Dirty Jobs, Sharp Skill Circuits

Like a lot of people, I love watching Mike Rowe on “Dirty Jobs” because of his lightning-fast mind. Like all great improvisers, Rowe is essentially unsurprisable, always ready with a response calibrated to poke a little fun (usually at himself), and reveal a little truth. That he’s doing this on the fly, usually covered in muck, makes his talent all the more impressive.

That’s why I was fascinated to find this clip of a young Mike Rowe (early nineties, judging by the suit) working as a host on none other than QVC, the cheesy home-shopping network.

On the surface, Rowe’s QVC job looks hopelessly entry-level and vaguely embarrassing. But from a deep-practice perspective, it’s a gold mine. Think of what’s happening: every few minutes a new object comes up for sale, and Rowe has to find something to say right now, under pressure, without a script — find an angle, make a joke, find some thread of connection between this object and the audience. He fires his circuit over and over, makes mistakes, and fixes them. Then he does it again, and again. He worked at QVC for four years. 

The Mike Rowe we see in this clip is clearly not that great yet – not as fast, not as clever, not as talented an entertainer. Which is exactly the point. His QVC time was where Rowe was slowly, fitfully growing his skill circuit. “Dirty Jobs,” on the other hand, is where we get to see it shine. (Well, so to speak, anyway.)