''Okay, good evening, everybody. I'm your host, Michael Essany, the only college student with his own late-night talk show. How about that profession, huh, folks? Now my parents expect good grades and good ratings! I'm sure you've all heard by now, administration officials say that the voice on a new audiotape sounds a lot like Osama bin Laden. Experts claim the tape isn't that old, either. On it, in fact, Osama addresses the situation with Iraq -- and who he thinks will win on The Bachelor.''
It's rehearsal time on the living-room set of The Michael Essany Show, where our 20-year-old host, a sophomore at Valparaiso University in Indiana, has just jumped out from behind a pair of blue velvet curtains -- hung in an archway by his father, Ernie -- to practice tonight's monologue. We know this take isn't the real deal because Pop hasn't yet illuminated the homemade sign that reads ''On the Air'' (Essany's the one who decides when taping commences, anyway, because it's his job to start the video camera).
As Essany delivers his next joke -- Five thousand parents of Indiana high school students demonstrated in Indianapolis this week to protest the ridiculous amount of homework assigned to their children....The kids have got so much work these days, they hardly have time to sleep with their teachers! -- he takes great care to grasp his hands behind his back, dart his eyes sideways, and shrug his narrow shoulders after the punchline. Later, he says he hopes there's something vaguely familiar about the way he milks a laugh.
''People have said that I come across very Carson-like,'' Essany says proudly. ''I just feel like I have a connection to the man.... It's so funny. Our birthdays are only an hour apart. Isn't that just so weird?''
Forget Carson and even Indiana native David Letterman -- the celebrity Essany most resembles is ABC's new late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. The two hire strange sidekicks (Essany employs his childhood pal Mike Randazzo, a computer-technology junior at Purdue University), tell childish jokes (see above), and put relatives to work backstage (more on Mom and Dad in a moment). Where the similarities stop: We're pretty sure Kimmel doesn't wear a retainer to bed.
For the last five years, Essany -- a 5' 9'' lean and pasty kid with a Groucho Marx strut -- has beamed a weekly public-access chatfest to a cumulative audience of more than 200,000 viewers from his parents' living room in suburban Valparaiso, Ind. (The show is now carried on four local public-access channels.) What separates his effort from other Wayne's World wannabes? His miraculous gets. He's snagged such out-of-town talents as songstress Jewel, comic David Brenner, comedian Jeff Foxworthy, and Kevin Bacon -- and persuaded them either to fly (sometimes at their own expense) into Chicago O'Hare Airport or drive straight through to Valparaiso for a 10-to-15-minute stint on his show.
So astonishingly successful is his makeshift Tonight Show that starting March 2, E! will begin a 13-episode behind-the-scenes reality program about Essany's life as a junior host.