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'Speechless' writer Zach Anner: People with disabilities can be anything, even jerks

Zach Anner (left) and Micah Fowler in a season one episode of ABC's
Zach Anner (left) and Micah Fowler in a season one episode of ABC's "Speechless."
ABC/Richard Cartwright
Zach Anner (left) and Micah Fowler in a season one episode of ABC's
Zach Anner in season one of "Speechless" on ABC.
ABC/Richard Cartwright

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The path to success in Hollywood is often a circuitous one. For comedian and writer Zach Anner, that was certainly true.

Anner is now a writer on the ABC sitcom, "Speechless," but his first big break came in 2010 when he submitted a video audition for a reality TV competition called "Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star":

The video went viral and Anner won. He made a travel show on the Oprah Winfrey Network called “Rollin' with Zach," about what it’s like to tour the country and go on adventures when you use a wheelchair.

That success turned out to be short-lived, though. The show was cancelled after the first season.

But the exposure from his Oprah show led to a another travel show for the website Reddit, and a web series called "Have a Little Faith." It also helped Anner build a strong following on YouTube, where he posts funny videos like this one from his "Workout Wednesday" series: 

Anner also wrote a memoir called, “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny,” and became what he describes as a kind of “disabled celebrity."

When "Speechless" premiered on ABC last year, Anner was brought on as a consultant and played a small role in one episode. The show centers on a 16-year-old boy named J.J. who has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal. And in a rare turn for Hollywood, the actor who plays J.J. — Micah Fowler — has cerebral palsy himself.

Anner spoke with The Frame host John Horn about his career and about writing for Season 2 of "Speechless," which premieres on Sept. 27.

Interview highlights:

On how people with disabilities are usually portrayed in film and TV: 

Often, characters with disabilities are either inspiring or they are an object of pity to make other characters look better. And I feel like with what "Speechless" is doing, we're finally getting characters with disabilities who are complicated, they're funny, sometimes they can be jerks. And it's just great to see finally characters with disabilities that have depth and nuance, because that's been one of my biggest goals is to teach people that sometimes people with disabilities and cerebral palsy can be a--holes. And I feel like I've done a really good job of proving that to people.

On how his role in the first season as a role-model-type figure for J.J. came about:

I didn't know this until afterwards, but Scott Silveri [the creator of "Speechless"] had been kicking around this idea for a while, because I was consulting on season 1 and in the writers' room they had up on their idea board: J.J. meets a Zach-Anner-type. And then he called me in to do a table read, which I later learned was an audition for this part. And I gotta say, I am not confident in my acting ability, but they do some great directing and editing of that show and were able to bring something out. So, really, my goal for the character was just not to suck because everyone else on the show is so great. But beyond that, I just wanted to play the type of character with a disability that I would have liked to have seen on TV when I was growing up, because there weren't too many examples when I was a kid of like, Oh, this is the cool type of person that I can grow up and be ... There was Professor X, which was a good role model. And then there was a kid from the Burger King Kids Club, and I think that was it.

On his experience as a writer on season two of "Speechless":

Basically, everyone's role is to come up with good stories to tell. And then make sure they're authentic and make sure that they're funny. And I feel like what I can bring is a sense of authenticity. But they got it right in season one. I feel like what I bring in season two is maybe just a little more insight into what this character might be going through in certain situations. Because, you know, I was a teenager with a disability, and I remember just wanting all the things that all my other classmates wanted — to have relationships with girls and to have independence. And there was just a little bit of a different route that I would need to take. So whenever I can have insight into, Oh, J.J. might go about it this way, and the family conversation might veer off in this direction ... I love to do that.

To hear the full interview with Zach Anner, click the blue player above.

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