How Zach Anner Made the Leap from Webcasts to Network TV by Erin Stringer
The world was first introduced to 26-year-old Zach Anner via the Internet, when he submitted an audition video to Oprah Winfrey’s competition, Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star. Anner and nine other hopefuls were chosen to be part of an eight-episode reality TV show that premiered in January 2011. The prize was huge: the winner would get a spot on the media queen’s new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Anner’s humour and self-confidence were instantly apparent to audiences, and he quickly won over viewers with his jokes about everything from his condition—“I think cerebral palsy is the sexiest of the palsies”—to failed TV-show formats he had considered for the audition, including fashion and cooking: “Normally, when I cook, I set my pants on fire… The next thing we’re gonna learn how to cook is takeout!”
Anner, a native of Buffalo, New York, who is now living in Austin, Tex., already had some well-honed comedic chops by the time he auditioned for Oprah. He was a graduate of the radio/television/film program at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2007, he co-founded Lark the Beard Productions with his brother Brad and three friends. The group created a web-based series called The Wingmen (which Anner also produces, directs, writes and stars in), a radio show and several TV shows. Lark has also developed content for companies such as Fox Television. “[Through Lark], I met people who were really collaborative and who saw my strengths instead of my weaknesses,” Anner says. “That prepared me for what I’m doing now.”
What they saw was Anner’s talent for observation and improve. “Zach is genuinely one of the only people who can make me break down, break character and lose it when taping our show and sketches,” says The Wingmen cast-member Jordan Crowder. “He always catches you off guard. He knows people are uncomfortable with his disability, so he uses it to his advantage as a way of breaking the ice with people and making them his friends. He has all the friends in the world.”
Anner also has a close family, whom he credits with his ability to find humour in any situation—they listened to standup comedy albums instead of carols on Christmas morning. “My family was funny,” Anner says. “I would always use humour and goof around. I’d use it as a way to make people feel at ease. And my parents encouraged that goofiness from a very young age. Instead of being morbid and depressed, if you can find humour in things, it gives you a fresh perspective.”
Travel can also provide perspective. “I would love to travel to different parts of the world and see how other cultures live,” says Anner. “We get bogged down in the little stuff sometimes and don’t see the big picture. I think travelling helps you go outside yourself.”
Anner has always wanted to do a travel show. In fact, he and his friends had planned to start filming travel episodes independently in the summer of 2010 when the Oprah competition came along. “My mom told me about the competition,” Anner recalls. “She said, ‘You gotta do this.’ The rest is history— it’s one of those complete flukes.” In fact, Anner’s video audition went viral, getting more than nine million votes and popping up on social media sites such as YouTube and Digg. Musician John Mayer even endorsed Anner in a YouTube video, which increased his popularity even more.
Anner was doing some filmmaking with his friends in Austin when he heard the news that he would be joining Your OWN Show. “I was on a jungle gym at the time, out of breath and exhausted,” he recalls. “It was terrifying, and I almost didn’t do it, thinking about cameras on all the time and how I’d be portrayed. Then, I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I’ll just be myself. This is who I am.’ I have a rule: if you’re really terrified of something, you should probably do it because it means that you have something to learn about it. And when I went there, everyone was so supportive, and it was an awesome crew of people. It was just a really great experience.”In the end, Oprah felt that both Anner and fellow finalist Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco deserved to win, and announced that OWN would be producing two shows instead of one: Anner’s travel show, Rollin’ Around the World With Zach Anner and Kristina’s Fearless Kitchen. The winners were also each presented with a 2011 Chevrolet Equinox, $100,000 in cash and another $100,000 to donate to the charities of their choice.
“It was really such a visceral experience,” Anner says, recalling what he felt when he heard that he’d won. “You have a rush of elation, but it didn’t sink in for a while. It was just pure excitement. I have so much gratitude, it’s hard to put into words or feelings.” Rollin’ Around the World With Zach Anner, a show “for people who never thought they could travel,” will air in December 2011. During the first season, Anner visits local landmarks in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. “There’s lots of cool stuff left to see in the U.S.,” Anner says. The show will feature U.S. cities for the entire first season; after that, anywhere is possible.
In the pilot episode, which was featured on the finale of Your OWN Show, Anner headed to the Griffith Observatory in L.A., and fog engulfed the popular tourist attraction. “I’ve heard about the smog here, but this is kind of ridiculous,” Anner quips. “Sometimes, that’s what happens when you travel. You plan the perfect Hollywood vacation, nothing goes right and you just gotta roll with it. Because it all depends on your perspective.”For Anner, the adventure is just beginning. “I’m getting to live the dream, and it’s been a wonderful year,” he says. “There is much more to learn. It’s the quest for learning that keeps all of us going. I have a lot to learn, but also a lot to impart to others. From the responses that I get, I have come to realize that this is something a lot of people have been waiting for, and I’m affecting people in a positive way.”
One of the people Anner has affected is Oprah herself. She spoke about him on the finale of Your OWN Show: “I’ve never seen anybody with that kind of heart, that kind of humour, who has, you know, all the challenges that he’s had to deal with from the time he was born. I’ve met a lot of people, and I’ve never seen anybody like him.”
Erin Stringer is a writer and editor based in Vancouver.