When he was 14, Michael Essany walked into his small-town cable-access station in Valparaiso, Ind., with a proposal: He wanted to host a local Tonight Show with real celebrities who visit this town of about 30,000 people - and film it all in his parents' living room.
"When you're an [eighth-grader] from Indiana ... and you don't have much money you start at the bottom," recalls Mr. Essany, now 20. The station director told him to produce three demo tapes first, then he would consider airing them. But lining up celebrities proved more challenging than nailing his punch lines.
"I harassed a lot of people," he says. "The first six months I sent out 200 letters requesting interviews, and they were all rejected. The next six months I sent out 300. And 297 turned me down."
Those who said yes (Ed McMahon, Leeza Gibbons, and Timothy Dalton) helped Essany's program land a spot on Thursday nights. He put his parents to work backstage and transformed his house into a TV studio.
Several years later, one of his first guests, Gibbons, caught wind of Essany's growing popularity and pitched a behind-the-scenes reality program to E!. Friday, the Johnny Carson wannabe was just renewed for a second season as the star of his own "real-life 'Larry Sanders Show,' " he says. "The Michael Essany Show" chronicles the late-night prodigy's efforts to juggle college and produce his show, which still airs in Indiana.
Another junior host from the Midwest has also made the leap from cable access to national network. "The Brendan Leonard Show," a bratty cousin of "Wayne's World" with a bigger basement and broader vocabulary, debuted on ABC Family May 26. The program is hosted by Leonard, a 19-year-old student at Providence College, and his couch comrades, who perform silly skits in their north Chicago suburban neighborhood.
The two homegrown programs may point toward new trends in reality TV, says Gary Edgerton, chair of communications at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. They illustrate how the reality TV craze, combined with easy-to-use digital technology, has empowered media-savvy young people to make their own shows.
He calls the phenomenon "me TV."
"This takes [reality TV] a step further. Instead of plugging an amateur into a prefabricated reality format, you have amateurs producing as well as starring in their own shows," he says. "We may be on the verge of viewers developing more of the dual role of being not only the consumers, but also producers."
Digital technology has enabled people to shoot, edit, and produce programs for a fraction of what it used to cost, he adds. Cable access gives them a free outlet to practice their craft. "But it takes talent," he says.
The work involved can be quite demanding, leaving little time for sports or dating or other teenage rites of passage.
"I haven't had time to get my driver's license yet," Essany admits. Over the past five years, his life has revolved around taping, producing, editing, and writing monologues. He still makes cold calls to agents to book celebrities for phone or in-person interviews. (More than 100 celebrity guests have appeared on the show - including Kevin Bacon, Katie Couric, Jewel, and Dennis Franz.)
At his parents' house, he has painted over the living-room windows to block out the light, transformed the kitchen into the greenroom, and hung blue velvet curtains for his monologue backdrop. He manages it all while maintaining a 3.89 GPA at Valparaiso University, where he majors in political science.
"It's very much a family operation," says Essany, who grew up watching his hero, Johnny Carson, with his grandad. "I come from a naturally funny family. Beyond my mom and dad, my relatives and friends appear in sketches routinely."
His parents work backstage. Their one major rule (which even applies to celebrities): No shoes in the house. His mom - seen in one episode wearing slippers - is the director and in charge of hair and makeup.
His dad, a steelworker who quipped in one episode that his son "would become president someday," handles lighting, props, and technical matters. Both parents serve celebrities a home-cooked meal.
The college freshman has even invited the mayor to appear. In one of Essany's skits, he switched jobs with Valparaiso mayor David Butterfield for the day. Mr. Butterfield had to learn how to write jokes, book guests, and produce the TV show. Essany headed to City Hall. When he got there, he jokingly started up the mayor's car. Then, he says, "I hear sirens, and I realize I have been set up. A police officer asked for my driver's license. Since I don't have the license, they arrested me."
Like Essany, Leonard spends most of his free time writing and producing, with help from his clan of friends, all college students who are spending their summer break filming.
"We hand the tape to ABC Family, and they make minor changes. But they've given us creative control," Leonard says.
He and his buddies launched the community-access show "just for fun" almost four years ago when they were in high school.
At first, "like 10 people watched," he says. But the show quickly became popular among students. A friend sent his tape to ABC Family, and they offered to pick up the program. Their daily audience has grown to 240,000 people.
Like Essany, Brendan has turned his home into a TV studio - and his family is thoroughly involved. His older brother and brother-in-law are the camera operator and sound man.
Many of his ideas for skits come from his experiences as a teenager.
"We figured out that the best way to do the show was to be ourselves. The way we act is the way we act off camera," he says, adding that daydreaming brings out his creative side. "I come up with a lot of ideas during classes because it's so boring, my mind wanders. In my math class and history class, I will come up with the best ideas."
For instance, Brendan offers "survival tips" during the show on topics like how to get out of an awkward conversation. He and his friends also made up new I.M. acronyms such as GGSSC (Gotta go, swallowed shaving cream) or ICBIWOOP (I chuckled, but it was out of pity.)
"We have a minor disdain for amateur boy bands," Leonard says. "So we made up the skit called 'BOYling Point' making fun of boy bands. We dressed up as a boy band."
He got interested in TV partly because of his father, NBC correspondent Mike Leonard. In high school, he says, "my friends and I caught the 'Blair Witch Project' craze" and "made little horror films."
Socializing with friends makes the 14-hour days worthwhile for Leonard.
"I couldn't do it if it was just a show involving myself. My friends and I will film and then hang out together more. It's not a job to us."
Overall, the networks are taking a small gamble with these programs, Edgerton says, because channels are flooded with options for the MTV audience. But, he adds, like other reality shows, "they are cheap to produce."
For their part, viewers say they can relate to the goofy, amateur style of stars on "Essany" and "Leonard."
"Watching the show is like hanging out with my friends. They are genuine people," says Lauren Ringel, an 18-year-old from Augusta, Ga., who watches both "Leonard" and "Essany."
"[My friends and I] go out on the weekends and do stupid funny stuff like Brendan Leonard does," she says. "We will sit in the Dr. Seuss section of the Barnes and Noble and read Dr. Seuss books to each other. We find our favorite childhood books and read them out loud."
It's that weekend demeanor that Brendan strives for. "If you watch the show and say, 'It looks like they're having fun' - then we are doing our jobs because we are having the time of our lives."