When Rove McManus awakes in his new secluded home, at the base of a peaceful canyon in Beverly Hills, just beyond the craziness of Hollywood, he knows he is among showbiz royalty. Higher up, along the manicured winding streets lined with tall security fences and taller hedges, sits David and Victoria Beckham's fairy-tale white palace. More importantly to McManus, the home of Jay Leno is only a few streets away.
Leno and his New York-based rival David Letterman are America's veteran late-night TV talk-show titans. Both earn $US30 million a year; both are cash cows for their networks, and five nights a week millions of Americans fall asleep watching these entertainment deities.
John "Rove" McManus was a 19-year-old Perth fine arts student, wearing a Daffy Duck satin vest and doing stand-up comedy routines in pubs, when he first saw repeats of Letterman's show. "I was hooked; I knew this was what I wanted to do - be a talk-show host, and have a show just like him," McManus tells me, as he steers his car down palm-lined Wilshire Boulevard.
At 20, he bought Bill Carter's talk-show bible, The Late Shift, documenting the power struggle between Letterman and Leno to succeed Johnny Carson as late-night king. He soaked in every word. McManus, with his goofy, naughty-altar-boy humour and smiling, matinee-idol good looks, might appear forever the cute big kid. But behind this popular image is one of the most shrewd, ambitious and professional minds in the business. And daunting self-confidence.
It didn't take McManus long to fast-track his dream. At 25, he set up his own production company in Melbourne, Roving Enterprises, and during the next decade became Australia's most popular TV talk-show host with Rove Live, personally winning three Gold and seven Silver Logies, and six Logies for the show. Some 20 months ago, after ending Rove Live, McManus moved to Los Angeles with his new wife, actor/writer Tasma Walton. And here in Hollywood, land of dreams and illusions, a 19-year-old boy's dream is coming true.
Jay Leno took a shine to McManus, now 37, giving him first occasional, then weekly guest spots. But in the greatest career boost of all, Leno roars his introduction as: "And now here's Australia's Jay Leno - ROOOOOve McManus!"
So how does it feel to be anointed by Jay Leno and springboarded into the homes of millions of Americans?
"Pretty bloody good," McManus responds with a robust laugh, guiding his silver SUV past a super-stretch limo transporting celebrities. "It's like, 'Pinch yourself, Rove, holy cow ... you're on the legendary Tonight Show!'
"Jay's being incredibly kind to me and generous with advice. He's a workaholic, a joke-writing factory, he never stops. Jay started life as a car mechanic and stand-up comic, and his only indulgence is his car collection, filling two air-craft hangars. He drives a different vehicle to the studio every day. Last week I saw him in a 1930s steam-powered fire engine, then an old Studebaker like a Batmobile." Why not? This is Hollywood.
A burst of publicity will soon herald Rove's return to Australian TV screens as well, in Rove from Los Angeles, a 10-week series on FOX 8 that will screen weekly from September 19. It's Rove's postcard from LA, his quirky outsider's observations of America, with celebrity guests joining him in "dinner-party-style conversation". A second series is planned for 2012.
Later, mcmanus wants to meet for coffee at a Beverly Hills cafe, then go on to a showbiz power-lunch hang-out off Rodeo Drive. Team Rove, the management who tightly guard him, have set interview rules. No access to his home, no interviews with Tasma, no questions about Belinda Emmett, his first wife, who died in 2006 after a heroic struggle with cancer.
McManus is in jeans, a red-and-white checked shirt and what looks suspiciously like a white Chesty Bond singlet when he bounds into the cafe at 10.30am, looking very fit and healthy and wanting breakfast.
Ordering an avocado and tomato egg-white omelet and double espresso, McManus explains, "Americans stay up later than we do in Australia; huge audiences watch late-night TV talk shows, which run from 11pm to 1.30am. As well as Leno and Letterman, there's Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler ... I try to watch them all, but it's overload."
Moving to Los Angeles was "scary", he admits. "I wanted to end Rove Live on a high. I figured if I kept going, I'd get tired, the show would get tired, or audiences would tire of me, so maybe I'd only have another two, three years," he says. "But if I took a break to refresh myself, maybe I could return and get 10 years out of something else.
"I couldn't stay in Australia in the aftermath of finishing up because I'd be hearing what everyone else was doing, probably regret my decision, and jump back too quickly into another project. The more I discussed it with Tasma, coming here to explore what we'd do next seemed the right thing to do. Scary as hell, but right."
They'd only been married a few months, so was it also a chance to get some breathing space as a new couple?
"Yes, absolutely that, too," he acknowledges.
They planned to spend only three months in LA, but as nice work offers appeared, they surveyed the depressed post-GFC American real estate market, bought a bargain property and stayed on. Squirrels roll nuts down their roof shingles, coyotes play by their plunge pool and deer roam in the nature reserve at the bottom of their garden.
"I'm so lucky," McManus says. "So many people come to LA with a suitcase of dreams, and wash dishes, struggling to break into the industry - which must be very bleak and depressing. I don't have to do any of that. Plus I can walk into Leno production meetings and they immediately know they're dealing with a professional who knows the game."
In "Rove Across America" segments on Leno, he's sent to cover wacky aspects of American culture: WrestleMania, frog-jumping contests, an inventors' convention. "They send a writer with me, but I don't really use him," McManus says.
"I much prefer to react spontaneously to what I see, and improvise with observational comedy - I love the thrill of free-falling. I write comedy, but I'm a better performer, so you play to your strengths. It's working, they like it, I'm happy."
American talk-show veteran Todd Yasui, who will co-executive produce Rove from LA with McManus's long-time executive producer and business partner in Roving Enterprises, Craig Campbell, has huge faith in McManus's future in America. "Rove slides in effortlessly to US TV," says Yasui, who has "produced, worked with or seen every host or comedian who's tried to make it in the talk-show business for the last 20 years.
"Rove has a total, comfortable naturalness in front of the camera. Few have it, you can't teach it. I've coached so many hosts, and so often you have a comedian who is trying to act like a host instead of being a host. Rove is authentic."
Yasui expects a major shuffle of the top eight talk-show hosts in another two years, when Leno, 61, and Letterman, 64, retire. "Rove has an excellent chance to slot in," he predicts.
Although young rove didn't realise it at the time, he's been in training as the consummate performer since early childhood. Indeed, he seems to be watching himself staying "on message" every moment of our interviews.
He grew up in Willetton, in Perth's red-brick suburbia, "catching frogs, climbing trees, getting dirty". His two elder sisters nicknamed him Rove.
It's a close-knit, well-organised family with homespun values that laughs a lot. "My mum, Coralie, is a great mum, and Dad, John, is a real estate agent who later became a hotel broker. I loved drawing, especially cartoons. I was always drawing Donald and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Looney Tunes characters.
"When I got a bit older, I drew the figures on thick paper and made cut-outs. I had an old cigar box full of my cut-outs, and I'd play with them in my bedroom, acting the voices. My sisters and younger brother would give performances in the backyard with me, acting stories from Little Golden Books."
At age eight came a significant milestone.
"My primary school teacher told my parents that I was a highly imaginative child, but there was no real outlet for this at school, and he suggested they enrol me in a drama class, otherwise I might switch off.
"My parents found Gerry Atkinson's theatrical classes, and I went once a week after school. I absolutely loved it, and if anyone's my mentor, it's Gerry. I kept going to his classes every week for 13 years till I left Perth, at age 21.
"It was nearly all improvised. You could create whatever scenario you wanted, and it could change within a heartbeat. My performance style comes from there. It's reactive. If anything is too scripted or too rigid, I don't connect with it as much as when the parameters are looser and I can play with it."
Two months into drama classes, he arrived at another milestone.
"I was enjoying performing everything in a group, then for the first time we had to perform on our own," he recalls. "The scenario to create was: you're looking at your reflection in a mirror, realise you can walk through the mirror, then what happens next ...
"I had to go first. I froze, and did my act in a nervous, hesitant way, in a tiny voice. Then the next kid got up and gave a brilliant performance. I remember thinking, 'Rove, do not jeopardise what you can do on stage by letting nerves get in the way of what could be a great performance, and great connection with the audience.' After that I was fine. It's the only time in my life I had stage-fright nerves. I've never been nervous performing since."
He had this perception at age eight?
"Yes. I looked at the other kid and thought, 'He's having fun, I'm not having fun. Why?' Because I was nervous. I wasn't nervous in the group, so don't be nervous by myself.' "
At 16, he performed leading roles in school productions of Oklahoma! and Pygmalion. "Then I played an over-the-top bar owner in a Cole Porter-esque comedy, and just devoured the role. That's when I realised how brilliant comedy is as a style, so interchangeable, so nuanced - the way you pause before delivering a line can make the difference between getting a laugh or not.
"I realised I wanted to perform, not act."
Leaving school, he began writing comedy and doing stand-up gigs in comedy clubs. "When you connect with an audience, and they burst into laughter, inspiring you to get even funnier - that's when you become addicted!" McManus says.
Does it feel powerful?
"Yes, but if you think about it too much, it will do your head in, because what you've done is some form of black magic. A single person has taken a roomful of strangers, swayed them to laugh and released a dumpload of feel-good endorphins. That's power."
Why does he want to be funny? The cliché is that comedians spring from dysfunctional families, battered childhoods, but there's no sad clown in Rove?
"Yeah, some comedians feel there's something missing deep inside them, and they need approval from strangers. Others have an ego thing. But me? I just f...ing love it so much. When it's going really well, it's euphoric!"
McManus tried to enrol in an animation course, but it was full, so instead enrolled at Claremont School of Art. After two years, he deferred, heading for Melbourne and a permanent career in comedy.
From hosting The Loft Live on community station Channel 31, McManus moved to his own show, Rove, at the Nine Network, then hit his stride at Ten for a decade of Rove Live. At its peak, Roving Enterprises employed 150 staff working on additional comedy shows including Before the Game, Skithouse and, now, The 7pm Project.
"I love giving like-minded comedians a chance to show what we can all do," he explains.
A close friend from Perth, comedian Dave Callan, recalls being hugely impressed, when both were 19, as McManus discussed his long-term plan. "Most young Perth comedians were floating from week to week," says Callan, "but Rove was so focused: he idolised Letterman and Leno and wanted to do an Australian version of their shows. I've never seen Rove lose confidence, feel inadequate or get nervous. He's so driven, it's inspiring."
Indeed, McManus was so driven he never wasted any years being a teenage rebel, or going through a young man's angst trying to find himself. "I set my internal compass early, and it led me in the right direction," he says with conviction. "Of course," he adds, "there's a difference between the real me and the on-stage Rove. I couldn't be the way I am on stage all the time, because that would be annoying."
It's time to drive to the power-lunch venue: a grill house a glimpse away from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and Rodeo Drive boutiques where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere filmed Pretty Woman.
Callan is certain McManus has a future in films. "Rove is such a fine comic actor, I can see him being the next Steve Martin," he predicts.
"Gosh, if I had half a career like Steve Martin, I'd be more than happy," McManus responds to the suggestion. "If I was offered the right film role, I'd take it. I couldn't act act; I mean, do proper acting like Tasma does. I play silly buggers, but I could do comedic roles.
"I'm still in touch with my Perth drama teacher Gerry, who's been urging me to do more dramatic pieces because he believes I have it in me. But I'm worried all my years of pulling faces and doing silly voices have bashed the seriousness out of my acting."
McManus orders lime chicken salad, declines the key lime pie and wants only water to drink. I'm curious about his role as a vice-president with Flora & Fauna International. Ally Catterick, formerly Rove Live publicist, now the Cambridge-based communications manager of FFI, dreams of McManus becoming the next Sir David Attenborough, hosting wildlife documentaries.
"I got involved in 2007 because I liked their mission, to conserve threatened species and ecosystems while taking into account human needs," McManus explains. "Tasma and I have been to FFI gorilla projects in Rwanda and Uganda, slept in a tree house in Mozambique with lions roaming underneath; we trekked in the Amazon jungle last year.
"Tasma shares my passion for the natural world; she's now on the FFI board. Indeed, we hadn't long been properly going out when we went on our first trip, in 2008 - to FFI elephant projects in Sumatra and Cambodia. I thought, 'This will be a test if we travel well together. Will Tasma be a girlie girl and freak out, or will she happily trek through tall grass, swim in rivers and sleep in caves?' She did the latter with gusto; she's a gutsy lady."
McManus met Walton in 1999, when she was a guest in the first months of Rove, his debut on the Nine Network.
"Two weeks later, I was at the opening of Fox Studios in Sydney. I spotted Tasma, who was dating someone else. She came over to say hello, then introduced me to her friend, Belinda Emmett. Belinda and I joined the queue for the Titanic ride, got talking, found we were kindred spirits, and were together for the next eight years."
McManus continues, "When Belinda died, I got very low, and Tasma was good at knowing what to say. She recommended a friend who did kinesiology, which I found helpful. I'd call Tasma to let her know how the sessions were going, and discuss the feelings I was going through.
"Previously, Tasma always treated me like a kid brother. I was this immature, excitable little puppy playing at being a TV host when we first met; whereas she was Miss Sophistication, a well-known actress in Home and Away and Blue Heelers. Now we were talking in a different way, and it brought us closer. Gradually, I began to feel a bit more normal again."
As he'd mentioned Emmett, I thought it permissible to ask one respectful question. Had enough time passed that he could now look back on his years with her as a treasured personal memory, rather than being filled with grief?
He nods, yet the question seems to unleash a torrent and his answers become less scripted.
"At first, I was ready to crawl into a hole, and never come out again. Belinda was such a tough little fighter, this wise, tiny little thing from Central Coast NSW.
"In the first months, I went up north to the Daintree rainforest, shaved my head and went all feral trying to get it out of my system. It was like a roller-coaster; you think you're fine, then come crashing down because it's so painful to think of the good times together when you don't have them any more.
"I felt I didn't want to keep going as a performer. I felt so conspicuous, as though everyone was looking at me ... I got very depressed. I'd never been through anything as profoundly emotionally impacting as that whole experience with Belinda. It's still a huge loss. There's always sadness while I treasure the memory."
His long-time friend, comedian Peter Helliar, has told me, "Rove went to some deep and dark places, and we'd talk about it. You'd have to be a machine not to be affected by what he went through. He retreated for quite a while, then gradually emerged, regained his spark and became Rove again."
McManus was often commended for his stoic grace supporting Emmett throughout her lengthy battle with cancer. Ally Catterick, a friend of many years, says, "We assume Rove doesn't have this level of emotional maturity because we see him performing as a goofball comedian. But close friends and family always knew that side of Rove. It's good to see him so happy again, and Tasma certainly helped bring his glow back."
McManus says he likes it that he and Walton were friends for a long time, then built a relationship on top of this. "Tasma's from Geraldton, north of Perth; we're the same age and share similar cultural references. She does heaps of things I can't do. She rides a motorbike; bought it in San Francisco and rode it for 10 hours back to Los Angeles. It's black; she wears black leather and looks like a Ninja. She acts; she writes books and TV scripts from intense drama to comedy. I marvel at her skills and it makes me love her more and more. I'm a lucky man."
His wife also shares his sense of humour. "I've brought out the silliness in her or, as she puts it, helped her find her inner child again," McManus says. "She laughs at my expense as well, which helps me accept my flaws and idiosyncrasies."
Like his continuing obsession with cartoons, playing video games, riding giant roller-coasters and watching wrestling?
"Oooorrright," he concedes, "my infantile side ... In primary school, all the kids in my class got bitten by the WrestleMania bug. We loved the over-the-top celebrity wrestlers and obvious showbiz fakery of the fights. I just didn't grow out of it, when other people got wise. I'm also into Ultimate Fighting, which isn't choreographed fakery. It's legitimate fighting - a mix of martial arts, boxing, wrestling, karate and kickboxing.
"To this day, it's the one thing that Tasma does not understand about me. When I'm watching a fight, Tasma will walk into the room asking, 'Now which one are you watching - fake or real?' If I reply, 'Real one,' she'll complain she hates violence. If it's the fake one, she'll shake her head saying, 'You're such an intelligent person, why do you want to watch this silly stuff?' "
I'm with Tasma, I confess. Why?
"With Ultimate Fighting, I'm watching the skill, the physicality, they're super-fit warriors in battle and I respect that. I don't have a warrior streak in me.
"I'll go for a run, and have to run up that hill. I'll do gym sessions and push myself so hard I'm about to throw up. But that's the extent of my inner warrior.
"Look ... I'm a guy, so at least I've got something in me that suggests some semblance of testosterone, to counterbalance my love of Bugs Bunny cartoons," he pleads.
On cue, a sultry voice on the restaurant's music system starts singing When I Grow Too Old to Dream as McManus continues, "I love embracing the fear of riding extreme thrill roller-coasters, and screaming like a child! I love riding the X2 roller-coaster here at Six Flags Magic Mountain. You will go, too!" he commands and, looking elated, adds, "It will blow your mind! It's like being strapped into a giant spin dryer, and hurled around so you have no idea which way is up; meanwhile speakers blast sound bites from movies and everyone stretches their jaws and screams."
Does Tasma ride with him?
"No way, she reckons she gets motion sickness."
Can McManus figure out his own personality - so planned and mature on the professional side, yet still a tearaway kid on the other?
"I dunno. I love a good drama or documentary, but I'll always watch a bad comedy in preference," he admits. "In all those years of acting training, I'd always find myself steering back to the comedy roles, like a shopping trolley with its wheels dragging you sideways."
It he following day, we meet at venice Beach. It is alive with tattooed rollerskaters whizzing past bleary-eyed characters bearing signs: "World's greatest wino", "Kick me in the nuts, $5". Ageing hippies queue at medical marijuana booths; vendors sell chilli cheese turkey dogs, corn dog combos, root beer floats.
Team Rove has issued a list of poses that their star would not do: no stunts, no riding skateboards, no rollerskates, no jumping, no wearing funny clothes.
McManus arrives at 1pm, flanked by his LA manager and personal assistant. After lunch on the promenade, during which he demonstrates his cartooning skills, drawing Daffy Duck on my table napkin, he grins: "Okay, let's do it - I'm ready for the hero shot."
He requests chewing gum from his PA to clean his teeth of any salad greens clinging from lunch and we walk down to a section of beach where Baywatch was filmed. Photographer Hugh Hamilton sets up lights, as the famous coastal morning fog has failed to lift, and starts shooting.
McManus instantly becomes Rove. On switch the facial gestures, the body language, the "I, Rove" hero poses. He strikes pose after different pose for a solid hour, with the professional skill of an Elle Macpherson.
On the drive back from Venice, I ask McManus what it's like when he gets together with a bunch of comedians. Do they all crack jokes, trying to outwit each other?
"Yeah," he says with a laugh, "it's like seagulls fighting over a chip, because one person might say something, then everybody starts thinking of the joke and tries to get it out first. It can become a bit, ah, raw."
Helliar has admitted, "Comedians can sink to pretty low levels to entertain each other. Rove does have a darker, more twisted sense of humour that you don't see on TV. Wrong is the best way to describe it.
"And I'm not providing examples ... politically incorrect stuff that you shouldn't joke about."
McManus admits there are two types of jokes from other comedians for which he's forever on the alert. "The first is: 'That's brilliant, I never would have thought of that in a million years', and I marvel at how that comedian came up with it. The second is: 'Oh, you bastard, I wish I'd thought of that first!' "
I wonder if McManus feels he has changed, after living 20 months in a different country?
"Nup ... apart from dropping Australian slang words," he responds.
Does he view Australia with a new perspective, living in another culture and society?
"Er, what do you mean? I miss not having Vegemite, Cherry Ripes and my dentist ..." he says.
I mean at a deeper level. Writers always say they look back and contemplate their own country in a much clearer light when they live overseas, so I wonder if he's shared that type of conversation with Tasma?
"Nup," he answers, then adds, "Look, I'm just a happy kid who climbed trees and caught frogs, and now is kinda telling silly jokes for a living.
"Right now, I'm enjoying where the ride will take me."