It was the 1990s, and Mike Rowe was living the dream.
By Rowe’s own account, that dream included a very questionable work ethic — designed so he would be on vacation about six months out of the year. The TV host says his plan was simple: to get to host television projects so poorly conceived that no amount of luck or talent could possibly save them.
“I’d do it knowing that I’d get paid for a couple of months, and I would not be blamed when they failed.”
That was about 15 years ago, but the San Francisco resident tells the story as if it were two or three lifetimes ago. The popular host of the Discovery Channel reality show Dirty Jobs has since become the poster boy for the American work ethic, representing companies such as Ford and Caterpillar, while speaking regularly in front of unions and Fortune 500 companies about the wounded American manufacturing infrastructure.
His website, Mike Rowe Works (www.mikeroweworks.com), initially set up by fans, is a shrine to hard work and the blue-collar trades.
The 48-year-old says he had a Huck Finn-like childhood growing up near Baltimore, where he developed a respect for getting dirty while watching his grandfather work with his hands. But Rowe’s career didn’t reflect those roots until a twist of fate happened in San Francisco — specifically in Grumpy’s Restaurant and Pub — during his stint as a co-host for Evening Magazine.
Rowe was recruited by former Evening executive producer Michael Orkin, who had hired him years earlier for a horrendous two-day project in Memphis, Tenn., which even Rowe’s obvious talent couldn’t save. The men got memorably drunk, had fun at an R.E.M. concert and then lost touch.
Years later, in 2001, Orkin needed a new host. After watching hundreds of tapes of potential hires, he ran into a talent agent who knew Rowe. Rowe drove up from Los Angeles to Orkin’s home in Oakland.
Orkin says Rowe took the job, along with a pay cut, but made one unusual request: 10 weeks of vacation per year.
Somebody’s Gotta Do It, the Evening segment that was the model for Dirty Jobs, didn’t even have a name at first. Rowe says the idea was born at Grumpy’s during a brainstorming session.
Rowe says the station’s general manager, Jerry Eaton, had been imploring Rowe to come up with some new segments to wake up the audience.
One program idea he had: The artificial insemination of a cow.
Rowe remembers: “I read a story about a reverend who artificially inseminates during the week and preaches on the weekend. I wanted to go to church with him, and then go collect semen.
“And then it airs at 7 o’clock, and people are eating their meat loaf, and I’m up to my shoulder in a cow. People were like, ‘What happened to (former hosts) Richard Hart and Jan Yanehiro? What happened to our precious show?’ But it got a ton of mail. And Jerry didn’t care what any of it said. It was like ‘Look at all this mail!’ ”
The segment got a name, and Rowe filmed more than 25. Rowe saw potential for a series. But he couldn’t find a taker with any of the networks.
It didn’t find a home until Rowe made a deal with Discovery.
Three throwaway segments of Dirty Jobs were produced to help introduce the host to the Discovery audience. Rowe thought the working-class vibe of the segments would be a nice tribute to his grandfather, who had been a legend in his community.
The segments were a hit.
Close to 300 shows later, Rowe has apprenticed all manner of labor on Dirty Jobs, from bug extermination to tarring roofs to more exotic jobs, such as a recent episode in which he worked as a lamprey-eel wrangler.
Rowe says there’s a database of thousands of potential episodes. About 30 people work on the series in Los Angeles, plus a few more at Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.
Reality-show producer Craig Piligian, who has created a steady stream of hits including Dirty Jobs, American Chopper and The Ultimate Fighter for Pilgrim Films & Television, says audiences love Rowe because they can tell he isn’t faking it.
“He’s been spit on, spewed at, kicked, scratched, pushed around, beat on, dumped on, and then the guy gets up for the next round every single time,” Piligian says. “This guy never says no. And on his worst day, he’s still the toughest guy in Hollywood.”
But being exposed to so many inspiring Americans on Dirty Jobs changed Rowe’s philosophy.
He works pretty much nonstop now. In addition to his Dirty Jobs duties, Rowe is the narrator for several other shows, most notably The Deadliest Catch. He’s been featured in television commercials for Ford, Lee jeans and Motorola phones, and is the spokesman for Caterpillar and U.S.-based industrial-supply company W.W. Grainger.
Orkin adds: “Yes, he’s still Mike, he’s still the same nice guy I met all those years ago. The difference is that he’s unbelievably stressed all of the time now. I tell him, ‘Dude, you’ve got a jillion dollars. Enjoy it.’ And he can’t.”
Each episode of Dirty Jobs begins with a promise: “I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty,” Rowe says in voice-over. “Hardworking men and women who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible.”
It has become a mantra for the host, who pines for a time in America when getting dirty wasn’t such a pejorative and people like his grandfather, who were good with their hands, were local heroes.
Orkin points out two traits Rowe has that people might not be aware of — his operatic voice (he does an excellent You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch during the holidays) and his fierce intelligence.
The latter quality can be stealthy, especially when Rowe is telling a hilariously off-color story about why he got fired from the QVC shopping network, or when he’s sharing colorful stories behind his Dirty Jobs-related scars like a real-life Quint from Jaws.
But the other Mike Rowe is just as comfortable speaking to anyone who will listen about currency valuations and declining manufacturing in the United States.
And he takes that job very seriously.
“The idea that a cold beer at Grumpy’s turned into a pretty serious conversation with captains of industry about the changing face of the modern-day proletariat — it’s hugely odd,” Rowe says.
“That’s why I’m still doing the show.”