NEW YORK – Letterman and Leno had better watch their backs. A 20-year-old kid who lives with his parents in Indiana is making a move with his own late-night TV show.
Michael Essany may still be in college and may not even have a driver's license, but he has convinced stars like Tom Green, Kevin Bacon and Jewel to appear on his local cable access talk show -- in his parents' living room.
"This is a kid who identified his dream early on and is willing to trade off part of his youth for his career," said Leeza Gibbons, an anchor for Extra, whose production company has helped Essany realize his dreams.
The Michael Essany Show is coming to E! on March 2, in the form of a reality series that goes behind the scenes of the cable access program. The cameras follow Essany as he books guests, writes an opening monologue, chooses an outfit -- with the help of his mother/wardrobe consultant -- and gets ready for lights, camera, action.
"I never thought of myself as a reality star," said Essany, whose idol is Johnny Carson. "Most reality shows seem manufactured, but on E! they come in and film what I've been doing for the last five years anyway."
Essany's cable access show, which he started at the age of 15, is far afield of reality shows like The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Show and The Bachelorette: There's no swearing, scheming or skinny-dipping. The shock value lies in its wholesomeness. Essany's a kid with an uncommon work ethic, supportive parents and big dreams.
"He's a straight-A student, but he's not like a regular kid. He's a kid with a mission," said Gibbons, who appeared on Essany's show as a guest in absentia in 1998 (she was on the phone while her headshot was propped on the chair reserved for guests).
Essany's mom, who also takes care of the show's food services, hair and makeup, isn't the only family member involved: Dad also works, running the camera and sound.
"I always want to work with my mom and dad, even when I have a big gig on late-night TV," said Essany. "Mom and Dad will always be part of my career."
He has no doubt he'll secure a spot alongside -- or in place of -- Leno and Letterman. Asked where he sees himself in 10 years, Essany predicted, "I'll be the king of late night."
Not everyone is so confident.
"One thing that defines Essany as interesting is he's on cable access. Once he makes it to the big time, will it be all that interesting?" asked Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "You like the show because it's quaint and charming and low tech ... That will be taken away once it gets a budget."
The newest late-night talkers, like Jimmy Kimmel and MTV's Carson Daly, have a casual approach. They've replaced Johnny Carson's jacket-and-tie style with sneakers and jeans. But Essany aims to emulate the Carson-era Tonight Show -- and some think his retro approach may work.
"Kimmel is a frat boy with his own show. If he's successful, there will be another frat boy," said Lynette Rice, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly who spent several days with Essany in Indiana. "Americans may be ready for someone who brings respect back to the host chair and puts the spotlight on the guest."
But Thompson said competing with established players may prove too tough.
"I have a sneaking suspicion that the greatest moments of the Michael Essany Show will be the ones that were on cable access before E!," he said. "That's not to say he's not a talented guy. It's like stumbling across a real-life Wayne's World."
Regardless of what the experts say, the kid from Indiana is shooting for the stars. When asked about his dream guests, he names the top of TV royalty.
"One guest is Oprah Winfrey -- her people have turned me down more than anyone else," he said. "Next would be Letterman or Leno. I would love to have one of the big boys of late night come out and see how I do things."