Mike Rowe's moment of illumination was properly cringe-inducing for a man whose television show is called Dirty Jobs. The articulate and intrepid Discovery Channel star was in the middle of a lamb castration, weighing the widely used method of wrapping bands above the animal's testicles to cut off circulation against the method he had just witnessed—with dismay—which involved teeth. However unorthodox, the latter approach was quick and seemed relatively painless for the lamb, while the former had left the lamb temporarily immobile. Stripped of his highbrow disapprobation, Rowe, naturally, had to put his own teeth to use. So much for making judgments.
Throughout the course of the show, Rowe, 47, has parachuted into incredibly dirty jobs, including coal miner, shrimper, and even skull cleaner, paying tribute to the value and integrity of manual laborers as he sloshes around in knee-high nastiness right beside them. U.S. News recently chatted with Rowe about dirty jobs and MikeRoweWorks.com, his website dedicated to promoting blue-collar work and drawing attention to impending worker shortages in the skilled trades. Excerpts:
What is the plan for MikeRoweWorks.com?
I always wanted there to be something like a MikeRoweWorks, some sort of initiative that could capture the larger themes that were always present on the show and put a point on them. ... We're just challenging the basic notion of what a good job is and what it means to be not just gainfully employed but engaged and balanced. There really are an amazing number of lessons that people wind up gravitating toward and talking about after they watch this show. And it always comes down to what do these people know that the rest of us don't, and why are they having more fun than I am, you know, in my nice job with my nice surroundings and my nice paycheck? Why does the guy picking up roadkill seem like a more enjoyable sort to sit down and share a beer with?
You're also challenging the concept of work.
On a personal level, absolutely, because I'm historically an opportunist and a bit of a layabout. The irony is that I am associated with a guy who talks about work all of the time, and in fact I've spent most of my life trying to avoid it. This show was a tribute to my granddad and my father. My granddad died a couple of years ago, but he saw it debut, and my father still calls every Wednesday, just laughing. He's like, "I can't believe it. I saw you on the fish boat. No life vest, by the way, moron. Saw you in the mine with no hard hat, idiot."
What did he do for a living?
For money, he was a public-school teacher. But practically, he was my grandfather's apprentice. My granddad lived next door to us—we had a small farm outside of Baltimore. My granddad was one of those guys who is magically born hard-wired, as an electrician, a plumber, an architect—he was all those things—a mason. He could build or fix anything. He only went to the eighth grade. He just had the gene and I didn't. When he had a stroke in his early 60s, he kept working, and my dad sort of became his hands. So my memories growing up are of these two guys waking up clean and going off to fix something and coming home disgusting, problem solved. I was always in awe of that. I just couldn't do it. So naturally, I joined the opera and got into show business.
[See more on blue-collar jobs for white-collar workers.]
You must take the show pretty seriously—preparing and researching for each episode.
I did in the first season. It's funny; it's a real balancing act. In TV, everybody's talking about authenticity. In order to make Dirty Jobs authentic, I really can't be overly informed. The minute I am, I become a host. ... It's a very tricky business paying a tribute to work, because TV is very bad at it. We generally turn people, when we portray them, into these heroes, which they rarely are, or punch lines, which they rarely are.
The plumber stereotype, for example.
If he's on TV, I guarantee you his tool belt is riding low, his ass is hanging out, and he doesn't know a lot of words. Joe the Plumber pissed off a lot of people because he appeared to challenge a lot of stereotypes of what a plumber is supposed to be. Whether he was or he wasn't, I don't know—but when you challenge the stereotype that directly, it makes people uncomfortable.