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Comedian's pitch for TV stardom is no joke Kenmore native is positioned to make final round of Oprah Winfrey's online contest

Did you hear the one about the guy in the wheelchair?

It's not a joke.

But he's really funny, and he's got fans around the world laughing with him.

"I have something called cerebral palsy," Zach Anner says in a three-minute video now seen by millions of people, "which I believe is the sexiest of the palsies."

Anner, 25, who grew up in Kenmore eating beef on 'weck from Andersons and now lives in Austin, Texas, is poised to make the final round of an online contest sponsored by Oprah Winfrey to find the next big TV star.

The moment last month when Anner's mother saw the announcement for the contest on "The Oprah Show," she grabbed her cell phone and dialed her son's number.

"You've gotta do it," Susan Anner told her son.

He took up the challenge just as he has done his whole life.

Even as a child, Anner said, he thought of himself as a "comedian and a filmmaker who happened to be in a wheelchair."

He also found that using humor made people feel more comfortable about his disability.

"I've always felt it's the best way to explore issues that people don't normally want to talk about," he told The Buffalo News. "I just like being funny. I thought if I could get into comedy, then I could dispel some misconceptions about people with disabilities and that I could find my own voice through that."

Despite his positive outlook, Anner had a tough time in high school. While at Kenmore West, he battled gastrointestinal problems, common for people with cerebral palsy, which kept him out of school. He ended up getting his GED instead with the help of tutors from Catholic Charities. He also took classes at the University at Buffalo.

But then he decided it was time to leave home. He applied for a semester away through the Disney College Program in Florida.

His mother was deeply worried.

"All throughout his life, I've had to keep checking between what do I need to do to take care of him and letting him lead a full life," Susan Anner said. "It was horrible, but I had to let him go."

He wanted his independence, and his parents -- Susan and Jonathan -- gave it to him.

Zach Anner worked as a vacation planner and also as a park clearer.

"He was in a wheelchair, which let him move around quickly," she said. "He would go around Epcot Center at the end of the day and tell people to leave and have a magical day somewhere else."

While at Disney, Zach Anner decided to apply to the University of Texas in Austin. He had fallen in love with Austin while visiting the city with his dad for the South by Southwest Film Festival.

"The frozen tundra did not suit my wheelchair very well," he explained. "Austin was a little more to my liking."

His parents were once again scared, but they helped their son get settled at the new school.

Zach Anner became friends with some other students also interested in filmmaking and comedy. He signed up with the university's student television station, and he and his friends developed a sketch comedy show called "That's Awesome!"

Anner quickly became something of a local celebrity.

While performing in the shows, he never shies away from his disability.

"One of the common problems when you have a disability or something is to pretend that it doesn't exist," Zach Anner told The News. "If I were not to mention it, it would make people notice it more and feel awkward."

>Wacky celebrity interviews

In one skit, he's part of a gang of disabled people who attack a nondisabled guy who dares to use a wheelchair-accessible bathroom.

Anner also tracked down celebrities in Austin and did wacky interviews with them. In one show, he persuades actor Dennis Quaid to do a skit with him in which they pretend to be a British couple having a spat.

Anner and his friends also developed a Web show called "The Wingmen," in which they continued their silly antics.

Through the shows, Zach Anner started thinking about making a travel show.

"When I've traveled, I've had lots of things happen. My chair has been broken in airports. I've had to get on trains in one minute and had to go to completely different cities because one wasn't accessible."

The idea was to do a travel show about how to have fun in a new city no matter what happened.

That's when Anner's mom called him about the Oprah contest.

Anner and his friends started working on an audition video. He could have just done a monologue, but Anner wanted to do more.

So instead, he did a skit about his attempts at various possible shows for the contest.

"I heard Oprah was giving away a show to somebody who really, really wanted it and had something to say," he says in the opening of the audition video. "I've got a lot to say but I don't know where I exactly fit in because I have something called cerebral palsy -- which I believe is the sexiest of the palsies. But it does sort of limit my strengths."

Sitting in his wheelchair wearing an oversized chef's hat and with something burning in a pot, he deadpans: "I tried the cooking show, and normally when I cook I set my pants on fire."

For the health and well-being category, Anner said he tried yoga. Wearing a ridiculous pair of patterned briefs and a T-shirt, he contorts his body into poses.

"This isn't yoga," he said twisted up in an especially uncomfortable position. "I'm just putting on my pants."

He next dons a woman's wig and an ill-fitting sun dress.

"Fashion, I thought, I was really good at I wasn't sure how the rest of the world would feel."

>Seen all around the world

He then pitches his travel show, which would show even the most timid of travelers that "no obstacle is too big, no mountain too high, no volcano too hot and no Atlantis too underwater or fictional."

He continues: "My mom always said when life gives you wheelchairs, make lemonade. I don't know what she meant but I'm going to take her advice."

Anner posted the audition video to Oprah's Web site a couple of weeks ago, but didn't have high hopes.

"Well, maybe my mom will see it and my friends will see it," he thought.

He went away for the weekend and then returned to his apartment. His friends and brother teased him about how many votes he thought he had.

They got him in front of a computer and showed him. Within about a week, he had garnered over 2 million votes, giving him the No. 1 slot.

Anner's audition video has been seen all around the world. It even caught the attention of pop star John Mayer, who posted a video blog giving his thumbs up and offering to write and record a theme song for the show.

"When you are performing and expressing yourself, I think you are less confined than people who don't have a disability," Mayer said in the blog.

His parents were elated.

"It's wonderful the way people have responded," his mother said.

Anner now has more than 8 million votes and has continued to be No. 1 on the vote chart. There was a brief moment he was second, and some contended there was a conspiracy to keep him out of the contest, but Anner and his family dismiss it.

"Oprah builds schools," he said. "She wouldn't do that.

He hopes that he will be among auditioners chosen to take part in a competition in Los Angeles next month. From there, contestants will be chosen to be on a reality show from which one will be selected to get a new show.

Since his video became an Internet hit, he has made a "thank you" video.

"I don't know what happened but the Internet is crazy and I love it," he said on the video. "I know my body is a wonderland," he said, referencing Mayer's hit song, "but I don't know why he would be interested in me."

He goes on to say: "You really made somebody who can't walk at all fly today, and I mean that. And I know it sounds cheesy."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com