Mike Rowe has made a name for himself on television by showing us what people do for a living, and he hasn’t been afraid to get his hands dirty as we saw on his Discovery series Dirty Jobs, which profiled American workers with difficult, messy, and sometimes dangerous occupations. During the eight-season run of that show, Rowe gamely got to work, cleaning out septic tanks, picking up roadkill and plugging abandoned mines, all the while celebrating the blue-collar workers who do those tough jobs day in and day out.
By the time Dirty Jobs was canceled in 2012, Rowe had become passionate about representing the interests of working people, launching mikeroweWORKS to provide scholarships to those pursuing careers in the skilled trades and speaking on behalf of workers in Washington. Rowe also remained committed to telling the stories of America’s workers on television, and he sold CNN on the idea of him hosting Somebody’s Gotta Do It. Back for a second season on April 9 and produced by Pilgrim Studios, the show has Rowe living career day over and over, examining and testing out all kind of unusual and interesting professions–this season, he will try his hand at everything from bull fighting to monster-truck driving.
But how about Rowe’s career? While he has sampled many jobs with all of us watching, he is, in fact, a television host, actor, producer, writer, and narrator (you’ve heard his voice on Wicked Tuna, Deadliest Catch and Bering Sea Gold among other shows), and he has been a pitchman for brands like Ford and Walmart.
Rowe is successful, but he wasn’t an overnight success. Co.Create talked to him about how he pivoted from his childhood vision of being a tradesman, detoured into singing, accidentally scored a big hit, and wound up as a multi-hyphenate with a purpose.
Rowe grew up in awe of his grandfather. While he didn’t have a lot of formal education (he only got as far as the seventh grade), Rowe’s grandfather Carl Knobel was a smart man, a master electrician and jack-of-all-trades who built the house that Rowe grew up in from scratch without a blueprint. “He was just one of those guys who was born hard-wired knowing how things work,” Rowe says of his late grandfather, recalling his mastery of everything from plumbing to electrical. “He was a magician to me, and so I wanted very much to follow in his footsteps, get into the trades.”
But that was not to be. “I wasn’t completely inept, but it just didn’t come easy, and so after watching me bumble and fail and wash out of every imaginable shop class in high school, my granddad eventually just said, ‘Look, do yourself a favor and get a different toolbox. You know, you can still be a tradesman, you can approach any kind of work that you want with the mindset of a jobber, but you’re just going to beat your head against the wall if you’re going to try and hang sheetrock and dig foundations properly the rest of your life,’” Rowe recalls, adding, “He was right in hindsight.”
Rowe enrolled in Essex Community College after high school and studied what came more naturally, and that was performing arts—theater, music, and voice. He would later transfer to Towson University where he earned a degree in communications.
After graduating from college, Rowe wanted to pursue acting, but he needed to get into one of the unions—SAG and AFTRA (now merged, they were separate entities at the time)—in order to make a living. Naively, he thought it would be easy. “I called SAG and basically said, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Rowe recalls. “And they were like, ‘Well, you have to do a SAG project.’ I’m like ‘Well, how do I get a SAG project?’ ‘Well, you have to get a SAG card.’”
Realizing it was going to be difficult to get into either of those unions, Rowe decided to pursue membership in AGMA (the American Guild of Musical Artists) after he was told it would help him get into the other unions. “Long story short, I thought my odds of faking my way into the opera would be easier than faking my way into a sitcom,” Rowe says.
As self-deprecating as he is, Rowe, who was 22 years old at the time, obviously had vocal chops because he auditioned for the Baltimore Opera Company, and he got in. “It actually taught me a great deal about live performance, and it was the first tool in the alternative toolbox my granddad encouraged me to investigate,” Rowe says.
After the opera, Rowe landed his first television gig as a host on the home shopping channel QVC where, for three years, he sold items like crinkly Katsak cat toys and lava lamps.
From there, Rowe had dozens of gigs in television between his early twenties and the age of 42 when Dirty Jobs made him a star. “Honestly, from 20 until 42, I can’t think of a single job of the 300 jobs I had in entertainment, I can’t think of a single one that I would ever seriously talk about in terms of pride,” Rowe reflects, adding, “but it’s just as important to say that there’s not a single one of those jobs that I’m ashamed of.”
Rowe was working and earning a living, but he wasn’t intent on succeeding in the way that most ambitious people in television are. “I was never swinging for the fences. I was all about the standup double or the single,” Rowe says. “Never, ever did I want a hit. Never did I want a job that would turn into a commitment. Anything more than two months made my palms itch.”
His role model back then was Travis McGee, a character from John D. MacDonald’s series of novels about a guy who lives on a houseboat–Rowe describes him as a boat bum–and works on-and-off as a salvage expert, helping people recover property illegally taken from them. “The point is, McGee worked whenever he felt like it,” says Rowe, who admits seeking out projects that were poorly conceived so that he could count on five or six months of vacation time a year.
Then came Dirty Jobs, the show that became a steady job and put Rowe on the map. “Dirty Jobs really was kind of a miscalculation to be honest,” Rowe says.
So would it be wrong to assume that after all those years of being directionless, Rowe decided to take control of his career and create a vehicle that would best suit his talents and provide stability? “It would be so awesome to say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly right. Perfect.’ I mean, it’s tempting, honestly, to look back at stuff and sort of retrofit the business of your career. People do it all the time. That’s what sells books,” Rowe says.
But Dirty Jobs came to be by accident.
Rowe was doing a temporary hosting gig for a San Francisco show called Evening Magazine in 2001. His grandfather was 92 at the time and in failing health. Inspired by his grandfather’s skills and work ethic, Rowe pitched a segment for Evening Magazine called Somebody’s Gotta Do It that had him working as an apprentice alongside people with what he thought of as real jobs. One of the first segments had Rowe collecting semen from a bull and artificially inseminating half-a-dozen cows.
“It was every bit as weird as it sounds,” Rowe says, “but when that footage went on the air back in 2002, it kind of blew up. Half the audience was outraged because they were trying to eat dinner, and this German porno thing evolved right in front of them on their TV, and the other half were delighted because it was funny and honest and smart, and you learned a lot about animal husbandry.”
The concept wasn’t a hit with his boss’s boss, though, and after doing about 20 of these segments, Rowe was out of a job once again.
Rowe started showing the footage around in hopes of landing a new gig, and it got him in the door at Discovery. Rowe was using the footage as a calling card, hoping it would land him a job as what he describes as a roving gadfly for the network—he even suggested that Discovery send him to exotic places like Kilimanjaro. But the network loved the Somebody’s Gotta Do It segments and wanted to go in that direction. The segments were expanded into an hour-long show dubbed Dirty Jobs, with Rowe hosting and executive producing.
“So my grand plan to become a roving gadfly on behalf of the Discovery Channel got scrapped, and they ordered a boatload of these things, and I began a long and smelly odyssey that went on for 10 years,” Rowe says.
Dirty Jobs was a game changer for Rowe, allowing him to tap into his passion for issues affecting American workers and making him famous enough that people would listen to what he had to say. “I’ve testified before both houses of Congress numerous times about everything from the widening skills gap to the crumbling infrastructure to currency devaluation to offshoring. I’m not an expert in any of those things, of course. I never am, but I have had a front-row seat to a very specific kind of work for a long time, and so I have a weird street cred,” he says.
Looking back, Rowe is surprised—and happy—to have ended up where he is today, not just with a successful career but with a real purpose that aligns with interests he has had all his life, going back to when he was a kid who wanted to be like his grandfather. “I just turned 53, and I am awash in irony. Dirty Jobs, which began as a segment called Somebody’s Gotta Do It, has come full circle—Somebody’s Gotta Do It is now a one-hour nonfiction show on a news channel of all places, and the guy who based his career on a boat bum is essentially in charge of a work ethic scholarship program and a foundation that’s functioning as a PR campaign for skilled labor,” Rowe says. “If my granddad were still around, he really would be baffled. He’d be speechless.”