It was Don Lane who once said he never wanted to meet his guests before his live Tonight show.
As our only viable survivor in the format, Rove McManus takes a similar line. Prior to recording his Sunday night show, the cast run through bullet points of each segment. McManus is careful to avoid detail, for fear of losing an on-camera freshness.
“We get together with the cast before the show and sit down and have dinner as a catch-up,” he told TV Tonight. “Run through on paper what the show’s going to be. Each person will briefly give a bullet-point synopsis of what their segment’s going to be, what they’re going to talk about. No jokes.
“Pete for example will run through what’s in Pete’s Space. But I don’t say ‘fill me in,’ ‘what jokes are you going to make?’ or ‘can I have a look at the footage?’ Because I want to enjoy it as much as anyone else at home would enjoy it.”
The key is in extending a lively chat between friends into a rapport with the audience.
“So then that little conversation invariably rolls into us catching up and shooting the breeze, and then that moves onto the set to become the show, and then you extend that out to the audience in the studio being involved –including before the show, during the ad breaks and after the show as well.
“And hopefully the viewing audience is also included in that. Hopefully there’s not too much in the studio a viewing audience member feels their missing out on. Even things like last week’s Easter egg throwing was generated in the commercial break, but you keep it going as you come back on air and in doing so welcome the viewing audience, and the reason I’m doing this is because….not just out of the blue.”
Rove has become a flagship brand for Network TEN. Since moving from community to television to a brief sting at Nine (where rumours that he was asked to drop his mates were true) it remains one of the few chat shows for international celebrities to spruik their latest films and albums. The show has survived an ambitious move from Tuesdays to Sundays, despite having to contend with a starting time akin to a moving target.
“Even now we record earlier in the evening because we can’t book guests for a show with no timeslot. It changes week to week,” he says matter-of-factly. “You can’t say ‘come and be part of the show…Why, when are you on?… I think 9:30 this week, possibly 10 it depends!’ And with people doing breakfast radio too.”
But with television fame comes the public spotlight. There have been magazine gossip stories, and the pain of having to grieve publicly following the death of wife Belinda Emmett in 2006. McManus stepped away from television, unsure whether he ever wanted to return.
“It was a weird feeling because I wanted to disappear,” he said. “I felt like I had some huge red arrow flashing above my head everywhere I went. And I just did everything in my power to get away. Which is why I went up to Queensland and went walking through the rainforest and shaved my head, just to try and hide. Mourning is a hard thing to go though. It’s a very personal thing to go through and you’re doing it on a very public level.”
Without him realising it, the Australian public rallied behind a favourite television son, with enormous support flowing when he signalled a return to the small screen several months later.
“It felt nice. It was a nice, warm feeling to know that everybody was there and almost allowing me to have my space and to say ‘look when you’re ready, we’re ready.’ And obviously the network had said that.”
McManus admits he was very fortunate to have been given the time out, recognising not everybody in his situation is afforded the same privilege.
“What if you’re a plumber or work at a local milk bar….you lose someone who means something to you? Do you get to take the time off that you need til’ you feel you’re ready to comeback?” he asked.
“Or do you get maybe a week if you’re lucky and then you’re back into it again? And then feeling that awkwardness of people not knowing how to react or comment or feel. If anything I’m actually privileged to have been in that position to have been given a lot more time than anybody else would in that similar situation. It makes you really feel for anyone else who has been through anything even remotely close to that who maybe didn’t have the luxury of freedom that people like myself had.”
And with the scrutiny of personal life, comes the scrutiny of professional work too. Away from the cameras, he strives for privacy.
“I’d like to think that people can understand that what I put there is what I do professionally. If I do something on the show, that crosses a line then I’ll have to weather the storm and you can’t turn around and say ‘oh you’ll have to respect my privacy’ because I don’t think that cuts it. It’s something you said or did in that public forum.
“But what I do behind closed doors or when I’m walking down the street I feel is my own business. And you have people who say ‘oh but you’re a celebrity and you’re in the public eye.'”
Some have even criticised his interviewing style, despite the fact he has admirers in US media for surviving in prime time while they air in late night slots. Turning the tables, McManus baulks at some of the questions he hears as an interview subject. To those who question his interviewing style he reminds them: “You haven’t been asked ‘who’s your favourite guest been?’ a thousand bloody times!
“I say f**k off, really. It’s usually coming from someone who doesn’t like you anyway. Some journo with an acid pen or a blogger who thinks they can do a better job. And I think ‘well I’m still going, our numbers are better than ever and I do what I do the way that I do it.’
“If I think it’s relevant I’ll certainly ask it. I won’t ask something salacious for the sake of it, because often I think that’s more the ego of the person who’s asking the question who wants to say, ‘well I asked them this question!’ And what do you get out of it? A guest who clams up.”
McManus says such criticisms usually come from print media, who have the luxury of deciding what does and doesn’t make their final copy.
“It’s usually print people who will say that because they can ask a question and it can get edited. If they don’t get a response they just don’t write it. The amount of times I’ve spoken to people and called them to task on stuff like that and it doesn’t even make it into the interview….
“Whereas if I bring it up on air, it’s there. From start to finish that’s my full interview. If I ask a stupid question and it gets a stupid answer I lay it out there. I don’t hide behind editing. I don’t hide behind how I will then interpret it when I write my column or edit this package together or whatever it might be.
“If I tried to please everybody that’s out there I’d fail miserably because I do it so subjectively,” he said.
“So I just keep doing what I’m doing and as long as I’m enjoying it then hopefully everyone out there will too. And for the most part that’s the best way to do it.”