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In tough economy, people love 'Dirty Jobs'

By Doug Gross, CNN
Mike Rowe's "dirty jobs" have included recycling paint.
Mike Rowe's "dirty jobs" have included recycling paint.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In tough economy, fans respect "Dirty Jobs," host Mike Rowe says
  • Rowe refuses to turn his temporary bosses into heroes or punch lines
  • One of Rowe's dirtiest gigs? Charcoal maker. Scariest? Window washer
  • Only one job was too scary for his courageous camera crew
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(CNN) -- Mucking out sewers, freezing on crab boats and scraping up roadkill hardly qualify under most traditional definitions of entertainment.

But fcourstor Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery channel's "Dirty Jobs," what started as an idea for a few novelty programs has turned into a full-time gig -- and, four years later, one of cable's most popular series.

Rowe said he's not surprised his cavalcade of grimy, gritty and dangerous gigs has captivated viewers in tough economic times, when people are thinking more about the value of work.

"It never set out to be preachy or be a morality play -- it's just a simple, fun show," said Rowe, whose own eclectic resume includes stints as a musician, shopping-network pitchman and television news reporter. "In some ways, I think the headlines in the papers today have caught up with the themes of 'Dirty Jobs.' "

"Dirty Jobs" has made stars-for-a-day of dung beetle farmers, camel herders, chewing-gum scrapers and other working folk as they take Rowe under their wing for a day.

He tries on the kind of jobs that are harrowing even to other tradesmen featured on the show.

"You talk to a bridge worker -- that's a job that very few people can do -- and he'll say, 'How the hell did you go out on that crab boat?' " Rowe said.

"The crab boaters will say, 'How the hell did you go down that coal mine?' Even with what they do ... they have a whole long list of people they think are lunatics that have a job they would never try."

After a hiatus, the show has 11 new episodes with new dirty work in the can.

Rowe is unabashed in showing the hard, dirty work others do to make the viewers' daily lives run smoothly. But, he said, he works to avoid stereotyping his subjects -- positively or negatively.

"The trick is to do it in a way that doesn't lapse into the two classic pitfalls that most reality television is subject to," he said. "I don't want to turn the people on the show into heroes and I don't want to turn them into punch lines, either."

If anybody is a punch line, Rowe said, it's him. Much of the show's humor comes from watching its wisecracking host struggle and fail at work that his temporary bosses perform day in and day out.

"In the end, the tribute [to the workers] unfolds in that contrast," he said. "The viewer has a chance to compare my efforts to a professional roadkill picker-upper or a professional construction worker."

Not surprisingly, Rowe is often asked which job, among more than 200 he's taken a crack at, has been the worst -- a question he says is hard to answer. He says he has about 20 that constantly swap places at the top of his list.

"In terms of dirt, pure, straight-up dirt, you've got to look at charcoal maker and boiler cleaner -- the ones that send you home so black that, three days later, you're still scrubbing," he said. "Then there's wastewater technician -- you're literally swimming in somebody else's sewage."

Then there are the dangerous jobs. This season, Rowe and his crew joined a team of high-rise window washers. It was the first time that one of his cameramen refused to tag along.

"They go anywhere with me," Rowe said. "But when you're 450 feet up. ...

"I've been scared to death on top of the Mackinac Bridge, 80 feet underwater with a shark shaking me like a tug toy ... freezing to death on a crab boat with 40-foot swells," he said. "There are a lot of different ways to crap your pants out there and I've done a few of them."

Last year, with the U.S. economy in a tailspin, Rowe said he couldn't help but apply the things he'd seen and learned on the show to the nation's financial situation. In a nine-minute video posted to his Web site on Labor Day, Rowe urged his fans to rethink what it means to have a "good job."

"Rosie the Riveter is retired to some convalescent home with all the other icons of work that used to embody what work was," Rowe said on the video. "We don't have American icons any more -- we have American idols. We're worshiping the wrong stuff and it's hurting us."

With that video, mikeroweWORKS.com was born. At the online trade resource center, fans and others can find job listings and information on trade and technical education.

Rowe hopes the site, as well as his show, will help job-seekers find some value in even the dirtiest jobs.

"The truth is, it's still that inspirational show for some and that cautionary tale for others," Rowe said. "You bring your bias to the show and you find what you want to find in it."