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Sure, it's a dirty job, but ...

It's also a staggering success for Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe. And it beats his days as a QVC host and opera singer.

Published September 5, 2006

To find his greatest success, he had to crawl through a mountain of muck.

That's the line Mike Rowe loves laying on fans when they get a little too gushy about his success hosting what may be the unlikeliest hit on cable TV: the Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs.

The show's premise is simple: Rowe, an engaging and craggily handsome host, seeks out the ickiest, slimiest, toughest gigs he can find within reason - sewer inspector, horse inseminator, worm poop rancher and shark repellent tester were highlights - and spends a day or so trying the job alongside an expert.

As a growing legion of Rowe-aholics can attest, however, the show mostly works because of the host - who brings an impish sense of humor, go-for-it willingness to try almost any job, and a deep reverence for folks who work hard doing the kind of dirty jobs that keep the country rolling.

These days, Rowe stands at the heart of many of Discovery's most popular shows, narrating the series about Alaskan crab fishermen, Deadliest Catch, along with American Chopper, American Hot Rod and the latest Shark Week extravaganza.

On Tuesday, Rowe will tackle his 100th dirty job - pulling trapped trucks out of the sand and a swamp with the Army - while taking a sardonic look at the last 99 jobs he has tackled.

I spoke with the 44-year-old former opera singer and QVC pitchman from his San Francisco home, quizzing him on how a guy who once earned a living dressing like a Viking and belting out Wagner compositions wound up tramping through bat poo for an audience of millions.


Can you believe you've made it to 100 jobs and counting?

"It's beyond shocking. In fact, it's kind of nauseating. But I don't think the show would have worked 30 years ago. I think most of the country then still understood that our freight was being held together by hard working people who do difficult jobs. Somehow in the last few years ... something in the zeitgiest connects with the guilt that we're kinda getting by on the backs of other people. I think some people are saying - I'm glad I'm not doing that ... but I'm glad someone is."


So who came up with this idea?

"Nobody to blame but me. I was working in San Francisco for a little show called Evening Magazine. The station's general manager came to me and said 'shake 'em up.' So ... we came up with (a segment called) 'Somebody's Gotta Do It' - and I did an artificial cow inseminator. I found this minister ... he's evangelizing during the weekend, and he's inseminating cows during the week. That's the one that caught everybody's attention and that's the one I sent to Discovery Channel (in 2001).


What's the show's appeal?

"I did a lot of shows where you would come in and do the voice over and hit the mark and read your lines and never have to look at the embarrassment that is the show you're working on. But I honestly wondered, without making heroes or straight men of people, what would it look like in you made a show without a script - point the camera at people who aren't used to having a camera pointed at them?"


You sound a little cynical about the rest of the TV business.

"I don't think I could have sold this show to the network on paper. They saw a few episodes and said, 'Let's let this guy do what he wants to do' - not knowing that I don't have a clue what I'm doing. I think most people want to hang around people who have a good time - and most of the people I meet love doing their jobs. It's a good format for me, because it lets me be honest."


When my wife saw a recent episode she said, "It's like he's sexy and disgusting at the same time!" Do you find it odd that you've become a sex symbol while doing the most disgusting stuff imaginable?

"It's weird for me - I never looked at myself that way. I suspect ... people are tired of having the same thing served up to them the same way. Most models look the same, most sex symbols look the same. I don't think it's about being - what the hell do I know about sexy? But here's a guy shamelessly covered with poo and not trying to look like anything other than what he's doing. Maybe that's sexy. I'll take it."


Have you turned down any jobs because you couldn't stomach them?

"We've never said no for reasons of personal discomfort. I've passed on a few because they don't fit the tone of what I want the show to be. If we were on Showtime, I'd clean up a crime scene or embalm a body. It's just not the taste I want to leave in people's mouths. In my head, I wanted to do an 11 p.m. show, with much sharper corners on it. The network fought me on it, and they were right. It might have been more entertaining in a sense, but it would have been over in season one. You've got to do something everybody can watch."


What's the most extreme job you've ever done?

"There are essentially three categories of dirty jobs: dangerous dirty jobs, backbreaking manual labor dirty jobs and poo-related dirty jobs. The most dangerous dirty job I've done is shark suit tester, where you go 60 feet to the bottom of the ocean and let reef sharks bite you and drag you around. And there was ostrich wrangling; twice as many people die from ostriches than shark attacks. Ostriches are dinosaurs with razor sharp toes. Learning the real deal in the middle of a dirty job is great television."


Any jobs you couldn't complete?

"I've thrown up a couple of times on a show ... (but) I've got the will to try just about anything. It's important to know: I'm paid to try - not to succeed. I've got to be willing to incompetent, vulnerable - a lot of things that other hosts' agents and managers would tell them not to do."


So, your online bio says you used to be an opera singer?

"I joined the opera to get my union card and meet girls. I was a saloon singer, so I went down to the Baltimore Opera and learned an aria and auditioned. I figured I'd do one show and quit. But the girls were everywhere and the truth is, the music was really decent."


And QVC? How did you end up there?

"I was fired three times by them, actually. I was in the opera at the time. I walked across the street with a buddy of mine (during a performance) - we're dressed as Vikings and we have a drink. The TV is turned to QVC. ... My buddy bets me $100 I can't get a call back. So ... I crashed the audition and got a job on the spot. I basically turned the whole thing into my own stupid David Letterman show - I made fun of the callers and made fun of the products."


So you were well prepared for taking on a show like "Dirty Jobs"?

"Dirty Jobs is penance for all that I have done, from opera to home shopping, to a long list of questionable career choices. I'm having the most success I've ever had right now. The only catch, is I have to crawl through a river of (muck) to do it."


Mike Rowe's 100th Dirty Job special airs at 9 tonight on the Discovery Channel. Grade: A

[Last modified September 5, 2006, 05:26:41]

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