Essany's most important guest, though, may have been syndication star Leeza Gibbons, who appeared on his show in 1998. Three years later, Gibbons' production company, Leeza Gibbons Enterprises, signed him to a development deal and took his show to E! The network isn't planning on sticking to Essany's pint-size production when it starts its 13-episode run (during which he'll chat with Tom Green, Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland, and model Frederique van der Wal). The cabler will stray beyond Essany's living-room set, joining him as he bowls at the local lanes, races go-carts with Green, and shops with the aforementioned supermodel. ''He's such a unique young man,'' says E! CEO Mindy Herman. ''The fact he nurtured his talent in Valparaiso instead of a fictional town like Hollywood makes him all the more genuine.'' Adds executive producer Stephen Castagnola: ''It's a dynamic you don't see too often. He loves his parents so much and is so dependent upon them.''
''Other moms would say to me, 'How could you give up your house?' But I can't imagine why they would say that at all....When you love somebody, you just do it for them.'' -- TINA ESSANY
Essany's mom, Tina, is an incredibly modest, shy woman who seems to prefer wiping down the kitchen counters to putting on makeup and wearing fancy clothes. The 52-year-old former music-store owner, who gave up the shop to homeschool her only son from kindergarten through high school, downplays the fact that she's Essany's chauffeur (between taping 26 episodes a year and attending political science classes he hasn't had time to get his driver's license). She's also his wardrobe lady (Essany has one good gray suit, seven sports coats, and 36 ties), his makeup artist (Essany's foundation color of choice: sandy beige), and, lest we forget, the show's AV-switch operator (''All I do is push one button to change the shots from camera one to camera two, and then Michael shows me how to do the laugh track,'' she says. ''He writes the punchline on a sheet of paper, and I try to put the laughter on the mark''). Dad, on the other hand, gets off relatively easy. All he has to do is yell ''Quiet on the set'' and act in an occasional sketch with Michael's Uncle Rocky.
All of these sacrifices are nothing compared to what's become of the couple's two-story brick home with a sizable basement. Their former living room is flanked by a 15-foot mural of the Manhattan skyline (obtained from a Valparaiso wallpaper store; the other choices were Paris and Hawaii). It's been years since the family's looked out the front picture window because Essany masked it with heavy paper to block out light. In the past six years, the show has taken over the rest of the house. A spare bedroom substitutes as a prop storage room, and there's an office downstairs where Essany makes his daily booking calls to Hollywood. (''I've had the best luck on Fridays. It's harder to annoy them.'') The family room serves as the ''greenroom'' (coffee and drinks are on the house). And the dining area is now a veritable shrine to Essany's many celebrity gets: Photos of Sinbad, ''Weird Al'' Yankovic, Carrot Top, and Jim Nabors plaster the walls.