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Zach Anner

Zach AnnerCirca Apr/May 2011

In a surprise move, OWN awarded both Anner and co-finalist, Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco, their own series. Anner, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, is now poised to unveil Rollin’ Around the World with Zach Anner, a humorous travel show that will see him cross the globe. Anner won $100,000 from Kohl’s (sponsor of Your Own Show), as well as a new car. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with Anner before his move out to Hollywood.

Cooper: Congratulations on the new show! Are you going to be filming out of Austin or Los Angeles?

Anner: Thanks! I think we’re going to be based out of Los Angeles, but we’re going to be visiting a lot of different places because it’s a travel show.

Cooper: So you’ll be living out here in California while you do the show?

Anner: A lot of things are still up in the air, but it would seem to make sense to do that. I’d be open to it, because Los Angeles has In-N-Out Burger. That really is a big draw for me. I could float through space in an In-N-Out Burger and that would be cool with me.

Cooper: (laughs) Tell me about your new travel program. What can we expect to see?

Anner: We want the show to offer a mix of the places, the people, and the logistics of travel, with humor overarching it all. And a good amount of heart, too. I think it’ll be fun.

Cooper: You’ve already proven you have the gift of humor.

Anner: My parents and my brother instilled in me my sense of humor. That’s kind of the way we communicate with each other, and it’s always been a way for me to get to know people. Depending on where my self-confidence was, growing up, I would use humor either to bring people closer, or to keep them away from certain feelings I had.

Humor disarms people. It opens them up to starting a dialogue about things they wouldn’t normally talk about. I don’t understand how people who don’t have a sense of humor get through life. Even when something sad or tragic happens, I find a way to look at it in a positive light. People who don’t have a sense of humor must be so sad all the time.
Cooper: Were you considered a problem child in school because you were such a joker?

Anner: Sometimes. I remember a time when my first grade teacher wanted us to tell her the classroom rules—like sharing and no fighting and that sort of thing—and I raised my hand and said, “No French kissing the teacher.” I got in trouble the first day of school. I had to be on my best behavior the entire year, because I’d made such a horrible first impression!

Cooper: You’re saying your teacher actually didn’t want that to be a rule?

Anner: I thought it was a pretty safe rule, right? And I think she agreed with the principle—just not with my expression of it.

Cooper: I don’t think I knew what French kissing was in first grade.

Anner: I didn’t know, either. I’d just assumed you weren’t supposed to do it with your teacher.

When you’re growing up—and occasionally when you have a disability—a lot of embarrassing things sometimes happen to you, and it’s really great to be able to say, “This will be so funny later! This is all great material that I have, this life that I’m living.”

Cooper: I’d forgotten about your disability.

Anner: If we don’t talk about it, that’s awesome, because that means we’ve got other things to talk about. But yeah, it’s definitely part of who I am.

Cooper: I think one of the reasons I loved your YouTube videos is that you don’t do disability-specific humor.

Anner: A lot of times people expect me to make jokes solely about my disability. My perspective is: what would I really want to do if I weren’t in a chair? There are a lot of things I love to do that have nothing to do with my cerebral palsy (CP). I define myself as a goofball first. That really opens people up. They say, “This guy’s making jokes that really don’t have anything to do with him being in a chair.” So that was always the key. I don’t wake up and think of myself as somebody who has CP.

I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. I want to be a comedian. I don’t see the need to dwell upon elements of my life I can’t control. Cerebral palsy is just one of those things I was born with. We’re all born differently, and this is my difference.

Cooper: The guy who writes our “Humor Therapy” section happens to be a quadriplegic. Every so often he does some disability-related stuff, but most of his work is just straightforward humor.

Anner: Talking to other comedians is always nice. Arsenio Hall was on the Oprah show with me and was the funniest guy. It made me wonder why he doesn’t still have a show of his own. It was so cool to be able to riff off of him and feel the rapport.

Jon Stewart does a great job, too. What I love about The Daily Show is that each of the talents there thinks of himself or herself as a comedian first. They make really intelligent political points and people listen, because the audience thinks, “These guys are comedians.” So The Daily Show can make the sharpest points without having to, necessarily, own up to the responsibility of the opinion. That’s really smart. Also, they usually look at things objectively, rather than always being on the party line. That’s the way you make progress.

Cooper: You sound like you could be on your way to a political career with that comment.

Anner: I’d rather focus on what everybody has in common, instead of on polarizing issues.

Cooper: You made a polarizing comment when you said cerebral palsy is the sexiest of the palsies. We’ve got one woman here who has Bell’s palsy, and she’s really upset with you!

Anner: I stand by my position. I know some sexy people with Bell’s palsy and, while there’s room for both of us, I come out on top in sexiness. How many palsies are there? I don’t even know. I need to know whom I’m up against. Does Drew Barrymore have Bell’s palsy? I find her very attractive.

Cooper: (laughs) We’ll have to check on that. Tell me a little bit about your vision.

Anner: You mean my vision for the show, or my wandering eye?

Cooper: Yes.

Anner: (laughs) Well, when I was born, my eyes were crossed. When doctors performed eye surgery on me, they overcorrected, and so that’s why my eyes all over the place. I don’t have much depth perception, unless I really focus. It’s something I would like to work on, actually, because eye contact is important during interviews, and I never have it with anybody.

Cooper: Do you have a driver’s license?

Anner: Oh, no. I wouldn’t want one! My startle reflex is really exaggerated. That means if someone pulled out in front of me I’d probably freak out and murder somebody’s lovely little grandma. It would be terrible.

I would want to sign a contract that said I wouldn’t be charged with criminal misconduct for the first five animals I accidentally run over.

Cooper: Five animals and one grandma.

Anner: (laughs) I did once go through a test to evaluate whether or not it would be safe for me to drive, and the answer was a resounding “no.”

Cooper: Have you gone on any amusement park rides?

Anner: (laughs) Yes! When you’re in a wheelchair, you get to go to the front of the lines, which is the biggest perk for me. I would love not to have CP, but when I’m in those lines I feel like the luckiest guy in the world because I get to ride the roller coaster 10 times! That would be a hard thing to give up.

Cooper: What hobbies do you have?

Anner: In Austin, my life is kind of consumed with film stuff. I make a lot of shorts, and my friends and I have a show called “The Wingmen,” which is a mocumentary web series that’s all improv. We’re just always trying to think of little movies or features to do. That takes up most of my time.

Cooper: Under your deal with OWN, will you still be able to do other projects?

Zach Anner, Oprah Winfrey, Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco
Zach Anner, Oprah Winfrey and Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco

Anner: I hope so. OWN has been really, really cool about letting me continue to do the silly things I do. This show is the opportunity of the lifetime, so I’m down for whatever.

I talked to somebody from NBC who said the network was excited because it had a pilot completely made up of people in wheelchairs. And I was like, “Well, you don’t really need to hit that issue over the head. Your show doesn’t need to be all people in wheelchairs. It doesn’t even necessarily need to have a character who’s there because he’s in a wheelchair.”

Cooper: Exactly.

Anner: If there’s an actor the network likes who’s qualified and who brings something to a character, there you go. The idea shouldn’t be, “we need this guy because he’s got this.” Does he bring something to the role that nobody else does, wheelchair or not? You want to make sure that people are seeing the person, not the devices or other issues.

When I do my “Wingmen” show with my friends, we don’t even address the wheelchair. It’s not something that, when we’re writing or thinking up stuff, we necessarily even incorporate because it doesn’t really register to us as a big deal. But when we show our work to an audience that hasn’t known me, the audience is like, “Why aren’t they addressing the chair?”

Cooper: That’s actually something that happens with this magazine, also. People will say, “Why is Kathy Ireland on the cover? Your magazine deals with disabilities, doesn’t it?” It does, but you need to read between the lines of what we’re talking about. We build that topic into the fabric of the article.

Anner: I’d love to talk to somebody who’s more connected with the disability community than I am. I’ve caught some flack, at least a little bit, because of my use of language. On my audition tape I referred to myself as a “wheelchair-bound ladies’ man.”

Cooper: I could see why they had a problem with that.

Anner: Sure, but it was just a phrase I’d thought was funny. I caught some flack about not using person-first language. I’ve got to be honest, I get the sentiment and everything, but I feel like that should be a personal choice. If we all have to say the same thing, it just feeds into the idea that we’re all the same.

Cooper: For years the disability community has been trying to change the attitude around certain language. When someone says “wheelchair-bound,” it’s suggesting, “I’m bound to a chair.”

Anner: If I’m using a personal expression, that helps people see me as a person first, maybe more so than they would if I’d just gone with the accepted phrase. I mean no offense to anybody, and I understand the sentiment behind the concern, completely. But I think, a lot of times, political correctness closes off dialogue. It makes people afraid to ask questions because they’re afraid if they don’t word them the right way, someone will take offense.

It’s about intention. People who haven’t been exposed to people with disabilities—and who don’t know what to expect—are, of course, going to have misconceptions. So I take it upon myself to connect with them in a way that makes disability easier for them to comprehend.

Cooper: When I’m in a conversation with someone who uses a term like “handicapped,” I don’t correct them, but I might say, “Yes people with disabilities…” I use the correct language, but I don’t beat anyone up if they don’t. And for those who are paying attention, they may try out that new language the next time they’re in a conversation.

Anner: I just don’t want people to feel like they’re going to be judged if they ask me a question that’s maybe politically incorrect. I would just like for people who have questions to ask those questions openly and freely and not worry about being judged for wording. Then a dialogue can begin and we can have an open discussion.

As members of the human race, we all have questions about each other and about each other’s differences. If we make a mandate about, “This is how you’re supposed to treat a certain race or group of people, and these are the things you’re supposed to say and not to say,” that closes off the issue, in my mind.

Cooper: A lot of the concern about language comes from employment issues. We want companies to have the understanding that the talent pool of people with disabilities is a large one. The more the language conveys disability first or suggests, “you’re confined to something,” the more difficult for employers or anyone, for that matter, to focus on ability rather than on negative stereotypes.

Anner: I’ve always wanted to have a deeper understanding of where those concerns come from. I was exposed to other people with disabilities, obviously, but those disabilities were never at the forefront of what I was pursuing. So I live my life, and when people come into it, obviously they would have a certain perception of me, in the beginning. Then as people got to know me, that perception would change.

I’ve had such an outpouring of support from the disability community, and I didn’t even realize that the idea of this show would affect people so deeply. It was just something that I’d always wanted to do, and I thought it would be a great idea. I thought people would have a lot of fun watching it. So to hear so many stories, to have so many people writing me, has really opened my eyes.

Cooper: Did you hear much about Christopher Reeve when you were younger?

Anner: Of course. I was really inspired by his belief that all things are possible.

Cooper: For a good while after his accident, Christopher Reeve talked a lot about finding a “cure” for spinal cord injury, which really angered a lot of people in the disability community. It suggested to them that without the ability to walk, people were not whole. When I got a chance to talk with Chris, I told him why people were concerned about that, and he got it. Today his foundation gives out grants not only for research on spinal cord injury and other disabilities, but also “quality of life” grants—grants that put money toward disability-related issues in a general sense, not just toward a “cure.”

Anner: That’s really interesting. I think if I had the opportunity to walk, I’d accept it. I don’t know if it’s in the cards for me, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me the way I am, obviously.

I have conflicting feelings about it, really. If a person has lived a certain way and then all of a sudden can’t move his legs or do the things he used to do, that probably changes his perspective. For me, personally, I’ve never really felt “disabled”. I was born with cerebral palsy, and I grew up in an environment in which no one made a big deal of it. So it’s been really, really interesting to hear all the different perspectives.

My disability has shaped who I am and my entire outlook, but I’d also probably try living without it, just because I’d like to take up swing dancing sometime. This is all so hypothetical, though, that we can never really expect an answer.

Cooper: For some members of the deaf and hard of hearing community, the choice of whether to hear or not to hear is a real one. Because of cochlear implants, they actually do have the option of becoming part of the “hearing” world. Some people who get the implants are perceived as “jumping ship,” and lots of people within the deaf community get upset when a person makes that choice. They argue, “God doesn’t make mistakes. We have our own community and our own language. I’m not a mistake, and therefore I don’t need to alter who I am.”

Anner: It’s so interesting how many different ways disability can be interpreted.

Cooper: Did you ever go to camp as a kid?

Anner: I used to go to a special summer camp, yeah. Some kids there had CP, other kids were blind or deaf. The person I most connected with was a guy who was deaf. Learning how to communicate with him without sign language was an awesome experience. Our desire to communicate made our friendship so much stronger, because we really had to figure out a way to talk to each other. So that whole cochlear implant debate is interesting, because if I could have something that might make it easier for me to communicate with a large population, I would probably take it. My principle has always been that I’m just going to be myself and be true to myself, and change will come from that. But I understand there are a lot of other elements that come into play.

I see a lot of parents of children with disabilities. Many of them dedicate themselves to that cause so deeply that the disability becomes their life. That’s an approach my parents shied away from. But I would love to meet with everybody and get more plugged in to what’s going on with the disability movement.

Cooper: They’ll be coming to you, too. You’re going to become a rock star in the disability movement.

Anner: I just want to be a guy who’s really good at his job, regardless of the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. I hope that my show is a fun experience for everybody, no matter where they’re coming from.

Cooper: I remember in one of your videos, you were being carried up to a hilltop—

Zach AnnerAnner: (laughs) Yeah, Mount Bonnell.

Cooper: What did you say to the camera when you were being carried?

Anner: I said, “I hope this doesn’t affect my mojo, being carried by two dudes.” [laughter] My friends are the coolest in the world. It was, like, 95 degrees that day.

Cooper: You were so funny when you were trying to give a hug to a couple of girls, and one actually darted away from you.

Anner: We edited that to make it look as pathetic as possible. We’d heard that place was, like, the make-out capital of the world, but when we got to the top of the mount, there were only six people. We were like, “We’ve got to make this funny somehow, because we’ve come all this way.”

Cooper: It sounds like you have a great team.

Anner: I was so lucky to find that group, yeah. Obviously, I can’t do all of the physical aspects of filmmaking, myself. I can’t shoot video as well as someone else can. But to have an idea, and then to have people to bounce ideas off of, has been priceless.

Cooper: Did you go to college?

Anner: I went to University of Texas and studied radio, television, and film. I haven’t graduated yet. I took some time off to film some things, and there was a financial problem, too, because I’m an out-of-state resident, even though I’ve lived here for five years, so the tuition was kind of expensive. But I’d like to go back and finish, because all I have left is Spanish and math and those types of things. I definitely want to finish.

Cooper: What do your parents do?

Anner: My mom is a professor at the University of Buffalo. She teaches theater and playwriting. That’s probably who I got my creative spark from. My dad is a bartender who also did videography, so entertainment is kind of in my blood. Before I moved to Texas, I worked at Disney World and loved it.

Cooper: Did you joke around a lot with the Disney World guests?

Anner: Yeah. I always bought into the magic of Disney. That was always my big thing. I would always tell people I had the best job in the universe. Lots of fireworks every night, and then afterwards I’d go around the park and tell everybody to get out. It was fantastic. I even gave some people rides on my chair.

Disney World is really the most accepting environment ever. I was nervous about the job at first, and living in Florida was the first time I’d been away from home. But Disney World was completely accommodating to whatever I needed and to whatever I wanted to do. It was the perfect bridge for me between home and college.

Cooper: Have you ever done any writing?

Anner: I’ve had a couple of offers to do books, but it’s hard for me to get into that mindset because I don’t really type. By the time I’ve managed to type what I’m writing, I’m already editing it in my mind and changing it.

Cooper: I have a simliar problem. Once I get to the computer, I’m dealing with dyslexia, my fingers aren’t typing what I’m thinking.

Anner: David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, and I’d love to collect stories from my life the way he does. I’m only 26, though, so I haven’t lived much yet.

Cooper: Have you tried any sports? Have you surfed?

Anner: I haven’t, but I love the ocean. Rolling around in the waves is one of my favorite things to do.

Cooper: You definitely should give surfing a try. Maybe that could be part of one of your episodes. You don’t need to stand up for it.

Anner: Oh, yeah! I’ll bring that up.

Cooper: Are you busy pitching ideas for other shows?

Anner: We had a development deal for “The Wingmen,” and we thought we might get picked up and go to series. It’s a long process, though. I think now, especially, people are scared to commit to anything. I’ve been really, really lucky with what’s happened to me. It’s exciting.

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