''I won't rest until I'm crowned the next king of late night.'' -- MICHAEL ESSANY
Essany has yearned for the spotlight his whole life. He imitated Dean Martin's rendition of ''That's Amore'' at age 2, performed skits for the family at 10, and submitted a top 10 list commemorating the 10th anniversary of Live With Regis & Kathie Lee at age 12 (yep, Reege read it on the air). Everything changed one night that year when Michael (never Mike) tuned in to Carson one night with Grandpa and had an epiphany: This was his destiny.
From then on, Essany was all talk. At 14, he rounded up a set for the show, including a peach-and-teal striped couch that Mom donated to the cause and an old desk he used for studying. (The original desk was later replaced by a larger oak one -- a 17th-birthday gift.) What proved to be more difficult was finding someone to air the do-it-yourself talker. Channel 16 in Valparaiso would do it only if Essany delivered three completed sample episodes -- something that would ultimately take him a year to accomplish because no one famous wanted to be booked.
''I went through hundreds of rejections,'' recalls Essany. ''That took time, in addition to attending high school, and learning the craft of TV production and comedy writing.'' Then, it was as if he received a cosmic gift from Carson himself: Ed McMahon said yes. Essany had tracked down the former Tonight Show sidekick via The Tom Show, a short-lived sitcom he was doing for The WB, and convinced him in just one phone call. ''I had a kindred feeling,'' recalls McMahon, who agreed to a phone interview for Essany's inaugural episode, which aired Sept. 17, 1998. ''It reminded me of when I started out. I too was 15 when I wanted to be a broadcaster.''
''If you're looking for the next Johnny Carson, look no further. Heeeeeerrrre's Michael!'' -- FORMER CARSON SIDEKICK ED McMAHON
Okay, time for a reality check: Essany's ascension to The Tonight Show can't happen that fast. After all, Jay Leno is on the air at least through 2005 and Essany still has that guy Conan to contend with. And McMahon's appearance, boon that it was, didn't cause an onslaught of A-listers to descend on Valparaiso. For now, Essany's major attribute (because let's face it: homework jokes won't cut it in late night) is his tenacity. He wears the rejection letters like a badge of honor -- all of them are kept for posterity in scrapbooks compiled by Mom. ''Mr. Trump would be more than happy to do your show. Regrettably, he is traveling extensively'' or ''Thank you so much for your interest in Enrique Iglesias. Unfortunately, his current press schedule does not allow any additional interviews.''
Those who do appear get treated to a sit-down dinner with the family (typical menu: lasagna, bread, and salad) as well as a parting gift from U.S. Steel (Ernie Essany's employer in nearby Gary, Ind., often provides bags with coffee mugs, golf balls, and pens). ''The remarkable thing is his enthusiasm,'' says Ed costar Michael Ian Black, who did the show in November. ''You would think that after four or five years of this, it would be kind of, well, weary. But gosh, he's having a ball with it.''