The dirt on Mike Rowe
Many students struggle to find employment after graduation, but in the last four years, one Towson alumnus has had more than 200 jobs and counting.
Mike Rowe, a Dundalk native who graduated in 1985, is best known as host of the Discovery Channel series ‘Dirty Jobs.’ But long before he took on tasks such as pig farming, garbage collecting and mining, he was a communication studies major.
Rowe said he felt very indecisive about what he wanted to do when he came to Towson in 1982, transferring from the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex.
He took classes in English, speech, philosophy and theater. Rowe joked that he ‘majored in everything,’ and didn’t decide on communication ‘until the last possible second.’
‘[Towson] was just a place to go learn and try to figure out what the hell to do,’ he said.’ ‘It wasn’t about getting a degree. The degree was a symptom, actually.’
One of Rowe’s favorite professors at Towson was Richard Vatz of the department of mass communication and communication studies. Vatz recalled Rowe as a hard worker and an active voice in class discussions.
‘He was one of those people who was energetic, but never ever hostile ‘- he just enjoyed his role of the inquiring and participating student,’ Vatz said in an e-mail. ‘He was curious about everything… I would guess he has a very broad range of interests today.’
Rowe described himself as ‘lost’ and somewhat disconnected from Towson as a transfer student and as a commuter driving from Dundalk every day.
‘I got a lot of parking tickets,’ he said.
When he was set to walk across the stage and collect his degree, he wasn’t even in town. He was at Madison Square Garden seeing Pink Floyd.
‘When it was over, I didn’t have an emotional connection to the school,’ he said. ‘It was more mercenary than missionary.’
After graduation he started looking for work. He auditioned for the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company, where he spent the next six years performing, enjoying the music and meeting women. His odds were pretty good, he said.
‘There were maybe 30 guys. Twenty-five of them had no interest in any of the girls. The other five ‘- well three were married and the other single guy, he had a mole on his eyelid with a lot of black hair growing out of it,’ he said. ‘So basically, it was me.’
One night, during an intermission, Rowe left the Lyric Opera House and went across Mount Royal Avenue to the Mount Royal Tavern. He sat at the bar to watch a football game, still wearing full Viking regalia from his performance. The bartender had on the QVC Cable Shopping Channel. When Rowe asked why, the bartender told him QVC’s talent hunters were coming to town the next day.
‘I tell him I think that sounds like the end of Western civilization, and he bets me that I couldn’t get a callback,’ he said.
Rowe bet $100. He won ‘- QVC hired him on the spot. He then spent three years on the graveyard shift, from midnight to 3 a.m., a time slot that he called ‘the best TV in the world ever.’
He sold everything from Spam to eel skin wallets in what he described as a hybrid of sales and stand-up comedy. Videos of him hawking bargains survive on YouTube.
‘I wasn’t exactly proud of it, but later in my career I realized just how important those three years were,’ he said. ‘By the time I made it to Hollywood in 1993, I had a unique training program in home shopping.’
After years of pitching and hosting, Rowe convinced the Discovery Channel to give him his dream job.
‘I’ve always wanted to be ‘The Discovery Guy,” he said. ‘I’ve always believed the way to work in television is not as a host but as a viewer.’
In 2005, they hired him and sent him to exotic destinations, including Mount Everest and the Egyptian pyramids. They asked him to do some specials to introduce him to the viewers. He pitched ‘Somebody’s Gotta Do It,’ which produced three episodes with nine jobs, earning a massive response and viewer requests for Rowe to cover their job.
‘It was not supposed to be a hit; it was not supposed to be a series. It wasn’t even supposed to be a show,’ he said.
The miniseries was reborn as ‘Dirty Jobs,’ and since then, Rowe has been on the road for most of the last four years. For Rowe, every new job is a lesson.
‘I just thought it had been so long since anyone went out and genuinely let the viewers see them fail. Not an expert, but just a good-natured participant,’ he said.
He said ‘Dirty Jobs’ may be the only reality show that lives up to the genre’s name.
‘It’s real reality. We don’t do take two, we don’t rehearse, we don’t scout. We don’t do any of that stuff,’ he said.
‘Dirty Jobs,’ has helped change minds about the people who work in those occupations, he said.
‘You juxtapose work, sweat and adversity with good humor, laughter. Those things together send a message that TV typically has been unable to deliver,’ he said.
‘And it’s important. Not everything that looks like drudgery is drudgery. We’ve declared war, essentially, on the traditional notion of work, and so we’re surprised when we see a plumber who’s not 300 pounds with a huge butt crack.’
Rowe is currently at home in San Francisco on a rare two-month hiatus. He isn’t sitting still, however ‘- he’s working on two books: one, a memoir of his early days in Baltimore, and the other, a book of essays titled ‘Lessons from the Dirt,’ a chronicle of the last four years of ‘Dirty Jobs.’
‘I’m not sure which [of the two stories] is dirtier,’ Rowe said with a laugh. ‘I’ve been crawling through a river of crap most of my life, it seems. Lately, I’ve just realized that it’s fun.’