Mike Rowe and Studs Terkel never met, but the two have much in common. Terkel was a broadcaster turned oral historian whose 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do masterfully chronicled Americans’ relationship to their jobs. Rowe, who started out in opera, hosts Discovery’s mesmerizing hit ‘Dirty Jobs,” a series that, according to the network, “explores unsung American laborers who make their living in the most unthinkable – yet vital – ways.” The connection between Terkel and Rowe is clear, and it gets even clearer when you speak to the articulate, passionate, 48-year-old, Baltimore-born host, something we did over breakfast as ‘Dirty Jobs,’ which airs Tuesdays at 9 pm on Discovery, began its sixth season.
From the beginning, ‘Dirty Jobs,’ which I like very much, reminded me of Studs Terkel’s book, ‘Working.’ It seems like a simple premise, but beneath the surface – In so many ways the headlines have caught up to the themes of the show, and like Studs, the books are very, very simple, but the themes are enormous. This show – well, not since the Gong Show has there been a simpler show on TV. But the themes are big, and all of a sudden really kind of relevant. The whole definition of what a good job is, and the whole relationship with work, it’s being discussed every day.
People always ask you to list the dirtiest jobs you’ve encountered, but I’m more curious to know which people stand out as favorites. I talk about a guy named Bob, a pig farmer in Los Vegas, who picks up all the uneaten leftovers in casinos in a giant slop truck and drives them back to his pig farm on the outskirts of town. The place smells like just the biggest ass hole in the history of the world. It’s indescribable. Every day he boils all of this food down into a kind of a bouillabaisse in a giant cooker. In his back yard, he’s created a series of conveyors, engines, pumps, and containers that I think would make Rube Goldberg proud. And it sits back there, this giant contraption, trembling under its own weight and innovation, creating this high octane pig slop, which he feeds to his pigs every day, gets them to market that much faster, because they grow like weeds eating this people food. And in the end he’s also providing a service to Vegas. He’s recycling. He’s providing a food product. He’s a farmer in Sodom, and after the story aired, he was offered $75 million for his land. He said, ‘No. No thanks. What would I do with my pigs?’ That guy is out there feeding pigs, feeding people, cleaning up after himself. He’s a monument to innovation. Humble, and one of the hardest working people I know. And I admire him.
How involved are you in producing the show? I was deeply involved for the first two seasons, I looked at everything, and we tried to produce the show in a classic sense. We looked for the stories. We don’t do that anymore. When I ran out of ideas I just announced it. I said, ‘If you want the show to stay on the air,’ – this is me talking to the viewer – ‘I’m tapped out. Send me ideas.’ And that was that. Tens of thousands came in. Now the only shows we do that don’t come specifically from a viewer suggestion happens because I‘m walking down the street and I see something that I just pass by. Like Hair Fairies in San Francisco, a place that removes head lice. I saw that and 20 minutes later we’re inside with a crew. Six hours later we left with this really fun story about Pediculosis and head lice. Believe it or not, the show happens like that. There’s a certain randomness to it. And I think it’s better for it.
Do you have any favorites? The ones that stick with me are the ones that frighten me – like walking up the cable of the Mackinac Bridge to change a light bulb. That was kind of a big deal for me. Also, working on a crab boat. I remember that vividly. Getting bit by snakes, bit by sharks, kicked by ostriches. Again, these things all live fairly vividly in my short-term recall. But I think the ones that are the most interesting to talk about have people central to them.
Has anything great happened after you turned off the camera? A great question, but the truth is, not much of an answer, because we never turn the cameras off. Everybody shoots, including me. There is always a camera rolling.
Do you get invited in for lunch or dinner? There was a place in Indiana called Fair Oaks, a big dairy run by this guy Mike McCloskey. He is on the dairy council and he’s a wonderful guy. Employs thousands of people. It’s a big dairy. And when we first went up there to shoot I delivered cows all day with him. This is how crazy the show is. He let me perform a Cesarean section. I mean, people toss me the keys to anything. They’ll hand me tools and knives for which I’m unequipped and it just goes back to the real eagerness that still exists for people to show you what they do. People are eager to show the world, look, this is what I do, this is why I’m valuable, this is what my contribution is, this is how my life is, this is how my days work. And McCloskey didn’t do any of that until I agreed to take my crew and spend the night in his house to eat with his family. He put us up in a bunk house. Consequently, we don’t fly over Indiana anymore. Wherever we’re going, we make time before or after the trip to stop in Chicago, drive outside of his home, or to his home, and spend a day with them and their friends.
Do you think the people you meet like their jobs? I don’t have a snappy answer. Dirty Jobbers have debunked a lot of platitudes for me. In fact, we’ve done a whole special looking back at how the best advice I ever got was completely wrong. Like the axiom follow your passion. My Scout Master, my dad, my minister growing up and my guidance counselor told me to follow my passion. ‘Find something you’re passionate about and go get it, stick to it.’ People with dirty jobs, though, what I realized halfway through the second season, was that while they’re passionate about what they do, almost to a fault, they didn’t get there because it was the culmination of their wish fulfillment. And so I made a big poster that said, ‘Don’t follow your passion. But always bring it with you.’ The bigger revelation is that many people aren’t all about their jobs. They work – and they have a life.
You have a website, MikeroweWORKS.com, that celebrates skilled labor and actually connects people to jobs. How’s that going? We launched it two years ago on Labor Day. I didn’t have any more plan for the website than I did for the show. It kind of Forrest Gumped its way into whatever it is. I got to I guess the 100th job and I felt something like guilt. Not really guilt, but I just thought, you know, I’ve done really well by this show. It’s in 180 countries. Discovery airs it 600, 700 times a year. I’m doing great. However, the industries that we feature aren’t. What can I do to help? I wanted to build a resource center, start a conversation. I basically wanted to take a mission statement, Dirty Jobs, and flesh it out, put a point on it and just make it a little more practical. And so that’s why the site started. That’s how it started. And since then, it’s grown, it’s worked, and it’s given me something else to talk about aside from exploding toilets and poop jokes, both of which I’m very fond of. It helps to make me sound maybe a little brighter than I actually am.
I think Studs Terkel might like that. Oh yeah, I’m sure he’d understand.