15 Secrets Behind The Reality TV Show ‘Dirty Jobs’

15 Secrets Behind The Reality TV Show ‘Dirty Jobs’

Along with Antiques RoadshowDirty Jobs holds one of the top spots in television for reality shows that actually grow brain cells in their viewing audiences, rather than melt them away. When Dirty Jobs premiered in 2005, it came with the stated mission to show the jobs that have always existed in the economy, but that no one dreams about or envies. The celebration of the blue collar worker was an endearing theme that filled the hearts of a certain hyper-materialized, yet still curious, segment of the television audience.

Almost as successful as the show’s simple premise, is the host, Mike Rowe. He came up with the idea for the show and has positioned himself as the counter example to a lavish life of artistic indulgence. He often calls his time working with ordinary employees all across America a personal journey, repenting for his misspent youth.

Between the niche it owns and its charismatic host, the show has established itself in the reality television zeitgeist, and teaches a couple of lessons about educational television entertainment along the way.

At its best, the show revealed the hidden employees behind the facts of life everyone takes for granted, but it wasn’t all kind faces and quick jokes.

Here are 15 Secrets Behind Dirty Jobs


Despite what now seems like an obviously simple, marketable show, Dirty Jobs had a difficult time making an impression on studios in the early days. Originally borne from a segment on a local San Francisco lifestyle show, Mike Rowe shepherded the idea through a successful run in the small market, but struggled to be taken seriously when approaching larger networks for the show.

In 2003, Survivor was still dictating the reality show landscape and the Dirty Jobs concept didn’t exactly jump off the page for networks seeking out coveted demographics. Especially since it was brought to them by a some guy off the street. Once Rowe linked up with a real production company, the rejection letters ended, but the possibility that the show could have gone another direction still looms in its past.


In a testament to the show’s simple composition, even the memorable theme song is a right on message with the premise. “We Care A Lot” by Faith No More filled the opening moments of Mike’s days at work — even the refrain: “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” supplied the motto for the following half hour.

After the second season, viewers of the show saw the distinctive theme replaced by something far more generic.

An exact explanation for the change, and eventual switch back to the original song, hasn’t been offered. Frontman Mike Rowe offered a mea culpa, claiming the network’s complications getting the rights for the show, but neither party has claimed blame or wrongdoing. After only one year, the first theme song was restored.


Audience engagement, fan mail, question and answer — these have always been a prominent segment of the show. In fact, it’s probably one of the reasons that Mike Rowe is so good at fielding incoming questions. He’s always quick to answer the craziest queries with reasonable answers, and the most mundane inquiries with fascinating anecdotes. He describes one bone-chilling segment that had to be re-cut just to make it to air.

Skulls Unlimited were kind enough to host Mike Rowe and show him exactly how they take raw, unprocessed product, and turn them into skulls that people use for museums, displays, artistic endeavors, and scientific study.

The actual process of cleaning the life off of the bone isn’t as high-minded and optimistic, but, of course, someone’s got to do it.


After seven successful years on the Discovery Channel, Dirty Jobs was canceled in 2012. During a hiatus, Rowe was vocal about wanting to continue the show, and within a couple of years, a program called Somebody’s Gotta Do It aired on CNN. The new version of the show was named after the original segment Rowe co-conceived in San Francisco.

The spin-off holds much of the same format as the original, bringing Rowe to new corners of the country exploring new dirty jobs.

Three seasons and 24 episodes came out of the new show’s two year run, but in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, the show was swept away in favor of more political coverage on CNN. Rowe has continued to express interest in doing a new version of the show in the future, but no plans have been announced as of yet.


One of the most realistic parts of this reality show, is how it offers a wide angle, panoramic view of the American landscape. Over eight seasons, plus extras, Mike Rowe has filled in and learned to do a dirty job in all fifty of the United States. In Alaska, he’s processed fish catches and cleaned up diesel spills. In Hawaii, he’s washed windows on skyscrapers and worked in a tofu factory. In Rhode Island, he learned to distill rum, and in Oklahoma, he worked catching catfish barehanded.

Ascribing any ability for this show to unite any corners of the United States might be a little too ambitious, but there is some kind of subversion of the American Dream at work, as Rowe fills in the unsung labor roles that make a nation function.


During the height of Dirty Jobs’ arc, Mike Rowe was a recognizable reality show host, verging on becoming a household name. In addition to the down to earth nature of the show’s premise, it also led many to believe a crossover with Sesame Street to be a natural pairing.

In 2008, Rowe came to the set to do a segment with Oscar the Grouch, bonding over their mutual love of dirt and grime.

The brief presentation goes pretty smoothly, until the end, when Rowe uses an invitation to join Oscar in his garbage can to intone a cheap double-entendre about using the back door. On his blog, Rowe fully admits to the immaturity of the act, and explains his activities with an all-night jazz trio as excuse. He has not been invited back to present on Sesame Streetsince.


Before presenter Mike Rowe was the face of blue collar America, he was a struggling actor. Before that, he was barely able to stay afloat in the business at all. The first steady performing job he took, he proudly admits, was in the municipal Opera circuit.

In 1984, Rowe was a member of the Baltimore Opera, and continued with the gig for multiple years, claiming it as his official introduction into performing life and an important step in getting his union card. Rowe regularly busts out the odd verse of Italian baritone in interviews, and even did once during the show. He also has agreed to sing the National Anthem at baseball games, and sing in other vocal styles, though mostly just for laughs.


In the early days of reality shows, no networks really understood how to gauge the success Dirty Jobs would be. The most humorous of Rowe’s many rejection letters he received when pitching the show, came from Comedy Central, who Rowe has quoted as saying: “At this time, our fall schedule does not allow for a talk show that takes place in a septic tank.”

Hindsight is 20/20, and the network can’t regret that line, even if they did miss out on the show’s success.

It’s worth considering how the idea would have been executed differently if it had appeared on Comedy Central, instead of the Discovery Channel.

Rowe’s comedy chops probably wouldn’t have been a problem in entertaining the adjusted audience. However, the credibility wouldn’t have been there in the same way, and so the show’s impact may have come out completely differently.


The logical extension of the Dirty Jobs premise is to fill the show with the harshest, dirtiest jobs they can scrounge up. There is a pleasant kind of schadenfreude that audiences feel when watching someone with a dirtier job than theirs. A little bit of the Fear Factor effect manifests in this show as well, so shock value isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, Crime Scene Cleanup was a step too far, host Mike Rowe admitted in an online FAQ. The production gets submissions from people all over the country to come and learn about their dirty job, per the show’s solicitation. An invitation to join someone who cleaned up crime scenes had to be declined, out of consideration for general television audiences. This reveals that there is a line of occupations that the show won’t air, proving it gets even dirtier out there.


In 2009, Mike Rowe took the TED stage to give a presentation on the conference’s themes of technology, entertainment, and design. Thanks to his fame, Rowe has worked in hundreds of different jobs, alongside hundreds of laborers of all different kinds, and he said he had learned something about work in his time presenting the show.

The full 20 minute talk lays out some of the secrets to being happier in work and life.

Rowe talks about living to work vs. working to live, and comes down on the side of the broader life. In this talk and several other interviews, he’s been a vocal critic of the idea of the dream job, and finding the line of work people are most suited for. Instead, Rowe argues, work is just the activity people have to do to fuel their outer lives.


Fans of the show will notice that Mike Rowe is a little bit more erudite than the average reality show host, a skill especially humorous when juxtaposed with the themes of the dirty work he does. His political focus and comedic timing even had him in the running for the top hosting job at The Daily Show.

In order to embrace of his philosophy toward rejection, Rowe posted the letter telling him he didn’t get the job. Rowe’s history with the show predates Jon Stewart, but the former Discovery Channel host makes it clear that, in the early days of the show’s genesis, he was a finalist for the job along with Craig Kilborn. After missing the gig the first time, he made another attempt after Kilborn’s departure, but Rowe admits that it clearly wasn’t meant to be.


In the early days of the show’s run, showrunners were still trying to figure out the sweet spot for jobs that would generate some gross factor, some educational content, while still remaining suitably entertaining television. Ohio taxidermist, Stephen Paternite, was displeased to learn his occupation and the creation of his art was deemed over the line.

The footage, presumably taken from the cutting room floor, was collected by Paternite and compiled into a self produced DVD, titled, Too Gross For Discovery.

The segment is a teachable moment for the show’s adolescence, as it finds out the line between shockingly disturbing, and telegenically educational. It was probably just the kind of debacle Comedy Central had in mind when they rejected the premise all together.


As a reality show that actually attempts to depict reality, Dirty Jobs constantly suffered the fear of ruining the performance of the actual job, with the addition of a camera crew observing the whole process. For any work with animals, anything in closed spaces or harsh conditions, the television hullabaloo had to be kept to a minimum.

The late Dave Barsky and an assistant did the legwork to make the connections with the locations. Then, it’s just Mike Rowe and three cameramen, and the whole show is put together from footage shot with that set up. A lot is made of the show’s willingness to highlight forgotten parts of American labor, but their innovative production is admirable as well.


In 2017, Mike Rowe’s stardom as a labor advocate still shone bright, despite not having a show on the air for a couple years.

Rowe was called in to testify before the House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee, on the need for the labor force’s continued education after formal schooling.

The Career and Technical Education caucus is in charge of hearing and treating the nation’s need for adult workforce training. It was put in place to make sure people moving on from their second, third, or fourth careers, have the appropriate resources to figure out how to continue their livelihood.

Rowe has long been a critic of the single-dream career narrative of the American economy, and frequently argues for increased appreciation for trade, union, and low-wage jobs.


With its adoption in 2003 and formal release in 2005, Dirty Jobs rode the first wave of reality shows. It filled an important niche in the genre, which was likely responsible for the show’s impact. In a growing TV trend of reality shows trying to suck the reality out of situations, Dirty Jobs was a zag in the other direction, trying to ground viewers in the underbelly of the American economy.

Big Brother, The Real World, and Survivor all brought groups of people together, out of their everyday lives. The shows tried to set the contestants against each other, to reveal moments of “real” human interaction. Over on the Discovery Channel, Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs had different goals — more altruistic and educational — but at the end of the day, they still created entertaining television.

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