(CBS News) – Mike Rowe can often be found hard at work in a place that isn’t dirty at all. “There’s no better job than sitting in a climate-controlled booth reading stories of, in this case, crab fishermen, in a crisp, well-modulated baritone,” he said.
And with that rich baritone he could make a decent living without ever leaving the comfort of a recording studio.
Instead, as the star of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” Rowe has become famous as the guy who cleans out septic tanks … picks up garbage … repairs a hot tar roof … and examines the stomach contents of the Lake Erie Water Snake.
“The point of the show is not to produce a big story,” he told Blackstone. “It’s to just show you what happens if you’re a bridge painter over a 12-hour day, or a septic technician, or a carpenter.”
“A reality show that’s really real,” suggested Blackstone.
“I can’t put it much better!”
On “Dirty Jobs,” Rowe highlights the dignity that can be found in hard work … often by risking his own dignity.
“You know, viewers cut me a lot of slack because I was willing to try,” Rowe said. “And that was a big lesson, you know, that I learned early on, and really valuable: If you let people see you fail, or at least see you try, it’s shocking what they’ll forgive!”
In the past six seasons Rowe has taken on some 300 jobs. On some jobs the dirt can be overshadowed by the odors.
What was his smelliest job? Rowe said it was his turn at Skulls Unlimited in Oklahoma.
“They boil the animal in a giant pot to get all the flesh off of the bones,” he said. “The smell of a boil – I think it was a buffalo the day we were there – it gets onto your teeth, and then in the back of your throat. It stays with you, gets in your clothes, gets in your hair.”
The jobs may stink, literally, but Rowe often reminds us most are necessary for the smooth functioning of society, like collecting garbage in the narrow lanes of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where Rowe struggled to keep up with Lawrence Jackson III.
“We call him LJIII because it sounds more like a machine, and he is a machine,” Rowe said. “His resting heart rate is about 30 because all he does … it’s a midnight Chinatown run, and he runs with this sack over his shoulder. He’s like a demented Santa Claus, up and down the steps, night after night after night after night.”
Rowe got his first exposure to the skills of a workingman when he was growing up in the countryside near Baltimore, and living next door to his grandfather, Carl Noble.
“He could fix anything, a brilliant mechanic. So anything that was broken, you know, you would go to Carl Noble to get fixed or built. He only went to the eighth grade but he was one of the smartest guys I knew. You know, I wanted very much to be able to do what my grandfather could do. So I took all the shop classes in high school and all that stuff. But the sad truth for me is I just didn’t get the gene.
“In fact, my grandfather said to me – I was 17 or 18 – he said, ‘You should really look into getting another sort of tool box.'” Rowe laughed. “And so I did, you know?”
Instead of working with his hands Rowe started working with his voice. For almost five years, starting in 1984, he sang with the Baltimore Opera Company, though he claims his audition was awful.
“My pronunciation is terrible,” he said. “I only get 30 percent of the notes. But I think they were just impressed that I actually walked in and actually tried to sell it.”
His ability to sell landed him his first TV job in the late 1980s, overnight on QVC – just as the cable TV shopping channel was starting up.
“See, the way QVC worked back in those days, there was no training program. Most everyone failed because it was such a weird job: Three hours, live, no script, no training.”
Some of Rowe’s irreverent QVC sales pitches still live on on YouTube. [“The lava lamp is a little warm – not unlike lava!”]
In 2001 Rowe was hired to host San Francisco’s “Evening Magazine,” on CBS 5. It wasn’t really meant to be a comedy show, but Rowe’s sense of the ridiculous was hard to contain.
Rowe and his “Evening Magazine” producer James Reid sometimes held “business meetings” at a nearby bar. One day, over beer, they had an idea for a segment called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”
“It was a little bit of Plimpton, a little bit of Studs Turkel, and a little bit of Charles Kuralt, too,” Rowe said. “You know, the idea of just telling a really simple story with, you know, anonymous people who live in towns you couldn’t find on a map. But yeah, that’s where the idea occurred to us, over a couple of beers.
“And two days later we were artificially inseminating a cow!”
Somehow, viewers seemed to like the segments, and Rowe figured maybe it could be made into show all its own.
“Well, the hard question for me to ask, the bosses at CBS turned this down,” Blackstone said. “The bosses at the other networks – ?”
“Everybody. Oh, yeah, yeah. It was too gross for CBS. It wasn’t gross enough for FOX. It wasn’t funny enough for Comedy Central. It was too funny for PBS.”
He’d pretty much given up on selling his show about hard working, regular people when somebody at the Discovery Channel happened to ask, “Do you have a show idea?”
“I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I got ‘Somebody’s Gotta Do It.'” Rowe said. “They said, ‘We’ll call it ‘Dirty Jobs.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ We started shooting, we put it on the air. People watched. And then they ordered 300 more.
“And now I don’t know how to stop it.”
“Dirty Jobs” has helped make him possibly the most prominent commercial pitchman on TV right now.
He helps Ford sell trucks. He promotes work wear for Lee Jeans. And on the ads for Viva paper towels, those really are his parents.
On the Discovery Channel his voice is heard on “Deadliest Catch,” on “Shark Week” programs, and on a long list of specials.
“If there was a Wildebeest trying to get across the vast reaches of the barren Serengeti but being slowly consumed by crocodiles, it was probably me telling you about it,” Rowe said.
On Labor Day 2008, he launched the website MikeRoweWorks.com with the goal of highlighting America’s “skills gap”… the fact that at a time of high unemployment there is a shortage of skilled labor, an issue Rowe addressed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
“I believe we need a national PR Campaign for skilled labor, a big one,” Rowe said. “Something that addresses the widening skills gap head-on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce.”
Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider.
“In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work,'” Rowe said.
“I’m all for clean, but the idea that dirty jobs tap people on the shoulder and remind them once upon a time dirt was a badge of honor now through popular culture to make an enemy out of it. We’re confused at what a good job looks like today..
On “Dirty Jobs” Rowe shows us exactly what real work looks like, with all its risks, and smells, all its sweat, all its humor … and all its necessity.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)