, "OK dad, here's a look at some of the jobs you used to do. Now we can all drink a beer and have a big group hug and that'll be that."

Then everybody watched and started writing in with stories about their grandfather and dad and their mom and I started to really look at the show thematically and realized there's a lot going on with the country right now and people. The way we looked at certain jobs had really changed over the years. And I thought it might be fun, if not good for my character, just to put my head down for a few years. So that's what I've been doing.

Liz: A lot of readers remember you from the new home shows you did on local TV in the D.C. area.

Mike: A great example.

Liz: So they wanted me to ask you if you knew of any new housing developments in the Silver Spring area.

Mike: Luckily, I'm a little out of step with the current market vagaries on the Eastern Seaboard.

That show was called "Your New Home" and was something I did in the early '90s really just to pay the rent and is a good example of the kinds of jobs I used to do. And it was beautiful. I could do a year's worth in two weeks. I'd come in for a couple of weeks, then maybe go to another market and do something similar, then do a talk show with Dick Clark or Joan Rivers, narrate something -- that was all I did for the year.

That thing [Your New Home] ended up staying on the air for 15 years with me in it and the last 12 were just mainly out of loyalty because the people who did it were friends and I didn't want to leave them in the lurch.

Liz: Twelve years? That's really big of you.

Mike: Well, you know what, I'm a giver, Liz. And for two weeks at a time I can hold my nose and get through anything.

Liz: Okay, so here's a question: You're a superstar now because of your work on Discovery -- in fact some of my readers ask me if you're Discovery's only employee -- but, it really got me to thinking: Is Hollywood beating down your door? Is acting in your future? A book in the works? What's going on?

Mike: Look, people know me as a fairly light-hearted, fun-loving guy -- and I am. But, the last couple of years have really been very instructive for me because like I said I was never properly seduced by Hollywood because even though I lived there for a while I was never looking for a hit. I was never even looking for a show. But I would always do a lot of pilots and sniffed around.

But to answer your question, yeah. I've had meetings with every network. They've all called and to be polite I've talked to them. There are some book deals, sure. There's speaking. I go around the country a lot and talk to Fortune 500 companies about how work has changed and how we've made it the enemy and what that has done to us. Some fairly heavy themes. But I also tell stories about exploding toilets and artificial vaginas and misadventures and animal husbandry and all that.

So I guess the answer to that is sure, I guess I've passed on some opportunities that a few years ago I would have slobbered all over. But the truth is I absolutely love this job and I wish I didn't have to do so many, but this is exactly what I ordered and I'm happy living on the edges of all that.

Liz: Anything you want to share that we might be surprised to hear you'd passed on?

Mike: Well, you know what, out of respect to the guys who didn't pass...

I can tell you this: Every major talk show syndicator, every game show that's on the air now, every reality show. I'm really grateful to be able to work on a show that -- for better or worse -- portrays me exactly as I am. And I really do mean that "for better or worse." I don't think I'm all that, but I can't imagine having an identity that's basically false and having a show attach to you and having to spend your life perpetuating that fiction. That's really nothing I would ever want. In a lot of ways it's the best of both worlds for me because I have some notoriety, I have a little bit of influence here and there, but still enough anonymity to have a life.

Liz: Take us through an average day in that life.

Mike: Well, why don't I just tell you what last week was like, because the days -- there's nothing typical from one to the next, but the weeks start to take shape.

Last week started in San Francisco on a Monday morning. I got on a plane and flew to Seattle. In Seattle I changed airlines and flew to Idaho -- Coeur d'Alene. From Coeur d'Alene I drove north to a little town called Bonners Ferry, about a quarter mile from the Canadian border. There I spent 36 hours on a maggot farm.

The maggots in question have a funk on them that your readers don't want to know about and it's just as well because I couldn't capture it in words, but there are a billion of them and they are grown for bait and shipped around the world. It's the largest maggot farm on the planet. I'm fairly sure I still stink from it, but I can't smell it anymore so I'm not entirely positive.

Then I got on a plane midway through the week and flew to Fargo by way of Chicago. So that's Illinois to North Dakota, then drove into Minnesota to a leech operation. Yeah. So maggots and leeches in the same week. Thirty-six hours with the leeches -- catching them, separating them, selling them. It was a week dedicated to obscure bait.

From there I went to Baltimore to reintroduce myself to my folks, see some family for the 4th. Kind of a bummer, but went to a funeral on the 5th. The 6th I cruised down to Silver Spring to kiss the ring of my masters and hang out with Discovery. Then I flew from there to Atlanta to talk to a couple of companies about a new initiative I'm trying to get of the ground called MikeRoweWorks (We're assuming this is the spelling. And if not, well, it should be. -- Liz. | Update: It's actually mikeroweWORKS. -- Liz), and then I flew home last night.

So, yeah, every week is some version of that. If it's not a maggot farm it's a steel mill. If not that, then an anthracite coal mine. If not that, then an oil rig. It could be anything.

Liz: Is mikeroweWORKS something you want to tell us more about?

Mike: Sure. I should start by saying I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but that's how "Dirty Jobs" started, too, so I don't mind. I think it's important to try to not fool the viewer into thinking you know more than you do and part of the reason I've gotten so much slack is because I don't appear more confident than I am and let the viewers see me fail every day. Which is ironic when I think of the reason I left Baltimore -- because I didn't want to fail in front of all these experts and now my job basically is to fail. In 173 countries every day. No complaints. It's just ironic that in life to get a little success all you have to do is spend time embracing the very thing you were running from.

So mikeroweWORKS is going to be on a very simple level and attempt to start a very gentle PR campaign for hard work. I think we've done a really stupid thing as a country -- we've made hard work the enemy. I think we do it in Hollywood with the way we portray regular people with regular jobs. It's impossible to meet a plumber who doesn't have a giant butt crack. Big lumbering boobish people. Hundreds of instances.

So I look at what Hollywood has done. And Madison Ave. -- a billion 30 second reminders that life would be great if only we didn't have to work so much. If we could get to the weekend faster or retire sooner. Preference by Loreal says "we're worth it," McDonald's says we need a break. And I'm part of Madison Avenue, so I'm lumping myself with all this here as part of the problem.

But Silicon Valley, they're a part of it. They're not really the enemy, but they've provided us with software that allows us to redefine what work looks like and now the idea of a really good job is usually someone plugged into an office laboring in front of a plasma screen. Good jobs look a lot like kids playing and adults working.

And finally Washington is outsourcing and making all kinds of trade deals that not only outsource manufacturing, but I think some of the traditional work ethics that have always been attached to it.

So that's how we make work the enemy and I'm looking to point that out and say there's got to be some way to turn this around just a little and steer the conversation toward ideas that can make a difference. I'll get off my soap box in 20 seconds, but everything I've said has led to huge symptoms -- a decline in trade school enrollments and an infrastructure that's a complete disaster. Look, it's so important that I don't come off as some dick -- pardon me -- I don't want to be mistaken for some guy who's been appointed or annointed to speak on behalf of this constituency of workers. I'm not. But I've had a couple hundred jobs and a front row seat. I've seen this stuff first hand and if we don't do something about trade schools and the infrastructure soon it's really going to be a disaster and I don't think we're going to be able to do anything unless we change the way we think about work.

The icons of work have changed so much. We weren't around for Rosie the Riveter. Well, she's dead and Ayn Rand and the muddy boots architect and the unions at their best are all gone. Eighties were the dealmakers, '90s were the tech boom and today -- I just had lunch with a big shot over at UPS and he can't hire people for $22 bucks an hour to unload his trucks. And it's not because anybody's bad. It's just that kids and college grads and high school grads -- that anything that looks that much like work is something you don't want to do. We've sucked the dignity out of it.

Liz: So "Dirty Jobs" really gave you an unexpected appreciation for hard work?

Mike: There's a point in every great tragedy where the hero realizes he's got it all wrong. Where Oedipus realizes "that beautiful woman I've been sleeping with is mom. Oops." Or Bruce Willis realizes, "that kid's not crazy, I'm dead." Or Keanu Reeves realizes, "Oh, I'm living in a computer program." They call it peripatia.. And that's what happened to me.

I had a peripatetic moment about two years ago when I realized everything I thought I knew about work was wrong. Everything I'd so carefully figured out through the '90s, my six months a year off -- all of it, while kind of comfortable and fun, was just an empty suit. There's nothing there.

Look, "Dirty Jobs" is a fun, simple little show with huge themes under it. For me, it's penance, it's redemption, it's a sweaty mess.

Liz: Well, my two young nephews -- who tend to spend an inordinate amount of time playing video games, also love your show. They get as excited about the world you're showing to them as they do about World of Warcraft. I'm going to go ahead and assume there are a lot more kids just like them.

Mike: It's really important not to be preachy, not to get too earnest -- because that's just as disgusting as making fun. But the joke's got to be on me. The thing I'm fond of saying about the show is that if you're clicking around [channels] with the sound off and you find it, the odds are good that what you'll see is something that looks unpleasant -- horrible maybe -- but you''ll also see people laughing. So it's the idea of just saying whenever possible that you can have a good time doing hard work. It's not always drudgery.

And that's another way we make work the enemy. What did Melville say? "Men drained of valor." And that's how we see them. And the No. 1 book right now on the New York Times Non-Fiction list? "The 4-Hour Work Week" by Tim Ferriss ( oy. -- Liz). One more giant message on how to get so much more by doing so much less.


Liz: One last question -- and one of particular importance to me and my readers: Do you wear flat front or pleated pants?

Mike: Always flat front. You've got to be deeply suspicious of a man who consciously goes with pleats. Why would you do that? You know what -- if I were to wear pleats I would just go ahead and buy the spats, the ascot, the vest, the tophat and -- yeah -- I guess I'd just walk around town swilling champagne out of a bottle and that would be the end of me.

Liz: Right, then you'd jump back in the Monopoly box and go to sleep.

Since there was nothing more to be said once the flat front vs. pleats question was definitively settled, the interview ended.

By Liz Kelly  |  10:43 AM ET, 07/16/2008

Categories:  Catching Up With..., Catching Up With...

 
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