The Michael Essany Show.

The Michael Essany Show.

The Michael Essany Show.

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March 19 2003 12:36 PM

Baby Talk

Can a 20-year-old host handle his own show?

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Rowland with Essany, a robot hybrid of Carson and Letterman

Frédérique van der Wal, the Dutch model, may have put it best when she said, "I don't want to go into the psychology of all this."

Virginia Heffernan Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Politico. Follow her on Twitter.

Van der Wal was referring to the Essany family and particularly Michael Essany, her unctuous host on the subtly unpleasant late-night program The Michael Essany Show (E!, Sundays, 10:30 p.m ET). This is the show shot in a two-story house in Valparaiso, Ind., the one with a kid host whose precocity as a late-night master of ceremonies—he started on cable-access at 14—supposedly means he's a threat to Jay Leno. E! calls Michael Essany a "reality talk-show": Essany and his devoted parents produce a goofball program (monologue, interviews), while E! produces a program about the program.

Van der Wal seemed decidedly less enchanted by the concept than the other guests that Essany has thus far lured to his couch. Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child was lively, easy with Michael's parents, and happy to be of service. (She told the camera, "He's going to change TV and be a really remarkable star.") Tom Green, too, was dryly appreciative—and he easily acclimated to the show's geek-absurd aesthetic. But van der Wal was creeped out by the idea of a couple's converting their house into a studio and their only son into a hair-sprayed robot hybrid of Carson, Letterman, and Ed Sullivan.

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Creeped out or not, van der Wal goes shopping

Early in the half-hour, she went shopping with Essany at Sears to help him pick out sharp new clothes. She made decent suggestions while, at every turn, Essany, who is 20, called his mother to give her an update. Van der Wal complained about the constant calls; she was not up for this.

During the interview itself, Essany asked aimless questions about van der Wal's career in his distinctive voice—a clotted nasal that seems to be coming through a dental device. He also went to watch an earlier episode of his own show with college guys he insisted on calling "fellas" and with whom he played ill at ease, stiffly praising the loveliness of the dorm room, though it was littered with cigarettes, socks, and beer cans.

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Through the first three episodes, Essany has been eerily jacked up on his persona, a generic cheap-suit host whose comedian's bag of tricks might, in another era, have been ordered from the back of a comic book. There's something amusing about this, but it's also uncomfortable. Essany is playing a tacky groovy guy of 40—and playing him straight—while his parents enable him, following his orders. In T-shirts that say "Mom" and "Dad," they direct and stage-manage the show, respectively; they also do Michael's makeup, wardrobe, errands, and housework. Finally, they fetch and feed the show's guests and their entourages, howling with supportive laughter when, for example, Michael cuts up with a bodyguard (Hey! You're a big black guy! Don't beat me up! You sure are big! Etc!).

Once, as he was chauffeuring Tom Green to the house, Dad—who calls himself "errand boy"—told Green, "Mike's going to be president of the United States someday. I know I shouldn't say that, or say anything about that, but if you go into his room upstairs, he loves government. He loves everything to do with the government."

"That's all you really need, they say," Green said, staying under the radar. But later Dad volunteered the fact that Mom believed he'd done only one thing right in his entire life: help to create Michael. Indeed, the besotted parents seemed destined from the very beginning to supervise something called The Michael Essany Show. Now, officially, they do.