My Big Break
5:18 pm
Sun February 16, 2014

Mike Rowe's Own Dirty Job: Selling Knick-Knacks Overnight

Originally published on Sun February 23, 2014 11:49 am

As part of a new series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click and people leap forward into their careers.

Before Mike Rowe was the host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, he was selling knick-knacks on the QVC cable network in the middle of the night. He got the job after winning a bet in a Baltimore bar.

His friend Rick was working at the Mount Royal Tavern. Instead of having the football game on the TV, Rick was tuned into "a heavy guy in a shiny suit sell pots and pans." QVC was holding auditions the next day, and Rick was watching the channel to prepare.

Rowe told his friend that he also wanted to audition, but Rick wasn't convinced. He bet $100 that Rowe couldn't get a call back. The next day, Rowe went to the audition.

"It was absurd," he says. "They rolled a pencil across the desk, and the guy said, 'Pick up the pencil and start talking about it. Make me want it.' "

Rowe was hired on the spot and scheduled on QVC's overnight shift.

"I looked at the overnights as an opportunity to essentially do the late-night talk show I always wanted to do without permission," he says.

"So somewhere between the whole tension of not knowing what the next phone call would bring, trying to stay awake, knowing that the ice I was standing on was cracking under my feet constantly, was an opportunity to poke fun at every single product that landed in front of me."

He sold a porcelain Carol Ann Christmas doll, a seagull design bracelet and, most famously, the Katsak cat toy (which is, essentially, a sack for cats to play with).

"The Katsak was one of many products that you would look at and go, 'Wow, I can't say that's a good idea, but it sure is an idea,' " he says.

Rowe was fired three times — and "incredibly" rehired each time — before quitting in 1993.

He says he looks back fondly on his years at QVC.

"QVC was absolutely my big break," Rowe says. "My whole career was based on a bet. I'll take credit for whatever I can get, but honestly, I got lucky. And I've been in TV ever since."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we're collecting stories of triumph, big and small, moments when people make great leaps forward in their careers. We call it My Big Break.

Long before Mike Rowe was the host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs," he was selling ceramic figurines and cat toys on QVC in the middle of the night. The story of his big break begins at a Baltimore bar.

MIKE ROWE: I walked across the street to the Mount Royal Tavern to get a beer and watch the football game. I walked into the tavern, and my buddy Rick was behind the bar, but the football game wasn't on. Incredibly, he was watching a heavy guy in a shiny suit sell pots and pans. And I said, Rick, for God's sakes, man, put the game on. And he said, I can't. I'm auditioning for this job tomorrow, and I need to be familiar with the network.

And I said, well, what is it, you know? And he said, well, it's called QVC, and they're doing this cattle call, and they're coming to town. And it's live TV. I thought I'd give it a shot. I say, well, I could probably do that. And he said, no, you couldn't. I said, yes, I could. And he bet me 100 bucks I couldn't get a callback for the audition. So I went the next day and auditioned for QVC in a hotel room in downtown Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

And the audition was absurd. In my case, they rolled a pencil across the desk, and the guy said, pick up the pencil and start talking about it. Make me want it. And if you got through that, you had a job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

ROWE: Okeydokey. We're back. Never really went anywhere, to tell you the truth. My name is Mike Rowe. This is QVC. And I'll be here for the next half hour or so. I've been here for the last three and a half hours. If you haven't been with us the whole time, well, shame on you. You just missed some really, really, really fascinating TV.

I looked at the overnights as an opportunity to essentially do the late night talk show I always wanted to do without permission. So somewhere between that whole tension of not knowing what the next phone call would bring, trying to stay awake, knowing that the ice I was standing on was cracking under my feet constantly was an opportunity to poke fun at every single product that landed in front of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

ROWE: Called the Katsak cat toy, $36.50.

The Katsak is a paper bag from a supermarket that somebody put, like, Mylar on the inside. And purportedly, your cat will crawl into it and become instantly enchanted by the sound of crinkling plastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

ROWE: There's a - look at him. That's a cat that's having fun. We don't really have audio for this, do we? That's too bad, because you would be hearing this cat making sounds of unbridled pleasure. What is he chewing on?

The Katsak was one of many, many, many, many products that, you know, you would look at and go, wow, I can't say that's a good idea, but it sure is an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

ROWE: There's the crinkling sound once again, lest you forget. The Katsak cat toy, a bag for your cat.

I was fired three times, rehired - incredibly - each time and ultimately - I ultimately quit in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROWE: QVC was absolutely my big break. I look at it as a great opportunity to just let the viewers see you, try and figure out your job. And it was the perfect training ground for what would come many years later with "Dirty Jobs."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROWE: My whole career was based on a bet, really. I'll take credit for whatever I can get. But honestly, I got lucky. And I've been in TV ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Mike Rowe, former host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" and founder of a nonprofit Mike Rowe Works. His new book, "Profoundly Disconnected: A True Confession From Mike Rowe," comes out next week. Hear more stories of big breaks at npr.org/mybigbreak. And we want to hear from you. Send us an email with your story to mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.