In the early days of The Project as part of Ten's 50th anniversary celebrations.
When Rove McManus slips behind The Project’s curved desk tonight – beginning a four-month co-hosting role – he will be joined by two of his best mates, Peter Helliar and Carrie Bickmore.
But as co-owner of Roving Enterprises, the company that makes the show, McManus is also their boss. Which means he could have them fired and frog-marched out of the building should they displease him.
‘‘And don’t think I won’t,’’ he says. ‘‘You’ll notice they’ll be more prone to laughing at every pathetic pun I make. They’ll have no choice.’’
In truth, it’s his close friendship with the pair that convinced him to take on the job. It will require him to be on our shores at least until December – his longest stretch in Australia since he moved to the United States in 2009.
‘‘It was going to be a three-month trip,’’ he says, ‘‘and then suddenly you wake up and go, ‘Oh my God, it’s five years later and I have a baby!’’’ (He and his wife, actor Tasma Walton, welcomed their daughter Ruby in December last year.)
‘‘I’ve missed Australia and I feel a lot of love when I come back. I hope this stint on The Project doesn’t ruin that, but I’ll do my best.’’
As McManus points out, working closely with someone does not guarantee a friendship.
‘‘You can work with people for years and years and years and they’re still just your colleagues,’’ he says. ‘‘But the three of us have all clicked and become very, very close.’’
McManus and Helliar formed a tight bond as fledgling stand-ups in the mid-1990s, and Helliar was part of McManus’s long-running self-titled program on Channel Ten – including its first iteration on Nine in 1999. Bickmore joined the show in 2006, becoming close to both performers, and recently visited McManus in Los Angeles.
Since moving to the US, McManus has been busy on television with lots of guest appearances, his own cable talk program and, most recently, the Fox network’s game show Riot. Critics gave it the thumbs up but low ratings prompted its cancellation.
He’s disappointed – he loved working with friend and executive producer Steve Carrell – but it did give his stand-up career a boost.
‘‘I got to host a network television show in the States, and that’s a massive accomplishment,’’ he says. ‘‘From that, I’m now able to headline comedy rooms around the States. There’s a whole lot of benefits in the fact I even had the chance to do it.’’
For most of his career, McManus has juggled various roles: TV host, radio host, producer, live performer. He was intimately involved in the creation of The 7pm Project, as it was called when it launched in 2009, but has since taken a step back.
‘‘In the early development stage, I was very much in mother bird mode. You lay the egg and you incubate it; the little chick comes out and you spew up your food into its mouth and massage its wings and then let it fly.
‘‘Once it’s out of the nest, you just let it go ... for the most part, I just sit back and let it do what it’s doing, because it does pretty well with my minimal input.’’
Now he’s back in the studio, will he immerse himself in the production side of things again?
‘‘It’s such a well-oiled machine with a great team working behind the scenes. I don’t need to be pushing my weight around too much. I’ll happily just come in and do what I’m told.’’
Having interviewed plenty of big stars in the US and Australia, McManus has found no real difference. Their level of fame, more than where they are from, determines how they engage with him.
‘‘If you’re an incredibly famous person and every single thing you say will be taken out of context, then chances are you’ll be a little bit more guarded,’’ he says. ‘‘Especially with something like The Project, where you’re there not just to talk about your movie – there might be a story on, say, hepatitis and you’ll be asked if you have anything to add, and suddenly you could be saying something that could be making headlines internationally.’’
It’s this aspect of the program – its ability to toggle between serious and light-hearted topics – that confounds Americans, given there is nothing quite like it on US television.
When McManus tries to explain it to them, they usually ask if it’s an Aussie version of The Daily Show.
‘‘When it first debuted, it was seen as a bit of an odd fish. Nobody knew what it was. People came on board but then left because it didn’t gel with their pre-conceived notions. Then everyone has slowly come back.’’
The show’s ratings have grown recently and it remains one of Ten’s best-performing series.
For viewers, McManus’s co-hosting role will be a welcome return to the screen for the man whose Rove Live program they voted the network’s second most popular show in a recent 50th birthday special.
The icing on the cake for him was the praise his idol, Bert Newton, gave him during the program.
‘‘He’s the king of the mountain of Australian television,’’ he says.
‘‘He has no reason to be as wonderful as he is. If you met Bert Newton and he was a bit stand-offish or reclusive you’d go, ‘That’s perfectly understandable; you’re Bert Newton for crying out loud and you’ve earned the right to be stand-offish!’
‘‘But the fact that he’s not – the fact he keeps abreast of everything that’s happening, he’s so supportive of new people coming through and has embraced so many people like myself ... you almost feel like you’ve been knighted by royalty when he mentions your name.
‘‘That I can call him a friend means a lot.’’
The Project airs weeknights 6.30pm on Channel Ten.