Mike Rowe will forever be tied to his delightfully guilty pleasure show "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel, muddy and smelly and smiling all the way. But after 300 jobs and 169 episodes, he decided it was time to try something a little less, well, dirty.
But most networks wanted him to do a show more scripted than he was willing to do. He hoped to explore people's jobs without an end game, without gimmicks. On CNN president Jeff Zucker's first day at work early last year, Rowe ran into Zucker at the Time Warner Center's Landmarc Italian and French bistro in New York City.
Zucker told Rowe: "I want you on my air."
"I don't know," Rowe responded. "You're a news network."
"It's non-fiction," Zucker said. "You're a non-fiction guy. Tell me what you need."
Rowe said he simply wanted an hour of prime time and a small crew to "go out and meet real people and tell honest stories."
Though it took some time, Rowe and Zucker hashed out a deal. Rowe's show "Somebody's Gotta Do It" debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m., part of CNN's continued expansion into unscripted, non-news programming such as Emmy-winning "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown" and "The Hunt With John Walsh." (CNN has already posted the first episode of "Somebody's Gotta Do It" online here.)
The show is an extension of what he did on a San Francisco TV station in the early 2000s before "Dirty Jobs." He even cribbed the current show title from that one.
"Somebody's Gotta Do It" is casual and low key, with Rowe asking people about their jobs using his charm, wit and curiosity to carry the episode. H doesn't mind being a little silly, too.
In the first episode, he goes behind the scenes of the popular Le Reve show in Las Vegas, which features spectacular aquatic acrobatics and ballet. When an employee notes how pristine the pool is, Rowe couldn't help but ask if he knew for sure someone hadn't urinated in it. "I'm here," Rowe cracks, "to ask the tough questions!"
Rowe's goal is to create a "transparent show and throw production and scripts out of the window, to put viewers in very, very close. CNN is basically freeing up an hour each week and I can guarantee there will be no bad news! That's kind of fun. Viewers will dig it."
He breaks down the artifice of how a show like his is normally made. At one point, he says since he's in Vegas, the program has to provide the requisite shot of the Strip and lovely images of the Wynn hotel and casino to keep host of the Le Reve happy.
"The tropes of reality are exactly the types of things we like to good-naturedly lampoon," he said.
Later, Rowe drags a very reluctant public relations person in front the camera yet Rowe is so disarming, by the end of the segment, the man is gabbing away like they're best buds.
"The entire La Reve show is based on trust," Rowe said. "What better way to exemplify that than to get the PR guy to let us do what nobody else has been allowed to do?" (The show producers let Rowe drop from 35 feet into said pool of water.)
In another episode, Rowe said he even makes fun of a show he did with sister station TBS in 2002 called "Worst-Case Scenarios," which he felt was fraught with artifice. "I hated it," he said. . "They put me on a fake set in a crappy shiny suit. The whole thing was awful."
He acknowledges his show has some common DNA with Bourdain's program.
"The thing I love about his show is that he’s been completely consistent. He writes. He travels. He cooks. And he eats. And did that on the Travel Channel. He's now doing it bigger and better."
"Me? I travel. I’m curious. I look under rocks. I have a few laughs. I have a drink. I go home. I'm doing that same thing, only bigger and broader. That's symmetry."
As far as which jobs he chooses to profile, he said he gets virtually all his ideas from fans. "I call it two degrees of Mike. I've gotten ideas from random strangers on the street. That happens almost every day. Probably half come from my Facebook page. The rest is some version of someone who knows someone."
Zucker held a party for Rowe last month - in New York City, of course. Robin Meade and former Atlanta denizens Carol Costello and Brooke Baldwin attended. Mediabistro has the pictures. Rowe did visit Atlanta last month, took the CNN tour and even sat on top of the big CNN sign outside the CNN Center entrance for a promo video.
"That was such a great moment of weirdness," Rowe said. "Or cognitive dissonance. Politics aside, these guys are saying we got a quarter trillion dollars we want to invest in our economy. Who's against that? It turns out - a lot of people."
He also has taken heat at times for showing up on the Glenn Beck show and then on the Bill Maher HBO show from fans who are offended by the hosts.
"It's just the sign of the times," he said. "People have been so trained to identify with their own beliefs through the people who they see as enemies. It's a fundamental filter. Personally, I think it's been helpful for me: I went from 20,000 Facebook followers to a couple of million. They are there because we're having a thoughtful conversation about various education and work training issues. I find both Bill Maher and Glenn Beck in agreement on a lot of these issues. I expect some people will be pissed because I'm sitting next to the wrong guy."
I was almost out of time but a friend of mine Keiti, a fan, wanted to know if he'd ever run for office. His answer: "Under no circumstances is that possible."
And how about this for a great memory? I met him at a Lowe's in Woodstock in 2007 to interview him in person while he promoted Whirlpool washers and dryers. Amazingly, he remembered that day because the fans kept on coming so he stayed... until midnight! I am sure I met him mid-afternoon so he did a marathon run! (Read my 2007 story here.)
"That was the first time I realized 'Dirty Jobs' was something other than a show," he said. "There were 8 year olds with their great grandfather from the second World War wanting to talk about the show. People were buying plungers and toilet seat covers for me to sign. It was one of the weirdest days. Total pandemonium!"
"Mike Rowe's Somebody's Gotta Do It," 9 p.m. Wednesdays, October 8, CNN
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