Mike Rowe’s TV work has taken a strange, trippy turn of late. The Dirty Jobs star, whose foundation has raised millions since 2008, now has a discovery+ series that is fueled by curiosity, and perhaps a few fingers of bourbon.
The new series is titled Six Degrees With Mike Rowe, and with loads of well-sourced winks and cheeky reenactments that show viewers how seemingly disparate things are connected that can take us from A to Z in a wide time frame.
Rowe is a beloved nonfiction TV star, with his successful run of Dirty Jobs—a love letter to his grandfather— from 2005 to 2012 to more recent appearances on shows where he holds court with crabbing vessel captains. He’s done it all and then some, penning books to providing memorable voice-overs in commercials to series for years now.
He is also a workaholic. His Facebook series Returning the Favor is still going as is his podcast, The Way I Heard It.
The premise of Six Degrees
Rowe first explored the nascent premise of this series in his podcast and then fleshed out the idea with some help from a friend, Chuck. Subjects like, ‘Can a mousetrap cure a hangover?”
Or how the horrifying and unsanitary diets of Yankee soldiers, well-chronicled during the Civil War years, created the actual TV show he stars in today.
The playful and entertaining premise takes an unvarnished look at real history as it relates to modern life. You wouldn’t have a Tesla if someone hadn’t flipped a round rock on its side and made a rudimentary wheel back in the stone age days.
Monsters & Critics spoke to Rowe who admitted that this show was a love letter to his father, a history teacher, and his hopes were that those who may be on the fence about this subject will come to be addicted and appreciate the infotainment.
Monsters & Critics: I have seen two episodes of your very trippy show. It’s like an hour lost in space and time.
Mike Rowe: [Laughs] That’s it!
M&C: How did you cook up this premise? It’s very unlike anything you’ve done…
Mike Rowe: Well, I guess I stole it from James Burke, who did a terrific show years ago, back in the late seventies called Connections where this Oxford professor would walk around London in his white leisure suit with his white hair floating in the breeze saying things like, ‘It’s nice, we’re going to better understand why it is that the tracks left by the first Roman chariots are of an identical dimension to those left on the moon, by the lunar lander…’
I’d be like, ‘What the hell? How are you going to do that?’
I just loved the way he did it. He walked through time on a budget. They had recreations and all sorts of stylistic things that nobody was doing in the seventies. That’s always been in the back of my mind.
In the front of my mind was the desire to do a show like Dirty Jobs, in the sense that show was a love letter to my grandfather who could build a house without a blueprint.
This was a love letter to my dad who spent 30 years teaching history to high school kids. He always said to me, ‘Look, it’s not about the facts. It’s not about the information. It’s about getting people to care about something they didn’t think they cared about.’
I think it’s true of TV too, especially in the history space. I always wanted to do a show like this. In fact, April, if you Google, How Booze Built America, you’ll see our first attempt. It was pretty good, back in 2012 on Discovery. We did three hours that connected history through liquor.
Well this is even more random. Each episode starts with a completely absurd question, like, ‘Can a horseshoe find your soulmate? Can a mouse trap cure your hangover?’ and so forth.
The answer to these questions is always yes, but it’s never the way you think.
I get an hour to travel through time, play with puppets animation, recreations archival footage, suspicious costumes, dubious wigs, and a little help from my old buddy, Chuck, who’s a terrific actor I’ve known for 40 years, who comes along for the ride. That’s the big goal to make people feel like they’re there with us as we’re figuring out this parlor game of connecting two seemingly disparate points.
Discovery didn’t order this program. Nobody ordered it. I thought it might be fun to do something different than the summer of 2019. I called my old buddy Chuck and we started looking at the stories from the podcast and started writing out these shows.
I started looking for a sponsor because I didn’t want to spend all the money. I didn’t mind spending some, but this stuff gets expensive fast, and I’d never really done this kind of thing before.
So, API and DCA and the energy industry in general has a big vested interest in showing people how everything is connected. And this is a show about connections. They said, ‘We’ll help.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ I started in the summer of 2019 filming these shows down in Georgia and they were going to be six half-hour shows.
Then I’m just going to take them out and try and sell them to somebody. And if I couldn’t sell them, I’d put them on my Facebook page or YouTube. When we got them done, I looked at it and realized that this would be better as an hour-long show.
I went back in and rewrote them, and we were scheduled to start shooting in March to finish them up… with green screens and a few other recreations. But of course, COVID.
So that doesn’t happen. In June I wind up shooting some lookback specials for Dirty Jobs. I have is an obligation to a sponsor and a bunch of money that we’ve already spent, and I’m going to have to spend some more and I still didn’t have a place to sell it.
That was new for me. I had never been in that position before. And frankly, I don’t know that anybody today has made a TV show like this in a long, long time. This is like what Texaco Theater did back in the day, you know? And then throw a plague into the middle of it.
Last July is when we went back to Georgia to shoot everything we needed at the height of the pandemic.
I don’t know how big a fan you are of stuff just getting weird. But until you drink bourbon, handle puppets and work through the night to try and figure out a way to create a show for people who don’t watch history shows, it was just so crazy.
But it all came together and then I showed it to Discovery and they loved it. And so we’ll see if people dig it.
M&C: Walk me through the segment producing process of the show. How do you do that?
Mike Rowe: Well, it involves bourbon and a number of things, but the first thing is the podcast I’ve been writing for the last four years called The Way I Heard It. These stories are all pulled from there.
In fact, the show was originally going to be called The Way I Heard It because in an era of fake news and unreliable sources and heightened skepticism, I didn’t want to be one more guy out there saying, ‘And here’s the way it was…’ so I wanted it to be a romp and I wanted it to feel a little self-deprecating.
That’s not to say all the information in each episode isn’t accurate. It is. It’s just never been grouped up like that.
It’s hard to answer your question without giving one away, but I will. Example being ‘How a horseshoe can help you find your soulmate?’ really starts with the question, ‘How did we get Tinder?’
How did that actually happen? And there are many answers, and it’s a fairly easy explanation as to how the internet and Wi-Fi evolved. I’ve heard this story a thousand times.
So the trick now is how to tell it in a way you’ve never heard it before. My answer begins with a horseshoe, many horseshoes, in fact, that were made by a blacksmith named Charles Newbold, He is just 17 years of age, and decided to melt a bunch of those horseshoes down and create the first iron plow.
The impact of an iron plow on the world can’t be overstated. It ushered in the agricultural revolution and literally changed everything we know about where our food comes from and how we work. But it also wound up on a farm in Australia.
One of these iron plows came into the possession of a man named Ned Kelly. Kelly was an outlaw who famously transformed an iron plow into a suit of armor and survived a shootout as a result.
And because of that shootouts, somebody created a movie called The Ned Kelly Gang. That movie turned out to be the first full-length film ever made back in the silent era.
But its impact on Hollywood was enormous because it proved that people would sit through an hour and 15 minutes of film and that changed everything.
So now we’re in Hollywood and we’re looking at the actors who were attracted to that town. Then I focus on Hedy Lamarr—not just the most beautiful woman in the world, but she was an inventor with a brilliant mind who among other things came up with a process that would allow the allies to override the jamming frequencies that the Nazis were using to misdirect their torpedoes in the North Atlantic.
It’s a huge breakthrough that the department of defense wasn’t interested in because Hedy was too pretty to be taken seriously. They put her technology in a file and 30 years later, Norman Abramson found it.
Norman worked for the University of Hawaii and he was trying to find a better way to connect to the computers on different islands because there wasn’t enough cable to connect them. He used Hedy Lamarr’s invention—frequency, hopping—to create the first local area network (LAN).
That essentially was WIFI. And 20 years after that, the internet caught up with WIFI. And when the two came together into your smartphone, you suddenly had access to virtually all the known information in the world, including Match.com, E harmony and Tinder.
So thanks to Tinder and those other dating sites, millions of people have found their soulmate. The answer to the question ‘Can a horseshoe find your soulmate?’ is, ‘Yeah, it can.’
M&C: How has your dad reacted to this series?
Mike Rowe: He and my mother streamed that the other night and he had some comments as he always does… some more questions. He’s reserving his final review.
He likes to actually write reviews and send them to me, but my mother says he’s delighted. So that’s some pretty tall cotton, all things considered.
M&C: How do you stay apolitical in all of your career? People really don’t know where you are, how do you manage to pull that off?
Mike Rowe: I have opinions for sure. I’m often asked to be specific and take a position. I guess when I do, I always try and argue from the middle and I always try and stay in my lane.
Not that I need it, but I don’t really feel like I have permission to weigh in on every political topic simply because I have a public platform, but I do have permission, I think, to talk extensively about work and education. Thanks to my Foundation, which has now been around nearly 13 years. And because we give away a million dollars a year and work ethic scholarships.
So, it’s easy to disagree with me politically. It’s easy to disagree with anybody, but it’s hard, I think, to dismiss me because we paid a certain amount of dues on Dirty Jobs. And the foundation I started on Labor Day in 2008 is still here. It wasn’t a scam. It wasn’t a device. It wasn’t a way to stay relevant in an otherwise cutthroat business.
It’s something I genuinely wanted to do for my granddad and for the next generation of skilled workers. I think people forgive me, by and large when they disagree with me because they know I’m trying to move the needle.
I could point to 1,200 people who are prospering today because they got the training they need to learn a skill that’s in demand and we help them do that.
As long as I stay in my lane and talk about work in education, I don’t mind veering out of it once in a while to talk about things like the minimum wage or organized labor. I’ve opinions on those things. But I try not to stick the flag in the ground and say my way or the highway, if you don’t agree, you’re out of your mind. I don’t do that.
I just say, look, this is my own journey. It’s been a very humbling ride. I can’t do most of the things that the people we featured on Dirty Jobs can do. I’m not a natural tradesman. The handy gene is recessive, as much as I wish I had it.
I sang in the opera once upon a time. I sold crap in the middle of the night on QVC. My career took some weird twists and turns and everything today is binary. Everything is political. So I do get sucked into it, but I try not to overreach.
Six Degrees with Mike Rowe is streaming on Discovery’s streaming service Discovery+.