Don't moan to Mike Rowe about job dissatisfaction. Think of the worst occupation you can imagine. Odds are Rowe has been there, done that and still has the muck-caked T-shirt to prove it.
As the tenacious host of Dirty Jobs (Friday night, Discovery at 8 p.m.), Rowe has apprenticed on some of the most unpleasant tasks on the planet, and somehow he manages to come out of each experience with crooked grin intact. Feeling overwhelmed by your own numbing nine-to-five workday? Try collecting bat guano or scooping up roadkill for a living. Or discover for yourself that the position of avian vomitologist is even nastier than it sounds.
"The more disgusting the job, the more you take away from it," said Rowe on the recent TV critics tour in Los Angeles. "The average person would never, ever consider these lines of work, but as the saying goes, somebody's got to do it. And I think we've got some great role models on the show. You just don't see it at first because they're too busy making a living."
And work is work, as they say. Midway into its sixth season, Dirty Jobs remains one of the most-watched programs on the U.S. Discovery Channel and draws a comparably healthy following in this country (the show also airs Saturday at 9 p.m.). Among other grimy assignments, Rowe has put in brief stints as sewer inspector, shark-repellent tester, ostrich wrangler, monkey caretaker, bug breeder, maggot farmer, diaper cleaner and "poo-pot maker" (don't ask).
"We handle feces from many species," admits Rowe, 47. "We didn't plan it, but the show's first season was pretty well-defined by forays into sewers. So the poo, in a metaphorical sense, has come to mean lots of other unfortunate substances. It doesn't get any easier, but in time the smell abates."
At the rate of three jobs an episode, Rowe has tested out exactly 232 occupations since the show launched in 2003 and sometimes the stench is the least of his worries. In his most recent incarnation, filmed three weeks ago, he tried his hand as a window-washer on a Honolulu office tower - starting on the 50th floor.
"The crew and I went to the roof, they put out a gantry and we tied ourselves off. Then we hung there suspended and helpless and screaming like baby girls," he says.
Much of the ongoing charm of Dirty Jobs comes from the host's admission that he isn't the least bit qualified to step into any of the bizarre vocations highlighted on the series.
Though formally trained as an opera singer, the Baltimore native's broadcast experience prior to Dirty Jobs consisted of fill-in shifts as a late-night shopping- channel pitchman (he was hired and fired three times) and commercial voiceover work.
While toiling as a general reporter at a small San Francisco TV station several years ago, he created a segment titled Somebody's Gotta Do It , wherein Rowe performed duties alongside a cow inseminator. He sent the tape to the Discovery Channel, which commissioned the series. A new TV star was born, and he was respectful of the blue-collar people he was profiling.
"It was never our intent to highlight the drudgery of the people in these thankless jobs," he says. "Instead, we highlight the humour. These people are doing work that is really challenging and adverse, but they're almost always having a good time in the process. How many people can say that?"
Perhaps inevitably, six seasons fronting Dirty Jobs has caused Rowe to alter his own perspective on the North American work ethic. Last month, he launched his own website (mikeroweworks.com), which is intended as a heartfelt homage to the average working man and woman.
"I want to challenge the idea that the only good jobs left in the country come at the tail-end of a four-year degree," he says. "There are other ways to do well, and there are skills that ought to be celebrated. Steel-toed boots are back in fashion."