Small-town talk show makes big-league debut

For decades, late-night talk-show hosts have brought the best of Broadway and Hollywood to America's homes. But who knew that America's latest talk-show sensation was making magic in his very own living room? Make that his parents' living room. "The Michael Essany Show" (9:30 p.m. Sunday, E!) takes a documentary look at a 20-year-old self-taught, self-produced talk-show host from Valparaiso, Ind., who has turned his local cable-access chatfest into a genuine cult sensation.

Endowed with the drive, focus and corny jokes of a man 50 years his senior, Essany decided at age 12 that he wanted to be the next Johnny Carson. Wasting no time, Essany launched his eponymous show at 14, with his mother, Tina, and father, Ernie, acting as camera crew, producers, craft services managers and chauffeurs.

Accompanied by his childhood friend Mike Randazzo as his comic sidekick, Essany showcased local comedians and other rising Valparaiso stars. But before long, he cajoled Hollywood celebrities onto his parents' couch, including Jewel, the Bacon brothers, Jeff Foxworthy and Carrot Top. Other public figures, including former President Gerald Ford, Gary Sinese and Ed McMahon, granted telephone interviews.

Michael's guests seem genuinely charmed by his jarring combination of boyish gusto and complete professionalism. Tina and Ernie's homey touches are also a big part of his appeal. Ernie will pick you up at Denny's, but don't dare wear shoes on his white carpet!

In tonight's commercial television debut, Essany scores an interview with Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland. The scenes of Rowland and her posse of producers and bodyguards eating a casserole with the Essanys are surprisingly touching. Future segments will feature interviews and interactions with comics Tom Green, David Brenner, actor Michael Ian Black and model Frederique.

Essany is a complete original -- a show-business natural who appears to be singularly untainted by cynicism or irony. Will success spoil Michael Essany? We'll just have to watch "Michael Essany" to find out.

Today's highlights

  • Harrison Ford stars in the 1981 retro-thriller "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (7:30 p.m., NBC).
  • A rebel doctor (Robin Williams) mixes laughter with medicine in the 1998 drama-comedy "Patch Adams" (7 p.m., ABC).
  • Martin Scorsese's 1980 boxing masterpiece "Raging Bull" (10 p.m., Turner Classic Movies) airs uncut and uncensored for the very first time on basic cable.
  • Ray Liotta is host of "Saturday Night Live" (10:30 p.m., NBC), featuring musical guests The Donnas.

Today's series

A dying inventor gets his wish on "Touched by an Angel" (7 p.m., CBS) ... Joe Rogan is host of "Fear Factor" (7 p.m., NBC) ... On back-to-back episodes of "Cops" (Fox), Mardi Gras madness (7 p.m.), French quarter felons (7:30 p.m.) ... Mannion faces an old nemesis on "The District" (8 p.m., CBS) ... John Walsh is host of "America's Most Wanted" (8 p.m., Fox) ... Domestic terrorists on "The Agency" (9 p.m., CBS).

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