An Interview with a Vampire

posted: 04/11/12

When Mike shot his 100th dirty job last fall, Discovery Channel was veeeeerrrrrry excited. One hundred is a big number, and he's still going strong! Which made us wonder ...

Does Mike Rowe have a passion for poo? Is he aware some people on this very Web site think he's "hot"? And what, after 100 jobs (plus chipped teeth, cracked ribs, scratched skin, etc.), keeps him coming back for more?

Mike being Mike, he took the time to answer us; now enjoy the fruits of his labor (no pun intended).

DC: You've completed 100 different Dirty Jobs in just over a year. That seems like some sort of record.

MR: Actually, the current total is 130. By this time tomorrow, it'll be 131.

DC: Incredible. What's on for tomorrow?

MR: A salt mine in Wichita.

DC: You must be exhausted.

MR: Actually, I'm sleeping right now.

DC: Then I'll do the talking. In addition to 130 Dirty Jobs, you narrate American Chopper and American Hot Rod. We've sent you go to Alaska twice to host and narrate Deadliest Catch. You also spent three weeks in North Africa hosting Egypt Week Live. Additionally, you went to South Africa to host Shark Week, which turned out to be the highest rated Shark Week in network history.

MR: I do remember something about sharks.

DC: Along the way, you've been kicked by horses, stung by hornets, chased by alligators, attacked by monkeys, and exposed to a dozen different toxic substances. You've gotten stitches. Your contacts have been melted to your eyes by a blast furnace. You've been bitten by snakes, ostriches, penguins, catfish and several sharks.

MR: You make it sound like fun.

DC: How are you holding up?

MR: Not bad. I maintain a constant state of evolving infirmary.

DC: Tell me where it hurts today.

MR: At the moment, a bruised rib, a sprained toe, a pulled lower back, a loose tooth and a second-degree burn on my left hand that won't seem to heal.

DC: Are you trying to make us feel sorry for you?

MR: Yes.

DC: Seriously, do you worry about your well-being?

MR: Dirty Jobs is a physical show. It demands a lot of travel and a lot of manual labor. I get out of bed a little slower these days, but I heal quickly. But nobody with his name in the title of a hit show has any business complaining.

DC: Are you worried that you'll run out of ideas for Dirty Jobs?

MR: I'm more concerned that I won't run out of ideas. Most show ideas come from viewer e-mail through our Web site. At this point, the series is pretty much programmed by the fans. Alarmingly, there are more than a few.

DC: Speaking of fans, you've answered nearly 2,000 viewer questions on the Web site. Where do you find the time?

MR: I spend a lot of evenings in two-star hotels, often in towns that don't appear on maps. Talking about the show with viewers passes the time. Usually, I'm too tired to do much else. Dirty Jobs fans have lots of questions.

DC: Then I'll try to ask you something you haven't already answered.

MR: Good luck with that.

DC: OK. What's been more surprising: the success of the show or the difficulty of producing it?

MR: Well, the biggest surprise was the fact that Discovery gave Dirty Jobs a chance in the first place. A show about manual labor, blood, sweat, and poo is a hard sell to a family network.

DC: You must have been very persuasive.

MR: All I said was, "Imagine Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous without the money, the fame or Robin Leach."

DC: That was it? A one-sentence pitch?

MR: No, but it started a good conversation, and by the time it was over, we all agreed that people are sick of celebrity worship, and tired of reality shows that have no reality in them. The network was ready to try something different.

DC: Tell me about the artificial-cow-inseminating minister.

MR: To be clear, neither the cow nor the minister were artificial.

DC: I understand. Just tell me the story.

MR: Well, Dirty Jobs grew out of a segment I used to do on a show called Evening Magazine that aired once upon a time in San Francisco. The segment was called "Somebody's Gotta Do It," and it was basically a short version of Dirty Jobs. One of the first people I profiled was a minister who moonlighted as a cow inseminator. I spent the day with him on a dairy farm, and assisted him in all areas of animal husbandry. It was an epic afternoon of blood, poo, laughter, learning, long plastic gloves, redemption, and several quarts of bull semen. At the time, I thought the presence of a minister would somehow legitimize the proceedings. In hindsight, it just made it weirder.

DC: You think! How did people react?

MR: The segment awakened a large part of my narcoleptic audience, and their response was a healthy mix of outrage and delight. Mainly delight. It aired at 7 p.m. though, which apparently is some sort of "dinner hour."

DC: Oops. What happened next?

MR: Unfortunately, my boss was one of the people watching during dinner, and the sight of my arm in a cow's vulva reportedly ruined his casserole. Whatever. He killed the segment, and I sent the tape to a producer I know named Craig Piligian, and he got it to Discovery, which ultimately sold the series.

DC: So you got the last laugh?

MR: Do I look like I'm laughing?

DC: Well, you're smiling.

MR: Look closer. It's a grimace.

DC: What makes the show different, aside from the fact that we've never heard of anyone in it?

MR: We don't use a script or hire actors or show up with an agenda. We just try and capture a day in the life of a real worker. Dirty Jobs is not a big production, but it's honest, sort of, and its themes are big and timeless, kind of. Anyway, it's a very relatable show, for the most part.

DC: How is working on an oil rig, or being bitten by a shark, or diving for recycled golf balls "relatable" to the average person?

MR: It's not so much the jobs that people relate to. It's more about the people who do them -- their attitude, their work ethic. It's easy to admire someone who is very good at doing something very difficult -- especially when that job needs to get done. It's also easy to sympathize with someone who tries hard but often comes up short. That's where I come in. I'm Don Quixote. I'm paid to try.

DC: You don't really function as a normal host, do you?

MR: Well, I certainly try not to. I'm more of a guinea pig, or a lab rat, if you prefer. My role is to do the work, provide an honest point of view, and give the viewer a sense of what it would be like to actually be there in my place.

DC: In other words, you conduct no research, you show up completely unprepared, and promise nothing?

MR: Precisely. Never underestimate the power of low expectations.

DC: You're kidding, of course.

MR: Not really. A lot of shows make big promises and sweeping claims. We don't. All I promise on Dirty Jobs is to get filthy someplace new each week. That's a promise I can keep.

DC: You wrote the Dirty Jobs mission statement that starts every episode. How's that go?

MR: "My name is Mike Rowe, and this is my job. I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty. Hardworking men and women who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. Now, get ready to get dirty."

DC: It's like the Star Trek open, with "dirt" instead of "space."

MR: Exactly. Dirt, the final frontier ...

DC: You also wrote and sang a tribute song for the "100 Jobs Special." Should we expect a record deal?

MR: Not likely. Although someone told me it was getting some play on a country station somewhere in Oklahoma. Look out, Garth Brooks.

DC: Is that why people watch? To see you get dirty? To hear you sing?

MR: A woman stopped me in the airport the other day to say she liked the show because it teaches her kids to respect regular working people. Ten feet later, a guy stopped me to say he uses the show to warn his kids about the dangers of not going to college. I get the sense that people watch for very different reasons.

DC: So you have a show that's both inspirational and cautionary?

MR: Well, that's a little grand, but yeah. Underneath all the dirt and poo are some pretty big ideas. Sacrifice, delayed gratification, hard work -- I don't want to overstate it, but the nobility of manual labor has definitely fallen out of favor. A relatively small number of people are doing the vast majority of dirty work. Those people are making our lives easy, and we've forgotten about them. Dirty Jobs is a reminder that most of us are getting off easy. It taps into a collective guilt.

DC: What ever happened to the Puritan work ethic?

MR: Technology murdered it, and forever changed our notion of labor. We've become soft and lazy. Most people today can earn a living without ever needing to pick up a sledgehammer or a shovel. And most of my friends have bought in to the notion that "smart work" is better than "hard work." That's dangerous. There are huge rewards to dirty work and manual labor that people have forgotten.

DC: Such as?

MR: Pride of ownership. Craftsmanship. Completion. Most people with Dirty Jobs can look back at their day and see a visible difference directly related to their efforts. They earn their blisters. Lumberjacks, fishermen, garbage men - when the dust settles, they can actually see the fruits of their labor. That's missing in a lot of white-collar jobs.

DC: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

MR: Something like that. Overcoming adversity, in any form, is satisfying. Convenience and technical advancement make us more efficient, but rob us of the satisfaction we used to get from accomplishing a physical feat. I just spent 12 hours with a well-driller in Tennessee. At the end of the day, I was tired, wet, bruised and incoherent. But there was a 250-foot hole where there had been nothing that morning. I was just a hole, but it was my hole. I felt like I did something.

DC: Everyone on your show, even you, appears to be having a fun, even when things look miserable.

MR: By and large, people with dirty jobs know how to enjoy themselves. They're more balanced than white-collar folk, and more fun to be around. No offense.

DC: None taken. I take "soft and lazy" as a compliment.

MR: Good. That's how I meant it.

DC: Do you see the people on your show as "heroes"?

MR: No. TV is good at transforming regular people into something artificial. Sometimes it's a hero. Other times, it's a "straight man." Both do a disservice to the subject, as well as the viewer, and I try not to let that happen on Dirty Jobs.

DC: How do you keep that from happening? How do you pay a sincere tribute without becoming overly earnest?

MR: I don't cheat, I try hard, and I actually do the work. If there's a joke, I try to make sure that I'm the brunt of it. And when I'm genuinely scared or worried or out of my comfort zone, I don't try to hide it. When viewers see honest vulnerability, they'll start to trust you. And they'll forgive quite a bit, even the occasional fart joke.

DC: I didn't want to go there, but I guess it's inevitable. You've said "poo" on camera more than any other person in the history of this network. Maybe in the history of television. Why?

MR: Because you guys yell at me if I call it "crap."

DC: Seriously. Why the fixation with Number 2?

MR: Because aside from TiVo and the bottle opener, and maybe electricity, indoor plumbing is the greatest invention of all time. Poo is a fact of life, and one of things we all have in common. But we've made it a taboo. Not only do we like to pretend our poo doesn't stink, we like to behave as though our poo doesn't even exist. Well, believe me, poo is real, and poo is everywhere, and the people who handle our poo are keeping polite society on the rails. Imagine the state of affairs in New York City if for one day, just one day, none of the toilets flushed. There would be riots in the street. Poo riots, guaranteed.

DC: So you have a passion for poo?

MR: Plumbers don't get their due, because people are frightened by poo.

DC: That rhymes.

MR: I know. I'm a poet as well as a gadfly.

DC: So what's the perfect dirty job?

MR: The best segments feature interesting people doing something truly dirty or difficult or disgusting that makes all of our lives better. "Roadkill Picker-Upper" is a classic. If the people who pick up road kill for a living all called in sick for two weeks, interstate commerce would shut down. It's a horrible, but really important job. Hot Tar Roofer, Oil-Driller, Exterminator ... the list is long.

DC: After this many jobs, there has to be a certain element of repetition, right?

MR: Well, I'm always going to wake up clean and go home dirty. That's a given. As for locations -- farms, fisheries, factories, dumps and sewers have all been featured more than once. But I haven't done the same job twice.

DC: Any jobs out there that you have "applied" for but been rejected?

MR: Early on, the name Dirty Jobs scared a lot of business owners away. Surprisingly, people in the food service business were not eager to see their product featured on a show about dirt. Go figure.

DC: Are people with dirty jobs well paid?

MR: In general, there is no premium for a willingness to get dirty. With the exception of salaried employees, most people with dirty jobs are compensated purely for results, and their willingness to assume risk. Fishermen do quite well. Lobstermen, in particular. So do piecemeal workers, if they are very good at what they do. As a rule, I can't say that people with dirty jobs are underpaid. But I can assure you they earn every penny.

DC: Do you have a favorite?

MR: Personally, I'm partial to the obscure. Golf Ball Recycler, Concrete Chipper, Bovine Palpater. "Chick Sexer" is still one of my all-time favorite Dirty Jobs.

DC: The one where you literally squeeze the poo out of little baby chicks and look in their bottoms to see what sex they are?

MR: That's the one. You really do watch, don't you?

DC: That one made an impression. What's been the hands-down most disgusting day you've spent filming to date?

MR: For a long time, my stock answer was, "Mrs. Frasier's Exploding Toilet." There's a terrible intimacy in cleaning several thousands pounds of raw sewage from an otherwise tasteful abode. And as a rule, a man should never see his neighbor's poo spattered on his daughter's wedding photo.

DC: Many of your responses frighten me.

MR: Recently though, "Mrs. Frasier's Exploding Toilet" has been trumped by "Skull Cleaner" and "Tannery Worker."

DC: How nice for you.

MR: However, for pure, overwhelming nausea-inducing trauma, I'll go with "Lift Pump Remover."

DC: What's a lift pump?

MR: Do you really want to know?

DC: No.

MR: Good. A lift pump is a four-ton motor that sits at the bottom of a five-story shaft in a wastewater treatment plant. When the pump malfunctions, the shaft begins to fill with raw sewage, quickly. It covers the broken pump, and eventually fills the entire shaft, all the way to the surface.

DC: Stop.

MR: To replace the pump, the broken one must first be removed. This requires a human being to suit up, and enter the chamber through a series of watertight doors at the bottom of the shaft. He must then physically crawl through several tons of raw sewage, and scramble to the top of the poo-covered pump while feeling his way through a chunky bouillabaisse of unimaginable stench.

DC: You're making this up.

MR: Once atop the pump, he must attach a cable to a hook. Then, a giant winch pulls the broken pump out of the muck, and straight up the 50-foot shaft. The sight is unforgettable. The smell is indescribable. And the sound made by a four-ton motor breaking a seal of highly adhesive poo will haunt your dreams.

DC. Sorry I asked.

MR: I get that a lot.

DC: What do you do after a day like that? How do you put it behind you?

MR: It's not difficult. Our schedule is so busy, there's not much time to grieve or reflect on any particular experience. The day after that shoot, I spent 10 hours crawling through the forest with an owl vomit collector. (It's a job, I swear.) Two days later, I collected sperm from a boar - the hard way - and artificially inseminated a 600-pound sow. The individual horrors are finite and so far, manageable. The exponential fallout is another matter.

DC: A lot of people on the Dirty Jobs Web site say they watch your show because you're funny. Do you see Dirty Jobs as a comedy?

MR: Dirty Jobs only seems funny because it airs around shows like Deadliest Catch, Going Tribal, Survivorman and Man vs. Nature. In that lineup, CSI would get laughs.

DC: So you're saying Dirty Jobs wouldn't work on Comedy Central?

MR: Probably not. Comedies are deliberately designed to be funny. Dirty Jobs was not deliberately designed to be anything so specific. The humor is symptomatic.

DC: Nevertheless, people find you amusing.

MR: If you say so. But truthfully, I'm more concerned with amusing myself than amusing the viewer.

DC: So how do you keep yourself amused? How do you laugh while picking up roadkill?

MR: A slapstick mentality is the only sensible way to host a show that guarantees a certain dose of regular humiliation. In fact, it's the only sensible way to approach life. I find inspiration in the world-weary but good-natured vaudevillian clown -- the one who knows he's going to eventually get a pie in the face, but shows up anyway.

DC: When did this "slapstick paradigm" occur to you?

MR: Early on I slipped and fell in a bat cave outside of Austin, Texas, and became hopelessly stuck in several tons of guano. With millions of bats peeing, pooing and birthing over my head, a legion of tiny, flesh-eating beetles began to bit my legs repeatedly. It was outrageously uncomfortable. The air was 110 degrees, and toxic with ammonia. As I sank to my waist in a vast, soupy poo, my predicament struck me as a ridiculous way to die, but not entirely without humor.

DC: So whatever sense of humor you have is really a just coping mechanism?

MR: Don't get me wrong. In real life, after a few drinks, I'm terribly amusing. But when you spend this much time working outside of your comfort zone, you need to find a way to enjoy being uncomfortable, if that makes sense. You need to adjust your expectations. A lot of people with dirty jobs know that instinctively. Or like me, they learn it on the job. It's like they're in on some joke the rest of us don't quite get, and you can see it in the way they approach their work.

DC: For example?

MR: The factory worker who makes bathroom drains, standing in the same place for eight hours a day, singing while he works. The butcher, who works the killing floor at a slaughterhouse, and tells Henny Youngman jokes all day. You see it in the camaraderie of a construction crew working to meet a deadline, or the good-natured ribbing between roughnecks and roustabouts, as they happily labor at one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. You see it anywhere danger and dirt are met head-on with cheerfulness, competence and optimism.

DC: Wow. That was uncharacteristically earnest.

MR: I'm complicated.

DC: Back to the Web site. A lot of women, and a few men, seem to think you're "hot." I've read dozens of marriage proposals, as well as some other offers. Any comment?

MR: Well, there's no accounting for taste. I'm a sweaty guy covered with blood and poo. I doubt you'll see me on the cover of People Magazine any time soon.

DC: You also sang with the Baltimore Opera, and performed in many theatrical productions. Were you covered with blood and poo then as well?

MR: Just my own.

DC: You really are complicated.

MR: Please don't print that. Remember, I'm actually asleep.

DC: Last question. Your name is in the title of a hit show, and your point of view drives all of the content. For the show to succeed, people need to genuinely like you on a personal level. Do you feel much pressure to be "likable"?

MR: Hmmm. Well. Not until this very moment.

DC: Sorry about that. Any final thoughts?

MR: No. Any final questions? I'm still waiting for something I've never been asked.

DC: Let's see ... if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

MR: The kind that doesn't make a noise when it falls on you.

DC: See? You're funny! Can we do this again sometime?

MR: Probably not.

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