The year was 1997 and Melbourne community television station Channel 31 aired a brand new variety show produced by RMITV called ‘The Loft Live’. Hosted by a 23 year old John Henry Michael McManus, the show had a weekly budget of $50. This nominal amount of money went towards producing an hour long live program filled with segments, sketches and guest interviews. Despite the lack of funding, the show managed to rake in 50,000 to 100,00 viewers each week and was surprisingly well produced for a community access program. It was here John met fellow comedian and co-star Peter Helliar along with an ensemble cast of talent just finding their start in the media industry.
Fast forward 2 years and a name change to Rove, and McManus found himself with an opportunity to bring his little public access show to network television on Channel Nine. On 22 September 1999, Rove premiered on a late night timeslot on national television. The show featured Rove McManus as the host with three co-hosts in Peter Helliar, Corinne Grant and Dave Callan. The show ran for 10 episodes until the Nine Network decided not to renew it.
Fortunately at the turn of the millennium and after everyone realised Y2K was a load of crap, Network Ten extended their hand into the forgotten abyss where Rove’s TV show was grabbed and placed it the primetime Tuesday night slot of 9:30pm. Rebranding the show Rove Live, the variety program carried on the basic talk show style with an opening monologue as well as sketches, segments, celebrity interviews and musical performances.
The show was essentially our equivalent of The Tonight Show or any other late night talk show over in the states. Aussie TV icons like Don Lane or Graham Kennedy had previously hosted and perfected the same format. For Rove, he pretty much picked up from where they left off into the new millennium. It was a big pair of shoes to fill but for the most part Rove succeeded in filling that void and perhaps was more successful than his predecessors.
Rove Live was the show for celebrities coming down under to plug their new movie, TV show, album, concert, or any other thing they wanted to sell to the Australian public. In an interview with TV Week recently McManus stated that in the beginning, the show’s producers would have to approach Hollywood agents with “Could you please come on our show?” but overtime agents began asking them “Will you have them on the show?”
“We’d get stars to detour to Melbourne, because we became the show to do, which I’m really proud of” Rove admits.
For many Australians it was a Tuesday night tradition to tune into Rove Live every week. In 2002, ratings for the show averaged over 1 million, and the show managed to sustain that audience for a number of years. Comedy segments such as ‘Flick Your Switch’ and ‘Tell Us Where To Go’ proved popular mainly due to the comedic talent of Corinne Grant and Peter Helliar. The writing team was also top notch with writing credits on other Aussie sketch shows like Skithouse and Comedy Inc.
The show has been described by Rove himself as “light entertainment”. Watching back on the various segments, jokes and skits on YouTube, light entertainment isn’t actually the first thing that comes to mind. The show presents a lot of adult humour probably not suitable for younger audiences (even though his demographic skewed on the younger side of the spectrum). The jokes weren’t offensive or anything but it was designed for a young adult audience. Being specifically positioned in a 9:30 pm time slot justifies that decision. If you were to compare this style of programing to “light entertainment” in Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, you would see a clear difference in the overall comedic style. The shackles seemed to be more loose on Rove Live.
Over the years the co-stars along for the ride came and went. Dave Callan left after the first year to pursue other opportunities in stand up comedy and radio. Corinne Grant left at the tail end of 2005 to focus on another talk show she was involved in on the ABC called The Glass House (The Glass House was cancelled a year later). But by 2005, Rove Live‘s rating began to struggle. Opposing Networks Nine and Seven were throwing heavy hitters like Grey’s Anatomy and The Apprentice as Rove’s show barely managed to compete. It seemed to get quite desperate as evident by the final episode of 2005 where the show gave away six cars and featured Bert Newton, Jerry Seinfeld and Kath & Kim as guests. For November 22 the show rated 19th and only drew in 797,000 viewers.
The year 2006 proved to be quite a sombre one for Rove McManus. Beloved Australian actress and wife at the time Belinda Emmett, passed away at 33 after a long fight with breast cancer. She was well known for TV roles on Hey Dad..!, Home and Away and All Saints. The loss of a loved one proved to be too much for Rove and his show was put on an understandable indefinite hiatus. A message by Rove was left on it’s official website stating, “is a very difficult period for all of us and some time away is the best thing for me right now.”
After a much needed break for personal reasons and perhaps a break for the audience as well, Rove re-debuted dropping the Live from the name, moving to the old Seven Network studios in South Melbourne from Nunawading and sinking its “light entertainment” teeth into the juicy primetime slot of Sunday nights at 8:30pm.
Carrie Bickmore and Peter Helliar’s roles increased on the show, and former Glass House talent Dave Hughes was brought into the mix. The April 1st 2007 return show drew in 1.6 million viewers nationwide and consistently kept the ratings above 1 million for that season. As the series progressed, more comedic talent joined the fray. After finishing up their ‘Real Stories’ TV Series, Hamish & Andy and Ryan Shelton joined the stacked cast to present their own segments.
By this point it seemed like the show had reached its peak in popularity. The celebrity interviews were as entertaining as can be. Interviews with Elmo, Sacha Baron Cohen and Kevin Rudd proved to be hits for ratings. Segments like Kevin Rudd PM, Two Minutes At Your House and What The…? were massively popular for the series. Fortnightly, Hamish & Andy would air their pre-taped challenges out in various locations. Ryan Shelton would present ‘Philosophisationing with Ryan Shelton’, which were cleverly written comedic sketches on a particular topic or theme. Musical guests also proved to be a great showcase for both mainstream and local Aussie talent. Bands like Grinspoon, Faker, Cut Copy, Eskimo Joe, The Cat Empire, Powderfinger among others all had a platform to showcase their work on Australian television.
The show may not have been everyone’s cup of tea in terms of humour, and some would argue Rove McManus as a host wasn’t really that funny. But no one could deny the amount of opportunities it presented to talent who may never have gotten this kind of platform to work with. Programming on rival networks Seven and Nine was nowhere near sketch comedy. Their bread and butter was primarily reality based TV and licensing subpar crime shows like Bones or CSI [insert location]. If there were Australian shows produced it was either Packed to the Rafters or beating the dead horse of the Underbelly series (how about we make a new series about the guy who robbed a 7-Eleven?)
2008 was a fairly average year for Rove. The new season premiered on March 30 but only drew in 777,000 viewers nationally. Regular cast members began appearing slightly less frequently as well. By 2009 Dave Hughes and Carrie Bickmore had left to begin work on a new Roving Enterprises production in The 7pm Project (later rebranded as The Project).
Towards the end of the season rumours began circulating that the series would not return in 2010. After many denials from Network Ten, Rove on the November 15, 2009 finale confirmed the show would be finishing.
“It’s purely my decision. It’s not one I’ve made lightly or flippantly. The timing was right to stop, stand back and see what happens next.”
The final episode was backyard BBQ themed, and was filmed outdoors in someone’s actual backyard. The show presented a tasteful montage of the past 10 years of show moments set to a live performance by Powderfinger.
Rove’s departure came as a surprise to many but looking back it was for the better in the long run. The quality of the show began to dip once cast members started leaving. This is a common trope with most television shows, especially comedies. Community, The Office, and Scrubs all saw a mass exodus of cast members and the writing suffered for it. Additionally, 10 years of being on air can be creativley daunting. There is an inherent risk of running out of ideas or peaking too early. By 2009 the show was waning in popularity and Rove’s mentality was probably best to go out on top than stay with an inevitably sinking ship. At the end of the day he had a fresh new show in The 7pm Project and still going strong was Before The Game that were both produced by his company Roving Enterprises. He had a fall back plan in place and landed on his feet when the dust settled.
However, Rove surprisingly came back to the talk show position. Rove LA aired September 19, 2011. It was basically an attempt to reboot the series except it was filmed in Los Angeles, there were no other cast members other than himself and the show seemed more focussed on the celebrity interviews. It was a similar format to couch talk shows hosted by Graham Norton or Alan Carr.
Gone was the Aussie charm, the plethora of comedic segments and relatability of Rove himself. The show seemed more indulgent of the celebrities he would interview and comedic segments that did air were often generic or uninspired. The creativity seemed to be gone and the show rested on its laurels. As a result it only lasted two seasons and has largely been forgotten about.
Despite that venture, whatever mystique the original show had has largely remained intact. Rove Live or Rove was a definitive part of Australian comedy and TV history. It was our Tonight Show we could tune into before we went to bed. And when the next day rolled around we would laugh about what happened on the show at school or at work with mates and colleagues.
The show kick-started dozens of careers and probably inspired many as well. If it didn’t exist, we likely wouldn’t have Corinne Grant, Peter Helliar, Dave Callan, Ryan Shelton, Hamish & Andy, Carrie Bickmore or the various writers that got to work on a show televised nationally (that’s a hell of a writing credit to put on your CV). Rove McManus continues to appear seldom on our TV screens usually to guest host The Project or have a failed radio show with former Bachelor contestant Sam Frost. Regardless, most remember the show fondly as the little Aussie variety show that made Australia seem a little more cool to the rest of the world. Hopefully you remembered to say hi to your mum for him.