What else is on? . . . Oh yeah, nothing.
There are about three quality Australian television shows currently on air. Two of those are talk shows, The Panel and Rove Live, in fact, the only prime-time talk shows we have left. The Panel is cost-effective, and full of Australian comic stalwarts like D-Generation founders Rob Sitch (director of the film The Dish), Santo Cilauro, and Tom Gleisner, along with The Comedy Company‘s Glenn Robbins. Though its format is conventional—five people talking—the show is fresh and entertaining.
But Rove Live is trying to be something it isn’t. The show runs an hour and a bit long, with a format similar to Leno and Letterman. Upon his introduction, host Rove McManus bounds out from behind a studio door and begins his monologue, in which he picks apart news of the day with jokes that almost all fall flat, week after week. What was once a bit of an embarrassment for Rove has become standard, as it is funnier watching him try to recover from his lame jokes on purpose, than hearing the jokes themselves.
After the monologue, Rove positions himself behind a desk adorned with a computer and a bunch of toys (Buzz Lightyear, etc.), while his celebrity interviewees sit on comfortable chairs arranged across the studio. In amongst this business are boring segments, including the Demir Award (given to the Bumbler of the Week, in honour of terrifying tennis dad Demir Dokic) and the over-used question-and-answer game, a competition between celebs, supposedly playing for at-home viewers, but really only there to promote something not deemed important enough to warrant a real interview. Then a guest band (always flogging a CD) plays the show out, with the credits literally cutting them in half. The credits, however, are filled with chucklesome fare, much like the credits to Hot Shots! And at last, we get a stinger (out-take), MST3K-style, showing a fall or line screw-up from rehearsal. This is all very regular, and unless you really want to see the people Rove is interviewing, you would be forgiven for turning over to the edgier Da Ali G Show, screening at the same time on the ABC.
The lack of variety tv options in Australia is a recent phenomenon, partly fallout from the popularity of reality tv. This was not always the case. A few years ago, variety programming was going strong. In Melbourne Tonight had Frankie J. Holden at the helm, The Panel was about to begin, Paul McDermott’s riotous Good News Week screened twice a week, and Daryl Somers’ Hey Hey It’s Saturday was still on air after 25 years. Families made a point of sitting down and watching the banter and funny skits featured in shows like The Don Lane Show, The Paul Hogan Show, Countdown, Midday With Ray Martin, and other shows hosted by Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton, and Mike Walsh. Some great moments are singed into our memories, and the shows themselves won numerous awards along with the respect of millions of Australians. No one can forget Countdown‘s Molly Meldrum, who was constantly intoxicated on air, asking Prince Charles how his mum was doing; or Daryl jumping off a building beside Mel Gibson, after Richard Donner “greenlighted” his appearance in Lethal Weapon 2. These shows were officially ours, and they celebrated our unique senses of humour and frankness, as well as our almost non-existent censorship. Now, we’re being told we don’t want to see this kind of thing anymore.
When Hey Hey It’s Saturday was given the chop after 28 years in 1999, the excuse Channel Nine gave Australians (along with the cast and crew) was that “times had changed” and the all-important 16-39 age group just wasn’t tuning in any more. But we all knew the real reason involved Channel Seven snaring the Olympic Games, which caused Nine to spend more on advertising and less on the expensive Hey Hey. Daryl Somers hosted the final teary episode in November of that year, and while the young hip crowds were supposedly not watching, they were all a little stunned the very next week when, instead of laughing at Hey Hey while cooking dinner or getting ready to go out, they were treated to reruns of deadly dull movies like the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, which must have cost the network all of about eight bucks.
The same year, cute, twenty-something comedian Rove McManus was given his own show. Though he had previously hosted a hardly-seen cable show and appeared as a guest on Good News Week, Nine decided to cultivate Rove as the Daryl Somers for a new generation, commissioning ten episodes of Rove.
The first series of Rove was quite possibly one of the funniest and most original series coming out of Australia. It didn’t start out as a talk show. It was a boy and his buddies being funny, with an occasional interview. After all, in 1999, with The Panel and Good News Week still available, visiting celebrities didn’t need his show to flog their wares. Instead, talented comedians Rove, Peter Helliar, Corrine Grant, and Irishman Dave Callan treated audiences to brilliant skits including people-on-the-street (always funny); Kiddie Theatre, where children performed famous scenes from films, including Jack Nicholson’s A Few Good Men speech; and the hilarious Words That Sound Better When Said By Dave, when Dave Callan looks longingly at the camera, saying words like “obstreperous.” It was silly, daggy, and so much fun.
Still, the raw promise shown by that first series of Rove caught the eye of only about three Australians. It was axed. Channel Ten then grabbed Rove by his designer threads, threw him into a better time-slot and left him to his own devices. Rove Live picked up where Rove and Hey Hey supposedly left off, and a new and different show was born. Now the show features three or so celebs and a band, mixed in with a couple of sketches. The sketches are shorter too, to leave more time to see the mostly via-satellite guests. Because IMT is gone, as are Good News Week, Midday, and Recovery, Rove Live, and The Panel (also on Ten) are left to do what the studios want: serve as promotional sites for international guests who have something to sell. But Rove is not so smooth as Daryl Somers, and watching this boy from the suburbs, wide-eyed in front of folks like John Travolta, stumbling over his questions, and cutting off his guests, makes for cringe-worthy tv.
Granted, Rove does his very best. But where Daryl (after 30 years on air) was able to chat with massive names—everyone from Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood to Tom Jones, Will Smith, and Christina Applegate, as well as our own stars, like John Farnham, Jimmy Barnes, and Russell Crowe—in a conversational style, Rove is unsure. Recently, he interviewed David Duchovny, who was in Australia promoting Evolution. Duchovny is one of the few celebrities with striking comic talent and intelligence, who are likely to take control of their interviews. Baby Rove was unable to handle this and ended up cutting off his guest instead of just letting him be funny. That said, Rove has had a few strong moments—with Ashton Kutcher, Jerry O’Connell, Melissa Etheridge, and Mariah Carey—when he relaxes into charming interviews. He can make dull people look bright.
As the structure of Rove Live has changed, so have the duties of its line-up. Dave Callan decided to leave the series while Corrine Grant and the hilarious and underrated Peter Helliar (the man who should be doing the interviews but can’t, as his face doesn’t make him an instant favourite in Bachelor of the Year contests) are brought on for one segment each, if that, participating in silly exercises, such judging competitions for the Best Mullet. The skits have been drastically cut and reshaped in what seems an effort to squeeze the two hours worth of hilarity of Hey Hey into an hour and a bit.
Sadly, most Australian television watchers are just as annoying themselves, preferring to jump on a bandwagon while something is edgy, biting, un-PC, and hosted by caustic buggers too smart for the networks (such as Good News Week host Paul McDermott, who left Ten rather than change the format of his show for a fourth time), and then tune out when the hype dies down and they finally realise they don’t get it. Or, they simply can’t be bothered with anything unfamiliar. This is why people weren’t watching the first series of Rove (or the first series of The Panel for that matter), but are now tuning into Rove Live in droves. It’s more of what they know. Sadly, Rove has castrated his own natural humour to please the big bosses, behaving like he’s been thrown in the deep end without his floaties. Spiderman-decorated, no doubt.