'Dirty Jobs' Works Hard on Labor Day
But on that day, and for the following week, Discovery Channel keeps working, offering a marathon of "Dirty Jobs," in which host and "hands-on apprentice" Mike Rowe, in the words of the introduction, explores the country "looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty, hardworking men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us."
Episodes air all day and through the evening on Monday, Sept. 3. From Tuesday through Friday, Sept. 4 to 7, eight-hour blocks air in the daytime, representing almost all the installments from the show's first three seasons.
The affable, witty Rowe spends a day or so at jobs ranging from ostrich, pig and turkey farmer to garbage collector, coal miner, waste-treatment plant engineer and golf-ball recycler, learning how the people do what they do. And what they do is universally filthy, sweaty, hard and smelly, along with frequently dangerous.
As the saying goes, they're dirty jobs, but somebody's got to do them.
"Your freight's getting carried," Rowe says over a lunch of chicken curry and frogs' legs in a Santa Monica restaurant. "You just don't often meet the people that do it."
Rowe doesn't visit jobs that happen behind desks or in air-conditioned offices, but strangely enough, he's a big hit with just those sorts of folks.
"I've just started doing personal appearances," he says. "I'm impersonating a motivational speaker, and they're frickin' buying it. Colleges actually call me to talk about the changing face of the modern-day proletariat vis-a-vis the digital world. And I'm happy to talk about it."
Asked what he actually knows about this topic, Rowe swallows some frog and says, "I don't know anything, but I have a theory. I suspect that we've come so far so fast digitally that Madison Avenue and Hollywood and Silicon Valley are conspiring to wage an undeclared but nevertheless legitimate war on the Puritan work ethic."
Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English defines the "Puritan ethic" as "a belief in and devotion to hard work, duty, thrift, self-discipline and responsibility."
"If you look at the things that are most often celebrated in pop culture, TV shows, all the marketing spin out of Silicon Valley, it's 'Work smart, not work hard,'" Rowe says. "That's what the conventional wisdom has become, to celebrate the speed at which you can vanish.
"I've done some commencement addresses and things where I've basically said, 'Look, guys, I don't know much, but I can tell you this. If somebody says, "Work smart, not hard," they're selling something. Be careful. If you're not working hard, the joke's on you. There's no real hiding from it.'"
According to Rowe, after the schools, the labor unions called. Then after the labor unions, when he hit about 100 jobs on the show, the calls came from, as he says, "Fortune 500 companies. I spoke at Bell & Howell and Motorola, for God's sake. Very weird.
"Now at 150 jobs," -- that job, yak farmer, airs during Monday's marathon as part of a two-hour special -- "the ultimate irony is, nobody wants to hear about the changing face of the modern-day proletariat vis-a-vis the digital world; they just want to hear about the time the catfish bit me.
"They want to hear about the time I went down that really bad hole and climbed in the boiler or went to the alligator farm."
Yet, Rowe believes, the war on the Puritan work ethic continues.
"I do think there's a little tear in the universe," he says, "where, all of a sudden, the ideas of self-sacrifice, delayed gratification, optimism, the basic things that Rosie the Riveter had, those kind of things went to hell, or they became unglamorous.
"If the show does anything well, it's just the subtle tap on the shoulder that says, 'Look, these jobs are still getting done, but nobody's talking about them.'"
Representing the belief that we're living in a new Gilded Age, the fall schedules of the TV networks are chockablock with shows about the upper crust, from The CW's "Gossip Girl," about rich Manhattan teens, to ABC's "Cashmere Mafia" and "Big Shots" and NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," which are all about high-powered executives.
Portrayals of blue-collar folks on network television are usually relegated to sitcoms such as "According to Jim," and there aren't that many of those.
"The workingman is [not on television]," Rowe says, "and when he is, there are one of two ways to do it. In typical bad TV, the first is to overinflate him into a hero, which he isn't. He's a guy. Or he's turned into a straight man for a punch line, like 'The Simple Life.'"
Of course, most of these wealthy TV characters aren't very happy despite their corner offices and big paychecks. If this is also true in the real world, it might have something to do with lacking concrete results at the end of the day.
That's part of the message Rowe imparts when he talks to corporations, saying, "'Your spreadsheets, your charts, they live in some cyberplace, so what visual clue do you have in your world to let you know when you're done? Visually, what do you have?' They're like, 'We have no visual clues.'
"I'm like, 'You're right, but the roadkill guy, he does. There's a truckload of carcasses that used to be on the road. Visually, he knows he just did something.
"'Guys and women with dirty jobs are, by and large, more balanced than you.'"