Talking Shop with Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs"

Monday, February 1, 2010
Mike Rowe discusses his Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs, at a news conference prior to his appearance Wednesday night at the Show Me Center. (Fred Lynch)

Mike Rowe, founder of the Emmy-nominated television series "Dirty Jobs," paid a visit to Cape Girardeau last week. Before his talk, as more than 3,100 people gathered inside the Show Me Center, Rowe visited with reporters for about 25 minutes. Business reporter Brian Blackwell and Southeast Missourian junior reporter Bryce Dickerson were among those who asked Rowe, who previously worked on such networks as QVC, questions at the press conference.

Q: So how do you like Cape Girardeau?

A: Everything the brochure promised. Fabulous. I got in last night at 1:50, slept til 10, answered a bunch of e-mail, made some video and then came over here. It's a little slice of heaven.

Q: What kind of music do you like?

A: If you ask me what I didn't like, I'd say I really can't think of anything. I got my start in the business singing opera, believe it or not, a long time ago. It wasn't because I liked it. It was because it helped me kind of sneak into the business and it was the only way I could find. Right now I've got an iPod. Classic rock I think is mainly on it. You've got some Crowded House, Eagles. I'm trying to sound hip. There's got to be somebody modern on there. Interpol is on there. I thought they were pretty cool. And that's it, there you go.

Q: Explain your relationship with Ford, one of your sponsors, and how that developed.

A: That's actually an interesting story. When we were in our second season, a big automotive company -- not Ford -- contacted the network and wanted to take a position in the show. And I've always been a fan of Ford, not just because it was first car I had but because they invented the car and the truck in mass assembly. So I thought as a sponsor for the show they were best choice. And I also thought they were somebody I wanted to have a relationship with. I didn't have any endorsement deals going at the time and I thought it would be logical to pursue. So we started chatting and made a deal rather quickly. And we've been in business ever since and will be for the next few years at least.

Q: What is QVC like?

A: Have you seen QVC? It's a lot like that. Really, I rag on QVC a lot because it was a long time ago. And it's weird. It was a strange job for me to have. But the truth is I learned more about TV working there than anywhere. It was simply the best training ground on the face of the earth for this kind of job, for what I do. I was fired several times over three years. I got just about everything wrong but they kept bringing me back. I worked the midnight shift and I sold whatever they put in front of me, or tried to.

Q: Precious Moments?

A: Precious Moments. May your day be full of them. I see you've got the Youtube up and you've been busy. Yeah, it's strange. A couple of years ago somebody posted old clips of me working like at 3 a.m. on QVC on Youtube and now apparently like a million people have watched them. It's both gratifying, horrifying, humiliating, embarrassing and instructive. So, it was my first job in the industry. I'll never forget it for that and a lot of other reasons.

Q: Have you noticed the economy affecting people you work with across the country?

A: Yeah, I think the economy is kind of like the weather. You're gonna get some on you, no matter what you do. But not as much as you would think, you know. The people with dirty jobs who I meet, by and large -- I hate to generalize, but we've had 250 of them or so -- and uh, many of them, I can't say they're in recession-proof industries at all. But they're kind of used to working really hard and they're kind of used to doing what they have to do to figure it out. Many of them are entrepreneurial, you know, so they've had to make some adjustments, obviously. But the general answer is sure, the economy is headline news. And in a lot of ways, the headlines have caught up to "Dirty Jobs." Our show is no different than it was five, six years ago when it started. But now because of the economy there is a new topic of conversation that's really, really relevant, and that's the definition of a good job, what that is. People used to look at dirty jobs and kind of chuckle and say, see what can happen if you don't go to college. Now they're going, "Huh, that guy's got a job and he looks like he's having fun and I wonder what's up with that." And so, the show has the same DNA, but the conversation around it has shifted.

Q: Have you noticed it's more prevalent in one area?

A: It's everywhere. But again, in relative terms the country is always different on the sides than it is in the middle. And those differences are still there. Some people get it faster than others. Some people are on the front line of really being in the trenches and understanding how work in general has been affected by what's happened. Other people have been reading about it, so they're informed but not immersed. And of course in California where I live, there are still some people who don't have a clue. For the most part, most everybody is kind of hip to what's going on.

Q: How did your relationship start with Discovery Channel? Was it your idea?

A: I get a lot of credit you know, which is nice but it's not true. I mean, there is no such thing as a new idea. There is just no such thing. I stole this from George Plimpton, a famous journalist who wrote a book called "Paper Lion" years ago. He was the original guy who wouldn't write a story until or unless he immersed himself in it. So he didn't write about bull fighting unless he tried it. He didn't write about football until he played a few downs on a professional team. I always liked that. I just though that was a very authentic way to attempt reportage. I'm not a journalist at all, but that always stuck with me. I thought if I could ever have a chance to get a show with my name in the title I'd try to make it as authentic as I could. So I borrowed that from him. I didn't pitch this as a series. I had no idea it would be one, much less a hit. I pitched it as a tribute to my granddad, who's had all these jobs in three one-hour shows. It was part of a larger [goal]. I was trying to talk the Discovery Channel into hiring me as a correspondent. I wanted to go around to cool places on their dime and be paid to say interesting things about great places. And they bought it. But to make that deal stick we had to do a little mini-series. I pitched "Dirty Jobs," we got that on the air and everything blew up.

Q: I see you have a Southeast hat. How many hats do you have?

A: Well, I have at least 250 because I've had 250 jobs. And virtually every job has a hat. I had 50 before I started. So I guess you could throw them all in and [be] a little south of 300. It's a nightmare. I open up my closet to get my coat and it's just an avalanche of hats. It's awkward. I can't dare to get rid of them because they're sweaty and gross and remind me of something I did.

Q: What advice would you give a small-business owner or entrepreneur?

A: Well, you know, tonight, I don't really know what I'm going to talk about to be honest with you. But that certainly needs to be part of it, so thanks for asking it so it makes me think about it now. I don't give advice. I think it's so treacherous. There's so much advice out there that's bad. I tend to talk about bad advice. By way of answering your question, I would advise people to be wary of things like "follow your passion." The sort of advice on those [motivational posters] that hang on walls and board rooms and have rainbows and say things like teamwork and strive. Follow your passion. On "Dirty Jobs" I learned over the years that the happiest people I know, the happiest people I've met on that show, are typically up to their necks in something disgusting. And they're balanced and making a great living. And without exception none of them are doing what they're doing because it's some wish fulfillment of some childhood dream. None of them followed their passion into the sewer or necessarily onto the oil rig. What many of them did, especially the small-business owners and entrepreneurs you mentioned, what many of them did was step back and see where everybody else was going. And then go the other way and figure out how to be really good at something nobody else wanted to do. And then the smart ones learned how to really dig it, really love it, and become passionate. So I guess the advice version of that would be, don't follow your passion but always bring it with you.

Q: Has your outlook changed since you started the show?

A: I've been humbled, to tell you the truth. I mean, almost to the point of humiliation. But I work on a network that's defined by experts. Every single person on the Discovery Channel is an expert. I'm an apprentice. My job is, essentially, to try. I seldom succeed. And to compare me to the people I work with, I'm a dismal failure over and over. So in terms of ego you've got to be okay with the fact you're belly down in a river of crap most of the time. Everything I thought I knew about work was wrong, everything. From this business about passion we were just talking about, my attitudes toward experts has forever changed, not necessarily because of the people I met on the show but because of the role of experts in work. The expert could be the humane society, it could be OSHA, it could be Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. There are so many organizations out there that have so many specific ideas and to which we defer. When we go to do a job you might want to talk to the expert to make sure you know what's going to happen. Then you get to the job and you realize first hand [that] everything you thought knew about them was wrong. I'll talk about it tonight, really. Thanks for letting me write my speech in front of me here because really it's true. It's so humbling to realize the rancher in Colorado has a better understanding of animal husbandry than the expert organizations that advised me on it. Likewise OSHA, likewise ... it's a long list. I mean, I went to a community college for two-and-a-half years, I went to a university for another two-and-a-half years. But the best education I've gotten has happened in the last five years doing the show. That wasn't part of the plan, but as I look back at it now it's a great big dirty curriculum and I'm still up to my neck in it.

Q: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

A: I'd be doing exactly what I was doing before "Dirty Jobs" hit. I'd be freelancing around the edges of the entertainment industry and feeling really smart about it. I always felt kind of a very specific sort of arrogance when you think you have the system beat, and I did have it beat because I wasn't looking for big shows or big hits. I was looking to work two or three weeks and then have two or three weeks off. And what I discovered after QVC was that you can do that in the entertainment business if you're not focused too much on the big payday or the fame. You can work in a way that allows you to have five months off a year and you can make a decent living. Not a crazy living. You can't go nuts. But live within your means [and] you can work a long time and have a long time off. And that's frankly what I was all about. "Dirty Jobs" again, to answer your question, turned that upside down and made a laughing stock of what went wrong. And I'm having a ball. But I don't have five months off a year anymore. I don't have five days.

Q: Politics. Would you do that dirty job?

A: Is there a dirtier one? You mean as a dirty job on the show? Honestly, I think that the news does such a choking job of covering politics I couldn't imagine we'd need to see another job about it. And I also don't know how to make it fun. A big part of dirty jobs is juxtaposing something with humor. And I look for people who are in on the joke, who understand basically how the world works. And frankly I don't know any politicians who fit that description.

Q: Do you love it?

A: I love it. Look, you have to love it. I do have the best job in TV. There's just a lot of irony in it. I don't cheat. We don't have a script. We don't do a second take. We don't have a director. We don't scout. We don't pre-produce. It's a very authentic show and that makes me feel good. The bad news is, it's "warts and all." So you have to be willing to take a pie in the face to work on a show like this. So that's the cost of admission.

Q: Is there any mental preparation before a job? Do you just wing it?

A: Yes. My real role on the show is an apprentice. I used to think, and it took a while to get over this because the nature of production is to produce. And to produce you need to know, you need to have a plan. You need to articulate the plan and then act on it. That's not what the show is. The show is, how do you feel when it's your first day on the job? You don't know anybody. You don't really know what the heck you're doing. You're kind of worried, you're out of your comfort zone. So the more I prepare for it, the less I'm able to do the very thing I promise in each episode to do.

Q: You have a favorable personality for the show. If wasn't for that, the show wouldn't be amazing. Is it your attitude that makes you so laughable?

A: It's kind of you to say. There's no accounting for taste. I'm thrilled people relate to me. But I'm not a very good host as hosts go. I'm not a comedian. People think I'm funny. I try and get through the day. And the best way to get through the day is to find something that amuses me. I'm mostly on the show trying to learn, trying to be respectful of the people I'm with, and trying to keep myself entertained. The symptom of that, happily, is a personality that people don't hate and a point of view people find relatable. It's a clumsy, awkward way of saying I'm being myself, for better or worse. And that's the best part of the job. That's how you prepare. How do you prepare to be yourself? Try to get some sleep the night before, drink some coffee and be prompt.

Q: What has been your favorite episode?

A: I used to have a snappy answer for that but after 250 jobs, it's really hard to know, it's hard to know how to compare changing a light bulb at the top of the Mackinac Bridge, which is great, to working on the deck of a crab boat on the Bering Sea, which is awesome. How do you compare that to washing windows in a 500-story high rise in Hawaii on a bosun's chair, which is a swing with a bucket of suds and squeegee, or making fudge with a couple of sweet old ladies in Pennsylvania. How did that happen? But it's a dirty job because I loved [being] covered in something that looked like poop but wasn't. My favorite episodes in general are those where we laugh a lot, where something disgusting happens and where we learn something that we didn't know before. Where we realize something. We see a job. A lot of the show is what I call the "It's A Wonderful Life." You've gotta wonder what the world would be like without the people in it that we feature on "Dirty Jobs." You have to imagine no garbage men. You've gotta imagine no electricians, no plumbers, no steamfitters or bike fitters or any of that. My favorite episodes are the ones that really drive that point home, so people can not only laugh but they can learn a few things and they can feel somewhat grateful to have those people on the planet.

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