Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs (returned last night with new episodes), took some time off from cleaning cloth diapers and sifting through suet to chat with us at the EW offices. He was also kind enough to wipe his shoes before coming in.
Beyond being the mud-streaked face of Dirty Jobs, Mike is also an unofficial spokesperson for skilled labor, a former QVC host, and a surprisingly talented singer. We discussed all this and more, aided greatly by questions provided by some of his many ardent fans, so if you want to get the real dirt on Mike, continue reading, But you might want to put on some gloves first.
Let’s start out with a question from the readers. One of the reasons I watch Dirty Jobs is because of Mike. I’ve never seen him back away or lose his temper. In fact, he has about the best disposition of anyone I have ever seen. So, my question is: Are there any outtakes of you losing your temper at a situation?
It almost never happens. I just can’t let it, at least not with the people I work with. Fear is a lot different from anger. I’m uncomfortable most of the time but that normally plays out in uneasiness, bumbling incompetence or some level of ennui. The ultimate point of the show is to pay a tribute to these people and the best way to do this is to juxtapose their performance as an expert next to my own as a novice.
You’ve started up a campaign at your website mikeroweWORKS to get Americans back into skilled labor or trade occupations. Do you think that you’ll start to change the tone of the show to better deal with these ideas?
No. The one thing that TV is bad at doing is preaching. There are two extremes, you either turn the people into a punchline or turn them into hero, and both of those things suck, because most people are neither in real life. My show is Jackass with a purpose. It’s Fear Factor with a conscience. But if it becomes a purpose-driven conscience-heavy thing, then it becomes ‘The Hour of Power” or it becomes Tony Robbins.
And then you’d have to wear a suit…
Next thing you know you don’t know whose advertising ass you have to kiss next. The whole thing becomes untenable. First and foremost, it’s TV, and if it’s not entertainment, I lose. If it’s not fundamentally engaging on that fun level, then forget it.
Here’s another question from a reader: Have you ever gotten sick from something they make you do on the show?
I have been really fortunate in the sense that nothing major has gone wrong. I’ve gotten stitched up three or four times. I’ve broken a rib, I’ve broken a toe, I’ve lost three fingernails. I’ve fused my contacts to my eyes with a blast furnace in Season One. Pulling pieces of plastic out of your eyes, bad deal. It was with a blacksmith. We were out in the field, the little thing looks like a toaster oven, but it’s actually a portable furnace. The shot I wanted was my eyes to the camera, I flick the switch, and you see the flames pop up. The gas accumulates, so the flames shot out, wrapped around my head and burned my eyebrows off.
Did you use the shot?
Yeah, in slow motion.
It’s a great way to illustrate the earlier point. The blacksmith immediately said, that’s happened to me five or six times. And you never think about it, but it’s like OK we use this shot, it’s kind of like a spectacle. It’s clearly a mistake and that’s the whole point. That’s a mistake that’s serious and potentially dangerous and this guy has had it happen to him multiple times. So suddenly our mistakes become cautionary tales, important parts of the story, and a legitimate piece of his job.
How often do you get to go home?
I’m on the road 300 days a year on average, so not much.
That’s hard work.
That’s the job. That’s the real job, being on the road and just living that life. My own personal approach to making the show is very similar the approach of a tradesman building a house. A plumber or a pipe-fitter, in the way that it’s a job with a definite end-point.
Do you feel like you get more out of it than say, QVC?
It’s kind of obvious for me to say yes, but that’s not really fair. People like to cherry-pick the parts of their career that they’re either in the midst of or that they’re the most proud of but the truth is careers and lives are tapestries. It’s a mosaic, and we wouldn’t be talking if it weren’t for QVC. That’s where I learned to talk for ten minutes about a pencil on live TV without a script. I’d rather be in a sewer than selling a piece of porcelain, but I wouldn’t have one without the other.
Speaking of your ability to speak extemporaneously, here’s another reader question: When narrating for the specials on Discovery. Do you have a script?
I do. It’s one of those paradoxes. A director will say they don’t want to have a script, but of course they do. A show like Deadliest Catch has to be scripted, but a show like Dirty Jobs, not so much. I’ll watch the footage and sort of just talk to the picture as I’m seeing it and that’ll serve as the narrative track. The stuff in the field, however, that we do on Dirty Jobs is never written. Never. Nothing’s written down. Can’t do it.
This actually came up a number of times from the readers. On your Discovery website bio, it says that you faked your way into the Baltimore Opera. And you do tend to do a decent amount of singing on the show. A lot of your fans want to know when they’ll be hearing more of your dulcet tones.
It’s strange. I sneak a lot of it in. I think that anytime you’re covered in somebody else’s crap, literally, it’s the perfect moment to either sing or make some kind of literary reference. I’m just a fan of the dichotomy. I only once deliberately sang a song on the show, the Dirty Ditty.
This is a personal question. I have a certain hang-up about the Discovery Channel. Ever since I was young I’ve been deathly afraid of sharks. You’ve done two Shark Week specials with the things. Were you scared out of your mind?’
The thing about Discovery is that it’s a brand defined by experts, and the weird thing about me is my whole pitch going in was that I’m not that guy. I don’t want to be a host or an expert, I’m not going to get you out of the wilderness alive. I make no promise and no claim other than to get dirty and make a few fart jokes and go home. So when I’m putting on a shark suit and deliberately letting these things bite me…
I’ve been bitten by everything, sharks, snakes, ostriches, you name it. But the sharks was the first time that I thought, this is nobody’s fault but mine. We’re standing on the edge of that boat creating a chum slick and they’re coming in and it’s just frothing with grey skin and white teeth and we’re literally ready to jump in the middle of it. And I thought that whatever happens next, it’s my fault.
Another question from the fans: Was there a job that the producers told you about that made you say ‘No effin’ way’?
No, the only jobs we’ve passed on were ones that we knew that we ultimately couldn’t get on the air. Body farm technician, embalming… And really, it’s just as well. The fact is that work is bigger than dirt. And the show isn’t really about dirt and jobs, it’s about work and people. Sure fart jokes are funny and poo is what it is, and sure we can violate every barnyard animal that there is for a laugh, but work is what’s for sale. It’s what people are talking about today.
How long do you spend on a job?
Full whistle to whistle?
The longest day we had was 20 hours, and the longest shoot we’ve done for a single story was two full days, but we don’t do that anymore. I really feel like if you can’t tell the story in a day, then you shouldn’t.
If you could do one of these jobs for the rest of your life which one would it be?
If I could or if I had to?
It would be one of the entrepreneurial ones, not one of the piecemeal ones. It would be outside. You know it might be high-rise window-washing, one that’s coming up in the new episodes. I don’t recall ever being as scared and at the same time as transfixed by the beauty. You’re in Hawaii, five hundred feet up looking at Pearl Harbor dangling from a skinny little rope, you’re crapping your pants for sure, but you are just surrounded by this amazing beauty. And when beauty and fear live that close to each other it’s not entirely unpleasant. You get sort of used to it and you think it could be fun. As opposed to the sharks, there was no beauty, there was just “Oh My God”. I like those mixes, it wouldn’t be something like gandy dancing or dam deconstruction. It wouldn’t be the job where they hand you the sledgehammer at 6 AM and take it back when the sun goes down. I’m just too old for it and it hurts too much the next day. The squeegee’s easier on the back.
There’s a real art to proper squeegee manipulation. There’s a feathering techniques and if you do it right you don’t have to go back and clean up the streaks. You’re sitting on a swing, throwing suds up, and as quick as you can, before the sun dries them, using this special technique. It’s beat the clock, it’s don’t fall, and it’s really pretty all jammed into the part of your brain that really matters. It’s not boring.
Ok, final question, and I’ll give it to the readers: Does your entire crew really get along together as well as it appears during the on-screen moments?
The crew’s a big deal. Having the crew in the show is a question I get all the time. It was a tough sell to get those guys slowly inserted as something between a character and a Greek chorus. It’s really important. You can see the business of shooting a show like Dirty Jobs.
It’s also kind of meta, you see the dirty job behind Dirty Jobs…
Yeah, and believe me, this show is a dirty job.