Think of the muckiest, scariest and nastiest jobs in America, and Mike Rowe has probably tackled each and every one of 'em and all on national TV. As the host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs (Tuesdays at 9 pm/ET), Rowe has thus far gotten down and very, very dirty on 85 different gigs, sharing a shift with the actual men and women who do the decidedly nonglam work that keeps our society going. (Hey, somebody's got to fish those golf balls out of all those water hazards!)
TVGuide.com: So, what led you to Dirty Jobs?
Mike Rowe: It was a crooked road, really. I was an actor who lost his way, then I lost a horrible bet and I auditioned for QVC. Against every synapse in my brain, I accepted a gig with them and worked three years on the graveyard shift. I also hosted [Discovery's] Romantic Escapes, which was the polar opposite of Dirty Jobs five-star hotels, pretty cohosts, the illusion of romance. And I used to do stuff for American Airlines. If you were flying anywhere more than three hours, you'd be forced to watch me talking about Prague or Sydney.
TVGuide.com: Whose idea was Dirty Jobs?
Rowe: Mine. Two years ago I was working for CBS in San Francisco, hosting a show called The Evening Magazine. There, I once hired myself out as an apprentice to people who had never been the boss of anyone, in a segment called "Somebody's Got to Do It." A significant one involved a lay minister who moonlighted as an artificial cow inseminator. I spent a whole day with him, collecting semen from the bulls and inseminating the cows. Boy, we got tons of mail. But the point was that without Harry crawling inside these cows, so to speak, day after day, milk would be $4 a gallon! Based on the response, I sent [the Dirty Jobs pitch] to Discovery, and they said they wanted 40 hours right away. We did three and it tested very well. It's a new form of TV immersion television, where you basically send an imposter into the bush.
TVGuide.com: You're a very good "everyguy."
Rowe: Thanks. Whatever questions occur to me from a journalistic standpoint, I immediately dismiss. I try to ask the questions that I would if I were sitting at home. I really want to acknowledge these people, and I knew the way to do that was actually not to cheat and really to do the work. We have no script. We simply arrive with three cameras and shoot until the sun goes down. They're true slices of life.
TVGuide.com: What's the most dangerous job you've done?
Rowe: In the middle of Louisiana, I found an oil-drilling company that gave me unfettered access to their operation, which was unheard of. I was at the top of a 200-foot derrick with roughnecks and roustabouts, oil and mud flying everywhere. OSHA wouldn't come near it to visit.
TVGuide.com: People get injured or die on these rigs?
Rowe: All the time. [Rowe shows off his latest Dirty Job injury, a scabby cut down his leg.] It's an endless job, 24/7. Christmas, New Year's... they never ever stop. They're covered in oil and mud all of the time, in freezing rain, 110 degrees.... It doesn't matter.
TVGuide.com: What other injuries have you sustained over the series?
Rowe: My shoulder's been bruised for about a year.... I had a mild crack of my lower right rib.... My left knee doesn't entirely unfold.... Working with a blacksmith, I melted my left contact lens to my eye.... Driving railroad spikes, I took the toenail off my right big toe... I've been stung by dozens of bees, yellow jackets, hornets....
TVGuide.com.com: At least bee stings are supposed to make you live longer. Have you learned the best way to clean up, doing all these dirty jobs?
Rowe: [Laughs] While hygiene is certainly not overrated, the "appearance" of cleanliness is just that. We're all filthy. Are you kidding me, look under a microscope and we're all covered with little bugs. Your eyelids are crawling with things.
TVGuide.com: Ooh. More than I need to know. You no longer bother to use deodorant, is that what you're saying?
Rowe: On the job? No.
TVGuide.com: OK, what's the worst job you've ever done?
Rowe: The worst job is the best job, in terms of TV. Last week we replaced a 4 1/2-ton lift pump from a wastewater treatment plant. Lift pumps reside at the bottom of a five-story shaft that fills up with raw sewage. The lift pump forces it into the treatment plant. Methane gas fills the air, there's sulfuric acid.... When there's a problem, these men run through the shaft to put a coupling hook on the top of this thing where a giant winch will yank it up through the shaft. Then, by hand, we put a new one in. You're wading through waist-deep sewage with a surgical mask on, but to talk, you have to take it off. It's epically bad.
TVGuide.com: Is that the one job you'd never want to do again?
Rowe: Actually, there's only one job that is an absolute "no" catfish noodling. Barehanded fishing. You wade into a bayou up to your neck and root around with your hands looking for a hole. When you find one, you stick your arm in it in the hopes that a catfish will bite you. A catfish that could weigh 30 pounds! And when they bite you, you grab them and pull them out of their hole. One that I grabbed bit me right here. [Shows a scar running down the side of his hand.] There's all these guys [who do it] with eight fingers, [having lost the others to] alligators, snapping turtles, snakes, gar....
TVGuide.com: Do people do these yucky jobs because they're poor and have no choice, or do some actually like to do it?
Rowe: Both. Some guys love it. Pulling golf balls out of water hazards on golf courses means being chased by alligators all of the time. I wouldn't want to do that one again, either. But these two guys I know, they picked up over 1.2 million golf balls last year, then sold them over the Internet for 30 to 50 cents a piece. Hello! Eighth-grade dropouts making 400 grand a year!
TVGuide.com: Is that legal?
Rowe: It depends on your arrangement with the golf course. There are renegade collectors who go in after dark, but that's when the alligators are feeding. That's really hard-core.
TVGuide.com: Is there a job that you actually found fun to do?
Rowe: There are actually a lot of them. Having a good time with the people I meet is paramount, and the recipe for that to happen is really to do the work and to really look for the jokes, if they're there. But in terms of the actual work, I'd pull taro, the root that makes poi, again in Hawaii. That's a farming job that takes place in waist-deep water.
TVGuide.com: It seems you're always deep in some disgusting goo.
Rowe: Or an animal. I have violated one-third of all species of farm animals so far. Pigs, cows, bulls, turkeys...
TVGuide.com: Where do the Dirty Job ideas come from?
Rowe: The website, from the viewers. "You should talk to my... autopsy technician. You should come down and help us blow up a whale." "I'll be right there." I get lots of that.
TVGuide.com: Has anything ever made you cry or cry uncle?
Rowe: I threw up on camera on a shark boat. I never get seasick, but I'd been on a boat for about five hours, hunched over a meat grinder making chum. The cameraman and even the captain threw up a little bit. We were this jolly bunch of guys puking our brains out.
TVGuide.com: What are you off to do next?
Rowe: I'm off to Vegas right now. There's a giant buffet at one of the casinos that is involved in some kind of food-scrap program that needs our immediate attention. There's also a shark tank that's apparently full of shark poo and the poor sharks are unable to swim around, so I've got to go take care of that. And the Coast Guard is going to take me out into the ocean off of San Francisco Bay to clean submerged buoys that are covered in barnacles and are posing a threat to the shipping lanes.
TVGuide.com: Well, we're glad you're out saving America. Thanks!