Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2003 / 25 Adar I, 5763
A pipsqueak talking head's trials, travails --- and success
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | When did 30 get to be the new 20? I found myself irritably wondering this some time ago when one of my tenants asked me what spackle was. By the time I was 30, I was married, pregnant, a homeowner and a landlord with many years of experience concerning spackle...not all of it pretty.
But (sigh) kids today...
And when did 20 get to be the new 10? I found myself irritably wondering that after watching "The Michael Essany Show," a 13-part series that premieres on E! this Sunday.
The "Tonight"-show-obsessed Essany has had his own weekly cable-access talk program, taped from his parents' living room in Valparaiso, Indiana (near Gary, Ind., of "Music Man" fame) since he was 15. Over the years, the audience has grown from around 24,000 to 200,000 viewers in northwest Indiana.
Celebrity guests have included actor Kevin Bacon, singers Jewel and Destiny's Child's Kelly Rowland, comedians David Brenner, Jeff Foxworthy and Carrot Top and former President Gerald Ford.
Even the rejections have occasionally panned out. Oprah Winfrey didn't agree to visit Essany's Valparaiso hot seat, but she did have him on her show this week.
The showbiz bug bit Essany when he was 12 and sent in a Lettermanesque Top Ten list to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee."
"I spent a couple of weeks in my room drafting this thing," Essany said at the E! news conference, "expecting maybe an autographed picture in return. Well, one July morning, Regis read the thing on-air, and it went over very well."
"And I knew at that moment," he concluded portentously, "that my first laugh from a national audience could not be my last."
Valparaiso's public access station wanted three completed sample episodes before committing to the teen host talk show idea. Essany sent out 500 requests for celebrity interviews before three - Ed McMahon, Leeza Gibbons and Timothy Dalton - agreed to come on the show.
"I was hung up and sworn at so many times at the age of 14 and 15 you would not believe it," he recalled. "Ed McMahon could relate. I mean, he's a guy who spent his whole life trying to help young talent."
McMahon also gave Essany "a gem of advice" he still remembers: "He said so many hosts make the mistake of not realizing that the next question is in the last answer."
Leeza Gibbons recognized a hot if weird opportunity when she saw it and is now executive producer of "The Michael Essany Show" on E!, a behind-the-scenes look at how the young host puts together his public access show each week.
"He was so charming," Gibbons said. "And there was an honestness about him."
"This is like 'The Tonight Show' meets 'Survivor,'" said Essany, already fluent in the shorthand jargon of Hollywood pitch-meeting-speak. "Am I going to survive the week? Am I going to get a guest? Am I going to have a monologue done?"
Essany added that he signed with Leeza Gibbons Enterprises in March 2001, on a date that also happened to be Jay Leno's birthday. (Now, WHY does he know this? He also happens to know that Johnny Carson's birthday and his own happen to be an hour apart.)
And Timothy Dalton? Why he agreed to travel to Nowheresville, Indiana, to do some kid's cable access show remains a mystery.
Anyway, all this certainly indicates remarkable gumption and perseverance for a teenager. But Essany - now a sophomore at Valparaiso University majoring in political science - still lives with his parents.
They drive him around (Essany hasn't had time to get his license), take care of chores like mowing the lawn (which you'd think would be the least a young adult living rent-free could do around the house, especially since a bit of outdoor exercise would help his desk-bound pallor), handle props, costumes and makeup, and catalogue his hundreds of rejection letters in a scrapbook.
Dad picks up lost guests from the nearby shopping center; Mom provides all meals and greenroom snacks. She also delivers fastfood hamburgers to Essany's desk as he sits, calling and calling and calling, trying to book upcoming celebrities.
At one point I half-expected her to chew the burgers for him and then regurgitate the food into his mouth, which I'm happy to say did not actually occur.
OK, now I'm sounding grumpy. But when I was 20, by crikey, I was living on my own, had graduated from college and was working, and prepared my own meals, thank you very much.
But I suppose that was the olden days, and (sigh) kids today...
"I'm taking off my pants now, Mom," Essany says matter-of-factly to his hovering mother in an E! clip, suggesting that it's time for her to leave the room while he changes.
On the other hand, Essany was belting out his own version of Dean Martin's "That's Amore" at age two.
"He was very creative, even as a toddler," noted his mother, Tina Essany. "And I guess I realized his potential at 15 months, when he became potty-trained."
"Oh, good lord, Mom," cut in Essany, sounding partly embarrassed, part practiced straight man doing his schtick at the potty-training line.
Jay Leno had Michael on "The Tonight Show" last year, which was a thrill - "the tape did not highlight how Jay put me at his desk to introduce the musical guest later that night," Essany noted briskly, after E! showed the clip - and David Letterman sent him a note wishing him luck on the E! show.
But Essany's hero is actually Johnny Carson.
Actually, his demeanor is so retro, with his Carson-esque shrug and gestures that seem to call for a cigarette and glass of scotch, that I wouldn't be surprised if his secret hero is actually Jack Paar.
He's described E!'s behind-the-scenes look at his show as "a real-life Larry Sanders," and indeed Essany seems at times like an embryonic version of Garry Shandling's alter ego's unctuous sidekick, Hank Kingsley.
When Essany tells a tongue-in-cheek joke, as he's wont to do about Dad's appreciation of pretty young women guests, he not only shrugs and rolls his eyes slightly...he actually visibly sticks his tongue into his cheek.
And how many Indiana teens have the Rat-Pack-meet-Dr.-Phil smoothness to demand Hollywood hugs from visiting guests, like Essany did with Kelly Rowland in the episode I saw?
Also, he got in a slick joke when he appeared on "The Tonight Show," about bandleader Kevin Eubanks.
"I've been rejected more than 900 times," Essany said, expertly waiting a beat. "I think that breaks Kevin's old singles-bar record."
Essany's parents -- Ernest is an electrician at U.S. Steel, Tina used to own a music store before she quit to home-school Michael -- seem like exactly what they are: modest, ordinary citizens of Indiana.
So how is it, I wondered, that their son seems like a reincarnated Eddie Cantor?
"When I find out how his father is, he owes me a lot of money," joked Ernie instantly in response. Hmm. So maybe THAT's where he gets it from.
Or he could have spent a lot of time studying old videos, even if he's loathe to admit it. "I've never actually been a big fan of TV," Essany deadpanned, his nose miraculously staying the same size.
On the surface, at least, Essany is preternaturally mature -- "I feel 35 years old," he's fond of saying (and it shows just how young he is that 35 seems middle-aged) -- an endearing but faintly animatronics portrait of the talk show host as a young man.
He does have occasional (and refreshing) flashes of adolescent insecurity.
"The success of the local (public access) show has made me kind of popular," he noted. "'Cause otherwise, I'd just be, you know, a dork."
But he quickly reverts to his normal persona of wisdom-beyond-his-years.
"One day when I get the opportunity to sit in the big chair," he said about his ultimate plans to take over "The Tonight Show," "I'll be ready and know the craft."
"When someone says, 'Michael, you've had a lot of success,' actually I've had a lot of failure," he added. "The truth is, I've just stuck around and wasn't willing to give up."
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