Have Wheels, Will Travel
Zach Anner talks about his web celebrity, his axed travel show, and the new project that got him back on the road
Zach Anner is probably on the road somewhere while you read this, even if you found this copy of the Chronicle under a stack of magazines in a dentist's office several weeks past its street date. After months of waiting around, delayed by television contracts and the question of what he wanted to do now, Anner has a lot of lost time to make up for – and he's finally ready to do it.
He's on a multicity tour that takes him from Montreal to Boston to Baltimore, then down to Blacksburg, Va.; Savannah, Ga.; and New Orleans. After that, he's hustling across the country to Denver, up the coast and all the way to Vancouver, then finally zipping once more across the continent and returning to his parents' house in Buffalo, N.Y. Shortly upon returning, he's got a spot on Attack of the Show host Kevin Pereira's "Leet Up Tour 2012," which will bring the hometown hero – and a bunch of other celebrities from the Internet – back to Austin in September.
The process of filming his new web series, Riding Shotgun With Zach Anner, figures to make the next few months exhausting for Anner, who's never attempted anything like the schedule he'll be keeping – five days each in eight cities over six weeks – before in his life. But then, Anner's last couple of years have been defined by doing things that he's never attempted before, that it's been reasonable to question whether he even could.
He'd never become a viral video celebrity before he made his pitch for a "travel show for people who never thought they could travel" to the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which Anner, in the wheelchair that his cerebral palsy has had him using his whole life, would explore America. He'd never seen his online support – fueled by celebrities like John Mayer, the community at Reddit, and probably your mom's Facebook "like" – translate into two million votes in mere days. He'd never been on a reality show until winning the online contest that secured him a spot on Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star, where he was among ten contestants facing off in an Apprentice-style competition to see who would host one of two reality series to air on Oprah's cable network. After winning the contest, he'd never before actually hosted a show that had him do exactly what he'd pitched in his first viral video – travel the country, putting his own weird sense of humor into the living rooms of America's Oprah-lovers, and show that cerebral palsy was no obstacle for people who wanted to travel, or rock climb, or surf, or perform stand-up at Caroline's in Manhattan, or any of the other things Anner did while filming Rollin' With Zach.
And until the week after Rollin' With Zach's premiere on OWN, he'd never been on the phone with someone who would tell him that his show was canceled. "Six episodes aired over three weeks in December," Anner recalls. "It was one of those things where you go out there and release it, and you hope for the best. And after the first week, I called the people from OWN and asked, 'So how did it do?' And they said, 'We don't know what happened.' We knew immediately what was going to happen to it."
Now, Anner is back to pursuing his dreams, back on the road, and back – finally – to making the same sort of viral videos that have him in full control of the process and the product that had initially captured the attention and support of an Internet crowd. "I was under a contract under which it was very hard to release content via the Internet," Anner explains. "I'd release a video every now and then to try to give people an update, but with the contract, I had to go through a lot of people to approve it, so I couldn't really keep my Internet fan base up to date."
That Internet fan base is important to Anner; he's got a lot of loyalty to the people who catapulted him from a University of Texas graduate with a self-described "perverted sense of humor" into the sort of Internet sensation that made even Oprah take notice. And so it makes sense that, after Rollin' With Zach was canceled, he'd return to the Internet that helped make him for his new series.
To create the itinerary for Riding Shotgun, Anner took to Reddit, the ubiquitous web forum where quirky ideas flourish. He took suggestions for where to visit, what to do, and who to hang out with in each city, with the intention of finding out, through his fans, what the quintessential day in each of them is like. For Anner – though he's too polite to say so outright – it sounds like taking the travel show concept to its most interactive, Internet-driven extreme is a chance for Anner to correct some of the things that OWN didn't get right about Rollin' With Zach. "Everybody involved with that show was very dedicated to making the best show possible, I have to say. ... But you're also focused on catering to the Oprah audience, which isn't necessarily the same as my sense of humor or my sensibilities. Once it went into post-production, I didn't have much say about the final product that came out, as far as being able to control the amount of comedy that was in there. There was still so much of the initial premise that I had pitched to win the show that hadn't been explored yet."
When Anner was a child, on a family trip to Europe, he remembers his father instilling in him a notion about travel that guided him from his initial pitch to OWN through to Riding Shotgun: "Spontaneity is what travel is all about." The elder Anner would decide, in the middle of the night, while the family was in England, that the next morning, they should head to Paris. Once, while in Italy, the family scheduled a trip to Pompeii – before realizing that there were almost no wheelchair-accessible places in the city. ("I guess when you're covered by a volcano, it kind of limits your access," Anner says.)
Adjusting on the fly is an important part of Anner's plans for Riding Shotgun – he expects that some of the Redditors who he's planning to meet up with in various cities will flake out on him, and he and his crew will have to explore on their own – but it's also been something he's had to learn to do in his life since his fame went from the dubious Internet variety to the "hosting your own show" kind, and back again. Anner is thoughtful when he talks about what it's like to have your life change like that, several times over. "It had been almost a year and a half since I put the audition video up, and then everything had played out so perfectly. It started so small and personal, and it becomes a television show," he says. "And then it went by so fast. I had mixed emotions about it. It had been a part of my life for a long time, and then it was over so quickly."
Despite Rollin' With Zach's brief time on the air, he's not the only person that it meant a lot to. If you go to the page for the show on the OWN website, you'll see a lot of comments from people talking about it – and a lot of them are people living with disabilities, or the parents of children with cerebral palsy, who see what Zach accomplishes as an inspiration. As he moves forward with Riding Shotgun, he's aware of the responsibility that carries. "I didn't know that it would affect people until the audition video blew up – I'd just been trying to follow my passion. There's a part of me that's so proud of that," he says. Which leads to the central conflict of being Zach Anner, hero to Reddit weirdos and inspiration to Oprah-lovers both. "I want to make sure that people know that I can only be myself – I can't be a spokesperson for people with disabilities, because everybody has a completely different experience. I'm glad that I'm able to inspire parents to see one way to deal with it, but at the same time, I tell a lot of dirty jokes."`
Riding Shotgun With Zach Anner is currently in production. You can follow the show's progress at www.therealzachanner.com.