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Wading Through Guano So You Don't Have To

On his Discovery Channel show, Mike Rowe celebrates labor in its infinite variety. In fact, the more putrescent, the better.

October 08, 2006|Joe Burris | Baltimore Sun

Mike Rowe was almost knee-deep in hardening bat excrement when he got stuck in the dark, muggy cave. He stopped paying attention to the thousands of screeching creatures raining urine on him from overhead.

The host of the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs" was sinking fast, his upper body inching closer to the flesh-eating beetles that scurried along the guano's surface.

"What a stupid way to die," he exclaimed, grunting as he tried to pry his legs free. It took a few moments before bat biologist Jim Kennedy managed to pull him out -- and only after Rowe slipped out of his right boot.

It would have been an odd way to go, but for Rowe, it's still a fascinating way to work. He created the show to highlight people like Kennedy and their occupations -- jobs that ordinary folks rarely seek in the classifieds.

Rowe, 44, immerses himself in those jobs and often gets more than he bargained for.

Still, he keeps coming back, whether it's gathering up bloody road kill along the interstate, reaching into a cow to feel whether she's pregnant or, as in the case of the bats, checking to see if they're infested with parasites.

Truth is, he's perfect for an odd-jobs show. Rowe loves work. Any kind, doesn't matter. To him, career counselors and life coaches are a waste; you do what you enjoy, even if it turns your neighbor's stomach.

That's how he discovered his niche -- performing -- after declaring seven majors at two colleges.

Initially, he said, "I wanted to write. I read Russell Baker's book, 'Growing Up,' and I just remembered, 'What a cool way to write, to have so many stories and to have lived such a weird life.' That inspired me to do as much stuff that I could so I could have some stories. I'll write about them later."

A graduate of Towson University near Baltimore, he signed on at the shopping network QVC to get live-television training. He stayed long enough to sell heaps of simulated diamonds.

He later joined the Baltimore Opera "to get my union card and meet women," and became a fixture in the bass section of the chorus.

Rowe has narrated more than 1,000 hours of television, done dozens of voice-overs for Tylenol commercials, and hosted On-Air TV for American Airlines' in-flight TV.

In San Francisco, where he resides, he made a name as host of the television show "Evening Magazine," the TV show that gave birth to the "Dirty Jobs" concept: His general manager in 2002 told him to shake up "Evening Magazine" to improve ratings, so Rowe started interviewing people in odd jobs for a segment called "Somebody's Gotta Do It."

The show's popularity prompted him to talk to the Discovery Channel about a special, which became a series.

"For me, the key to changing careers is to never have one in the first place," Rowe said in a recent interview.

Rowe has the voice of a radio talk-show host -- low, smooth and inviting. His creviced, unshaven face and athletic build give him the look of a steelworker. And when the cameras are on, he knows when to be engaging, when to be a ham, and when to keep quiet and allow the action to carry the moment.

The key to the show's success is its sincerity, he said.

"The real genesis behind it is to pay an honest tribute and not do the thing that I think TV does all too often, which is whenever you see real shows about real people, they're either turned into heroes, which all too often they're not, or they're reduced to straight men, which is a shame," Rowe said.

"I figured the only way to do it honestly is to actually do the work, don't cheat, try your best. And invariably I'm never as good as the people who do it day in and day out."

"Dirty Jobs" has no director, no script. Rowe goes out with a camera crew to a job site where a worker tells him what to do. At first, he and producers would come up with job ideas, but now they often come from viewers as well as the companies they highlight.

He's come a long way from the shy youngster who became more gregarious after immersing himself in music in middle school.

"From the time he reached high school, he enjoyed performing," said his mother, Peggy, of her eldest of three sons.

In high school, Mike was involved in every choral program and musical production, his mother said. He drew inspiration from a teacher, Fred King, and sang in a barbershop quartet that King formed.

"He got me on stage and got me in music," Rowe said. If not for King, he said, an entertainment career "would have been unlikely."

In addition to regularly getting mucky and stinky beyond recognition on "Dirty Jobs," he's had a few broken bones, several cuts and many bruises. During one recent taping, he came in contact with chemicals that left him with double vision for days.

"Something's always broken," he said. "I'm never quite 100%."

His favorite part of the job is meeting scores of down-to-earth people, whose work resonates with the kind of drama he found so intriguing in that Russell Baker memoir years ago, he said.

"They're the best people to have a beer with at the end of the day," he said. "They have the best stories of anybody I know."

Rowe said "Dirty Jobs" had more than exceeded his expectations.

"I was at the airport in New York recently and a guy came up to me, he looked to be in his early 40s. He said he watches the show with his family and he said, 'After a segment, I say to my kids, "That that's why the plumber who lives down the street deserves our respect." ' "

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