By Kent Cadogan Loftsgard and Aaron Broverman, New Mobility Magazine, July 2011
Photo by Rahoul Ghose /Courtesy of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network
In February, American television audiences learned that 26-year-old funnyman Zach Anner, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and home-cooking contender Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco, had been chosen as co-winners of the first season of Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star. The reality competition brought together 10 contestants selected from over 15,000 applicants to each vie to host their own featured series on the new Oprah Winfrey Network.
Anner is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and a filmmaker who studied in the radio-television-film program at the University of Texas at Austin. Long before becoming one of Oprah Winfrey’s two newest stars in training, he’d considered himself to be much more than just a sitting-down version of a stand-up comedian.
In the spring of 2010, when the queen of daytime talk announced plans to give away a show, Anner’s mom, Susan, an avid Oprah fan, was watching. She immediately called her son. "I always thought that Zach and Oprah should meet,” she says. “I really always thought that she would really like him."
But, as she told New Mobility, she never seriously expected to be setting him on the path to specialty-TV stardom. "We just figured Zach would get some notoriety and people will see him, and we didn’t really think that the reality show was going to work out."
But work out it did. In the audition video that ultimately won him his chance to compete, he charmed online voters with his aptitude for adaptation in various TV-show formats by poking fun at his palsy-powered approach to everything from cooking ("Normally, when I cook, I set my pants on fire. ... The next thing we’re gonna learn how to cook, is take-out!") to health and well-being ("This isn’t yoga; I’m just putting on pants") to dressing in drag for a fashion segment ("I could do a lot of that, but I don’t know how the rest of the world would feel") before finally settling on a travel show for people who never thought they could travel.
To seal his success, Anner may have needed Oprah to be the last person who “really liked him” most, but she certainly wasn’t the first to be impressed. Anner’s audition video went viral, propelling his popularity around the Internet on sites like Reddit, 4chan, Digg, and YouTube. He even earned an endorsement from singer John Mayer, whose celebrity support of Anner’s campaign preceded a sizable surge in votes, but Mayer refused to take much of the credit.
"I want you to know it has very little to do with me, because it all has to do with how genuinely funny your take on things are, and you are," he said on his YouTube channel, mayermusic. "You’re really funny and I think I speak for everyone when I say, ‘I want to see this show.’ I want to see more of Zach." Mayer then raised the stakes higher still by pledging to personally make a musical contribution to Anner’s series. "In case somebody needs an extra kick in the pants to make this show a reality ... I will offer my services; I will up the ante and offer you a theme song for your show."
Anner didn’t care how the theme would get written, he was just happy to be on Mayer’s radar at all. "Hell yeah, you can write it on a nose flute if you want," Anner said in a recorded response to Mayer’s message. "Just anything, really — a napkin, and we’ll make it work."
But Mayer didn’t stop there. Well before anyone knew who would compete on Your OWN Show, he invited Anner to visit him on the road in Darien Lake, N.Y., during last summer’s concert tour. While Mayer himself has since remained mum to the media, Anner has every confidence in Mayer’s character. "As soon as I won, he said, ‘Congratulations! Now let’s get to work on that theme song!’ Whatever I need, he’ll come through. It’s just so awesome to have somebody who’s so talented put out an offer like that, and then to come through with it is incredible."
Prior Experience Pays Off
Following an alleged vote-rigging incident that saw Anner’s closest competition, Dr. Phyllis Tucker-Wicks, temporarily overtake him by 300,000 votes in 20 minutes (prompting accusations of ableism against OWN, until an internal investigation quickly corrected the vote count), Anner returned from a vacation in Dallas, unfazed by the controversy. "I know some people had said some things," he says, "but I wasn’t really focused on that because there was just this outpouring of positive energy."
Anner’s stunned surprise in reaction to the rise in viewer votes he received can be seen in his YouTube video, "Thank You, Internet." His Web-wide fanbase grew, eventually gaining him over 9 million votes and landing him comfortably in the company of Your OWN Show’s demographically diverse contestants. In an eight-episode broadcast competition, Anner and nine other aspiring hosts were divided into two teams of five, Team Focus and Team Vision.
Joining the series’ hosts — Carson Kressley and Nancy O’Dell — Oprah’s guest list of weekly mentors, which included Dr. Phil and Suze Orman, guided the contestants as they tested their talents in a selection of several TV-themed tasks.
Besides bringing the most obviously original concept into the competition, Anner was arguably also the most experienced contestant on the show. Even before the influence of the Internet, he was already becoming something of a local luminary back home in Texas. He had co-founded the sketch comedy troupe, Lark the Beard Productions with his brother Brad and three friends from college in 2007. With them he produced, directed, wrote and starred in the award-winning mockumentary Web series, The Wingmen, and also developed other short films for various clients, including Fox Television. Prior to the "Oprah Experience," Anner and company had planned to produce the travel show independently, and had actually started shooting it for the Web — albeit backed by a much less worldly wallet.
Behind the Scenes
The YOS production crew made impressive efforts to ensure that Anner’s participation was never limited by inaccessibility. They smoothed his way so seamlessly that even he isn’t sure exactly how they did it. Sadly, no YOS production personnel were available to comment for this story, so their methods still remain a mystery. Nevertheless, Anner does know this much about his commendable crew:
"The crew was incredible. If ever there was an issue, they had thought of it before I even got there. Every single small thing like that was thought of, and it was so wonderful. I had concerns because it was a reality TV show, and sometimes reality shows are not out to make you look the best you can look. But everyone was really making sure it was an even playing field and that I had every opportunity to shine based on my skills and the ideas I put forward."
Anner’s witty ways served him well as he "found the funny" beyond his disability. One of his earliest memorable moments came in the third episode of YOS when he drove his wheelchair, complete with a late-night talk show-style desk attached, onto the stage before performing a comedy monologue:
"You know, with the chair and the desk, I’m thinking of wearing exclusively furniture. Your move, Lady Gaga!"
Arsenio Hall, the first black person to host his own late-night talk show, was week three’s guest mentor. "I was impressed with Zach, and I actually picked him to win," Hall told NM. "He’s a unique creative kid with a smart, edgy sense of humor. He makes me laugh, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him."
Anner is well aware that even as a number of notables continue to come into his corner, some potential viewers will still assume he succeeded on sympathy, not skill. But his fellow competitors knew better. Ryan O’Connor, Anner’s teammate and closest collaborator during the YOS competition, told NM that one of his proudest personal achievements came in assisting on Anner’s travel show project pitch, Rollin’ Around the World:
"Working with Zach on his pilot presentation was such a wonderful process. In addition to performing, I love writing and tweaking jokes, and Zach is very receptive to that. We, surprisingly, have a very similar sense of humor. So, often he would come up with a joke, then I would tweak the punchline and work back and forth like that. It felt very Abbott and Costello. As a comedian, it usually takes a long time to trust someone with your jokes. For us, that happened immediately. I also tried to be there for him as a producer, making sure his vision was being carried out behind the camera, while he focused on delivering in front of the camera. There’s an incredible trust between us. I’d work with him the rest of my life, if I could."
With just a single day to shoot segments for Rollin’s pilot, Anner, accompanied by O’Connor and crew, still managed to make speedy stops at a long list of Hollywood hotspots. When a fogged-in Griffith Observatory forced Anner to improvise, he set an example of the same resilience and ingenuity that he hopes his viewers will use to bounce back from any snagged travel scenario:
"I’ve heard about the smog here, but this is kind of ridiculous! You’ve never seen fog ‘til you’ve seen it through a telescope! 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."
After Anner screened the finished product on the YOS finale, even Oprah herself asked him who was writing his material. Did she expect a secret scribe to suddenly emerge from behind the scenes? Then she offered him a cautionary critique. "You have to be careful to not do a joke every three minutes, or a joke a minute. There is substance to you; there is wisdom to you; there is a great deal of meaning to you, and I think trying to find the balance between that would be what you need to do."
And the Winners are ...
Gayle King, Oprah’s longtime best friend and associate, had secretly monitored the performance of the final three contestants during the press junket. Before sending Anner forward to the finale, she complimented him on his charismatic daring:
"I know you have a very unique voice. I’m always surprised, Zach, when anybody can ask Oprah a question that she’s never been asked before. You’ve got something. You’ve definitely got something."
Even Terey Summers, the last contestant to be cut from the competition after hearing the words, “We will not be producing your show,” had only admiration for Anner. "You have added so much to my life, and I feel that my person has grown exponentially because of who you are and what I have observed in you."
But since Summers was the last out, how did a show that had heavily promoted its plan to feature only one winner end up with two? Anner and his mom credit what he called, "Oprah magic" for the outcome. "That’s what she can do," he says. "That’s part of the wonder. And I think the fact that it’s her network really helped."
Leading up to her life-changing decision, Oprah had addressed Anner. "Zach, I have to say that the courage it took for you just to send in that tape and audition for a position that requires such stamina ... what you have shown us in these weeks is that the wheelchair doesn’t come first. And after meeting you, I can say for myself and everybody on this crew, that we no longer even see the wheelchair."
Stretching out the suspense, she continued to cast her spell on the two finalists.
Photo by Rahoul Ghose /Courtesy of OWN:
Oprah Winfrey Network
"Both of you have given your heart. And the truth is that both of you really deserve to have your own show — Kristina and Zach — I’m going to make that happen. You will both have your own show on the OWN network!"
Finally, she gestured to each of them in turn, saying, "So, you get a show! And you get a show!"
In keeping with Oprah’s legendary reputation for largess, there was even more. They were each also awarded a 2011 Chevrolet Equinox, $100,000 in cash, and another $100,000 each for the charities of their choice. But both beneficiaries of Oprah’s wizardry won something worth well beyond just the value of their matching sets of prizes — they became fast friends and fans of each other. "When it came down to Zach and I in the competition, I can honestly say that I was rooting for him," says Anner’s fellow finalist, Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco. "I wanted him to win because I knew he deserved it and would have a very successful career. I was honored to even be in the same company with him."