If at Birth You Don't Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny

If at Birth You Don't Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny

by Zach Anner


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“Hilarious and inspiring, Anner has made a life filled with fans, love, and Internet fame—reminding us that disability is no match for dreams.”—People (Book of the Week)

“Zach Anner is way more than an inspirational figure for anyone who has ever felt impossibly different: he’s also a great f**king writer.”—Lena Dunham

Comedian Zach Anner opens his frank and devilishly funny book, If at Birth You Don't Succeed, with an admission: he botched his own birth. Two months early, underweight and under-prepared for life, he entered the world with cerebral palsy and an uncertain future. So how did this hairless mole-rat of a boy blossom into a viral internet sensation who's hosted two travel shows, impressed Oprah, driven the Mars Rover, and inspired a John Mayer song? (It wasn't "Your Body is a Wonderland.")

Zach lives by the mantra: when life gives you wheelchair, make lemonade. Whether recounting a valiant childhood attempt to woo Cindy Crawford, encounters with zealous faith healers, or the time he crapped his pants mere feet from Dr. Phil, Zach shares his fumbles with unflinching honesty and characteristic charm. By his thirtieth birthday, Zach had grown into an adult with a career in entertainment, millions of fans, a loving family, and friends who would literally carry him up mountains.

If at Birth You Don't Succeed
is a hilariously irreverent and heartfelt memoir about finding your passion and your path even when it's paved with epic misadventure. This is the unlikely but not unlucky story of a man who couldn't safely open a bag of Skittles, but still became a fitness guru with fans around the world. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll fall in love with the Olive Garden all over again, and learn why cerebral palsy is, definitively, "the sexiest of the palsies."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250116543
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 315,764
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Zach Anner is an award-winning comedian, show host, and public speaker. In 2011, he won his own travel show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Rollin’ With Zach. He also hosted the Web series Have A Little Faith for Rainn Wilson’s media company SoulPancake, and Riding Shotgun and Workout Wednesdays on his YouTube channel, which has over twelve million hits. Zach lives in Buffalo, New York, and Austin, Texas, and spends most of his spare time in his underwear, thinking about how he can change the world.

Read an Excerpt

If at Birth You Don't Succeed

My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny

By Zach Anner, Kevin Scorborough

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Zachary Dean Anner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-365-0


What's in a N4me?

I grew up watching a lot of plays because my mom worked for Buffalo's annual Shakespeare in the Park, so I can appreciate the Bard's work for the sword fights and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups I'd get at intermission. I look back fondly on those summer nights spent sitting on a blanket, lathering up in bug spray, and crawling through the crowd to see if I could charm my way to even better snacks from strangers. Whenever the soliloquies bored us, my brother Brad and I would scamper off to the playground and stage duels with plastic dollar-store swords. No matter how vigorous the battle, we'd always try to make it back to the hill in time to catch the real fencing between the Montagues and Capulets onstage. I must have seen the "good parts" of Romeo and Juliet forty times as a five-year-old.

But when I was old enough to actually read and comprehend the ill-fated tale of the two Italian teenagers, I took exception to some of Bill's poetic assertions, in particular his hypothesis that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Even at twelve, I knew, in my heart of hearts, that this was absolute rubbish. If roses were known as "break-up-me-nows," a long-stemmed dozen delivered to your girlfriend's office on Valentine's Day would do a pretty decent job of killing the mood, and if you called a rose a "blooming colonoscopy," nobody would care how lovely it smelled and I guarantee you that Dame Maggie Smith would not attend your garden party.

Now, Shakespeare's poetry might be enough justification for two angsty teenagers to fall in love and kill themselves, but let's be honest — that's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. I'm not saying who's the better writer here, me or Shakespeare (I'll leave that up to you to decide after you read my chapter on manscaping) — all I'm saying is that names matter. I know this because without my name, my life would have taken a completely different course. I would go so far as to say that if my name was anything else, no one would care who I was. This book would not exist. Whether you want to call it fate, destiny, or a coincidence of star-crossed letters, my name and my path were intertwined from the day I was born.

If my dad had had his way, I might've been known as Trondor. Tron was a very popular movie in the early '80s, but I'm glad I didn't wind up as a twenty-nine-year-old whose namesake was a fictional DOS-based computer program on a scooter (although, on reflection, he would've gotten the scooter part right). The other name at the top of my dad's list was Benjamin. And Benjamin Anner doesn't sound half bad! You know, like the type of guy who might wear cardigans and Oxford shirts and cultivate a dry yet biting wit. But that wasn't what my dad had in mind. He wanted me to adopt the abbreviated "Ben," so that when paired with Anner my name would become Benanner. Yes, that's right, my own father wanted my name to be a play on the word "banana." I don't want to make assumptions, but I'm pretty darn sure that the only person willing to embrace the nickname "Benanner" wears Hawaiian shirts and tube socks with sandals, has a police scanner on his paddleboat, and goes to strip clubs for the buffet. I've had a plethora of nicknames in my lifetime, but thankfully, none were as damning as that.

I grew up being called "Zachy" by my grandma. The kids at school called me "Zach Attack," except for one of my fellow occupational therapy patients who had Down syndrome and would excitedly exclaim "Zach Morris!" every time I rolled into a room, and then, upon learning that I was not the popular character from Saved by the Bell, was repeatedly disappointed. There were other nicknames too. My brother and I interchangeably called each other "Fuckface." After my parents' divorce, my mom's boyfriend Greg joined in with my family's crude but loving sense of humor and decided to call me by the endearing nickname "Dickless," whereas my best friend, Andrew, chose to go with the affirmative, often just referring to me as "Dick."

Then there were the names that I gave myself: "Sergio" and "Eduardo" (when I went through my Latin lover phase), and, when forced to shuffle down the street with my walker, I would occasionally even adopt a female persona, donning my mother's barrettes and shifting my already ultra-girly prepubescent voice up an octave to become "Zacharina." Since walking was a tedious activity that only served to remind me that I couldn't move like other kids, I had to spruce it up with something fun that normal boys would do — like cross-dressing!

Of course, there were also the names that invariably come with being born with cerebral palsy and using a wheelchair. Cripple, retard, spaz, gimp, and a whole bunch of other things whispered under somebody's breath in the hallway or shouted in the heat of a floor hockey match in gym class. Thankfully, the only name that stuck was the one I was given at birth.

I came to be known as Zach Anner through tumultuous circumstances. When my mother went into labor with me two months ahead of schedule, the time my parents had to think of baby names was cut short. So my mom, who had always liked the name Zachary, named me after a US president no one really knows or cares about, Zachary Taylor. The most notable and only thing I ever learned about him was from the dictionary with all the presidential portraits in my dad's house. He was the one president in that book wearing a sword in his painting, which to my six-year-old mind made him cool enough to be my namesake.

My parents' reasoning was not sword-based; they felt Zachary suited me because of President Taylor's nickname: "Old Rough and Ready." This didn't seem to fit with my premature arrival at three pounds, seven ounces, and my five-week stay in an intensive care nursery; the name was just wishful thinking that someday, no matter how rough things were, I would be ready. But the only thing I was ready for when I was born was not dying. And then not dying progressed to living. At the time of my birth, living well was nothing more than a hope. It would take a long time for me to make good on the promise of "Old Rough and Ready," but in some ways, I owe both my identity and my career to my name.

For the first quarter century of my life, my birth name was the subject of little controversy and served merely as a way for people to identify me and get my attention without shouting "Hey, Wheelie McMuffin!" or "What up, gimp?" In fact, the only point of contention surrounding my actual name was how it was spelled. People tend to treat the name Zach like it's the word "Chanukah," like you can just start with a Z, put a vowel in the middle and some consonants at the end, and you'll wind up with something acceptable. That's not true. My name is Zach. Z-a-c-h. Four letters. That's all you need to remember.

It was important to my mother that I learn how to spell my own name, especially since my dad often misspelled it. I am an "H" Zach. I was not a "K" Zack. I did not go surfing and put lemon juice in my hair to make it unnaturally blond. Driving this point home to my teachers probably got my mother the reputation as one of those moms. But as a six-year-old who could neither enunciate nor project, or even hold his head up very well, people automatically assumed that a physical disability was indicative of a mental one. There's no better way to unintentionally reinforce this misconception than answering the question "How do you spell your name?" by shrugging and saying, "I dunno, whatever." So while it might have seemed overzealous at the time to place such importance on a single letter, my mom fought for that "H," and in the end, it was that letter that made all the difference. In the years between when my name became important to me and when it started mattering to anyone else, I paid little attention to it and focused instead on my dreams of stardom.

When we were growing up, my dad constantly filmed my brother and me with his enormous Panasonic video camera, which recorded direct to VHS tapes via a cable attached to a separate tape deck the size of a Ghostbusters pack. Whether he was shooting us licking the cream fillings of Oreos and sticking them to the wall behind the couch or blasting cap guns and covering ourselves in fake blood, my dad encouraged a flair for showmanship and a passion for filmmaking in both his sons.

I love making videos almost as much as I love making people laugh. In high school, I would show up with a handicam, drifting from table to table in the lunchroom and filming pre–YouTube-style vlogs, which I called The Zach Show. My intrusive and incessant filming of my peers ensured that instead of being known as just "that kid in the wheelchair," I was rebranded as "that obnoxious guy with the camera." Later, after transferring to film school at the University of Texas at Austin, I starred in a sketch comedy show called That's Awesome! where I gained the reputation of being the hilariously offensive guy who could get away with saying anything. But being crass just for shock value quickly lost its appeal, and as I matured, I shifted my efforts toward projects that meant something, that I could be proud to attach my name to. I worked very hard over a period of several years turning Zach Anner, the insult comic, into Zach Anner, the optimist adventurer and all-around positive wheelchair-bound lady magnet.

In the summer of 2010, when I was twenty-five and living in Texas, I became associated with one of the most recognizable names in all the known universe — Oprah Winfrey. At the time she was launching the Oprah Winfrey Network and had a promotional competition where anyone could pitch their "OWN" show. Basically, you'd pick a show category — cooking, health and well-being, fashion, finance, pop culture — and post a short video audition. The public would vote and the top ten hopefuls would then face off on a reality competition called Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star, where one contestant would ultimately win a season of their TV show. Over fifteen thousand people made submissions, so my mom figured that I had a pretty good shot and eventually convinced me to enter.

My video entry began with a simple introduction, "Hi, my name is Zach Anner, and I have something called cerebral palsy — which I believe is the sexiest of the palsies ..." I then explained why I would be a horrible TV host for each of the proposed categories, showing myself burning toast on a stove while wearing a chef's hat, modeling a sparkly dress and my grandmother's wig as the least convincing drag queen since Wesley Snipes in that To Wong Foo movie, and tumbling through improvised yoga poses in a revealing paisley Speedo.

After a minute of pointing out everything I sucked at, I spent the last two describing my concept for a show I'd actually be perfect for: a travelogue for people who never thought they could travel; a show that would inspire the audience to go out and see the world. I wanted to urge everyone to embrace the spontaneous and unexpected nature of globe-trotting through a sense of humor. I closed the video with a rousing promise that my show would prove that "no mountain is too high, no volcano is too hot, and no Atlantis is too underwater or fictional!" In the end, I thought I did a pretty good job selling myself as a television personality for someone with a seven-dollar haircut and an oversize shirt, but just because I put the video up didn't mean that anyone would see it or care.

After a week online, my entry had received high praise from my mom and my childhood occupational therapist, but only a few hundred votes on the Oprah competition Web site, and there were other submissions that had already amassed millions. In a last-ditch effort to get my name out there, some friends, my brother, and I took a spontaneous trip to Dallas to audition for Oprah recruiters in person. When we arrived in the parking lot of a Kohl's department store at dawn, there were already hundreds in line to try out. I was exhausted from driving all night, was generally unkempt, and probably could have used some deodorant.

When it was my turn, I was ushered to a round folding table with twelve other hopefuls and given one minute to sell myself and my show to a casting director. Running on pure adrenaline and no sleep, I gave the most energetic pitch of my life. For someone who had barely remembered to put shoes on, I had surprising command of an audience. But to be honest, it's all a blur now. I can only recall that at the end of my sixty seconds, the round table of other would-be Oprah protégés and exceedingly peppy recruiters cheered. Afterward, my exhausted motley crew and I slugged our way through the rides at the nearby Six Flags adventure theme park to pass the time while waiting to see if my impassioned speech had earned a callback. It hadn't.

As we drove from the amusement park to our crash pad at my friend Marshall's grandma's place, I got word from my college friend Chris Demarais that my audition video was doing well on a site called Reddit. He sent me a picture someone had posted of something that in all my wildest dreams I never thought I would see — my name scrawled out in permanent marker across a pair of naked breasts. Not only that, but it was spelled correctly! I had no idea what Reddit was, but I liked it. At that point, I thought my name had reached its peak, but the world had bigger plans than Zach Anner on boobs.

On the evening of June 13, 2010, two weeks after the original posting, my video had picked up steam and garnered about twelve thousand votes, which made me very happy. There was no way I would ever catch up to the leading videos in the contest, but it was nice to see that I might have found a niche audience. Chris and I had tried to get my travel show off the ground for years, writing a treatment and applying for grants, but nobody seemed interested. Now people I'd never met were getting behind not only my idea but behind me as a person. It was a nice feeling for a guy who wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to hack it in the entertainment industry. The sting of the casting directors' rejection faded and I went to bed satisfied with my new smattering of topless fans.

I was woken in the middle of the night and carried out of my friend Marshall's grandmother's house, and then down the street to Marshall's parents' house, because they had Internet. Nobody would tell me what was going on. But my brother and friends sat me down in a chair and I could tell from the huge video camera in my face that either something extraordinary had happened or I was about to get a surprise kick in the nuts. My brother turned on the computer and pulled up the audition video I'd already voted for twenty times earlier that day. I was still three-quarters asleep as my childhood friend Andrew stood behind me biting his nails, waiting for me to realize what they already knew. Then I heard Marshall say from behind the camera, "Why don't you just read how many votes you have there." I looked at the screen in front of me and was overtaken by an excitement I hadn't felt since I was a kid racing downstairs on Christmas morning.

"What the BALLS is this?!" I sputtered in disbelief as it hit me that twelve thousand votes had miraculously skyrocketed into more than two million over the course of just a few hours. It was the most flabbergasting of all flabbergasts. And the only reason this happened was because of the name Zach Anner and the misplaced dedication of thousands of other people whose names I'll never know.

While I'd been peacefully dreaming about riding a humpback whale in a middle school gymnasium, my audition video had circulated through Reddit to the online community 4chan. I didn't know what it was at the time, but I later came to understand that 4chan is an online forum that is frequented by, among millions of other users, a controversial group of cyber activists called Anonymous who use their enormous Internet presence to turn the tides of the Web, depending on the whims of the masses lurking in the shadows behind their keyboards. To this day, I've never made a post on or even visited 4chan. But they thought my video was genuinely hilarious, and, as it turns out, a few posters saw another reason to get behind my irreverent pitch. A case of mistaken identity had made me an unwitting warrior in a battle against the Queen of Television that had begun years earlier.

I suppose the absurdity of a guy in a wheelchair making jokes while wearing wigs and a dress might seem like the perfect prank to pull on Oprah, a personality some 4channers had decried as preachy and disingenuous. But it was my name coupled with my irreverence that started the perfect storm of online conspiracy theories. And it all came down to that H.


Excerpted from If at Birth You Don't Succeed by Zach Anner, Kevin Scorborough. Copyright © 2016 Zachary Dean Anner. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: . . . Well, Why Don’t I Start? 1

Part I: Oprah to Nope-rah
1. What’s in a N4me? 9
2. How to Win a Television Show 22
3. Drivers Ed in the Mars Rover 36
4. Comics Without Relief 52
5. Who Wants to Smell a Billionaire? 74
6. How to Lose a Television Show 86

Part II: Friends in Search of Benefits
7. Destiny in a Red One-Piece Bathing Suit 107
8. I’ll Have a Virgin Zachary 122
9. Something to Offend Everyone 135
10. Hope, Salad, and Breadsticks 158
11. Barking Up the Wrong Tree House 173
12. With Apologies to Gene Shalit 190

Part III: The Learning Curve of a Late Bloomer
13. Have a Little Faith 215
14. The Most Magical Life on Earth 225
15. Game Changer 253
16. A Wedding, Two Meat Loaves, and a Lobster Funeral 264
17. Grandma: The Musical! 284
18. The Wurst and Best of Berlin 297

Conclusion: Thirty Candles 317

Acknowledgments 333

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