April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

Comedian Carrot Top recalls being surprised going on The Michael Essany Show last October. He knew that Essany, a home-schooled 18-year-old from Valparaiso, Ind., hosted a half-hour public-access cable talk show out of the three-bedroom house he shares with his parents, Ernie, 52, an engineer, and Tina, 50, a homemaker. But then, says Carrot Top, “we walk into the house, and there in the living room was a TV studio!”

Essany shrugs. “I call this boot camp,” he says of doing his weekly show, which reaches 175,000 homes in Indiana and Illinois and since its inception in 1998 has reeled in—by phone or in person—celebs as diverse as Ray Romano, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Nabors, Ed McMahon, Alex Trebek and Deborah Norville. “Because I’m getting all this experience here on a local level…which will help me when I get The Tonight Show. And I ant going to host The Tonight Show.”

Though Essany sounds eerily like Rupert Pupkin, the obsessed talk show fan played by Robert De Niro in 1983’s The King of Comedy, “he has got his head on straight,” says his mom. Guest Jeff Foxworthy calls him “probably the most prepared host I’ve ever met.” Which may explain why, he says, “I don’t date much.” Still, he plans to keep doing the show while attending Valparaiso University this fall. At the top of his guest wish list: Jay Leno. Look out, Jay. “When his time is through,” says Essany, “that desk is mine.”

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