Like a lot of people, Zach Anner has fond memories of going on summer vacations with his family as a child. The Internet personality and once and future travel show host, formerly of Rollin’ with Zach on the Oprah Winfrey Network, recalls a trip to Europe in particular that first set him on his unlikely career path.
"When I was little we used to go on vacations all the time. My Dad took us to Europe twice and that was when I made my first travel show," he says. "It was just me trying to get down the cobble streets of Rome."
Born with cerebral palsy and bound to a wheelchair, traveling for Anner is even more of a chore than it is for most. But despite the inherent inconvenience of the prospect, the 27-year old filmmaker and sometime comedian has become famous for making travelogues that are unusually funny, upbeat and off kilter. In 2010, Anner became a national sensation when his video entry for the contest Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star went viral. But after Rollin’ With Zach made its premiere on cable last December, a modest viewership cut the journey short. The series was canceled after six episodes. Now he’s back with a new show in which the internet acts as travel agent, local guide and co-pilot.
"After the Oprah show was canceled I knew that I wanted to make another travel show, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen," Anner says. "I just knew that there was so much we hadn’t gotten to explore."
The opportunity for a second act came via Anner’s friendship with Alexis Ohanian, the young entrepreneur and investor who co-founded the influential social news website Reddit. Reddit and its passionate user community had been key in getting Anner’s original OWN pitch off the ground.
"I sent him an email after I saw the original video saying ‘Hey, I’m the cofounder of Reddit. You’re awesome. Let me know if I can ever help,’" Ohanian recalls. "He’s a supremely talented guy and I thought he really deserved a show."
The two kept talking after Rollin’ with Zach went off the air. Both were interested in making a follow up to the series, but they knew they had to do things differently this time. Since it had been the Internet that made Anner a star in the first place, both felt that it should have played a bigger role in the show itself.
"A lot of people weren’t able to participate in Rollin with Zach," Anner says. "[This time] I wanted to make something that involved as many people as possible so that they felt they were a part of it."
Viewer involvement pervades every aspect of Riding Shotgun with Zach Anner, Anner and Ohanian’s new YouTube series that begins filming July 30. Commenters on an official Reddit channel lobbied on behalf of cities across the U.S. and Canada to determine the show’s inaugural eight destinations, which will include Montreal, Boston and Blacksburg among others (in a characteristically droll tactic, Anner revealed the selected cities in a YouTube video that evoked ABC’s The Bachelor). Once Anner and his crew get on the road, the activities they do and sights they see in each city they visit will be chosen by YouTube users who live there.
"It’s all driven by locals," Ohanian says of the show’s guiding principle. "If you were visiting a friend who lived in Baltimore, where would they take you?"
Another thing that will set "Riding Shotgun" apart from other travel shows is Anner’s infectious enthusiasm and penchant for screwball comedy.
"I love what Anthony Bourdain does, but he’s a little crotchety for my tastes," Anner says. "You can tell he’s being honest, which is the same thing we try to do. We just try and keep things in a little more positive light."
Anner and his crew, which includes his brother and a pair of fellow filmmakers he met while studying Radio, Television and Film at The University of Texas at Austin, will embark on an ambitious six-week road trip with scheduled stops in all eight cities. Though they plan to upload videos and interact with viewers online throughout the journey, polished, complete episodes of the series won’t premiere until after the trek concludes in September.
To help finance the production, Ohanian turned to his fundraising startup Breadpig, whose stated mission is to support "organizations and individuals making the world suck less." Fans can help the show by visiting Breadpig and buying a Riding Shotgun t-shirt for $20. Ohanian says he also provided some front money "for gas and stuff" and his team is currently looking for sponsors.
"The reason I’m excited about Zach is that he is this unconventional TV host," Ohanian says. "And what I love, and I think so many of us love, about the Internet is that it really has no regard for conventions. If it’s something that enough people like, it doesn’t matter that it’s unprecedented."
On his latest quixotic excursion, Anner says his main goal will be to create an immersive experience for a diverse and passionate group of viewers.
"People think of the Internet and social media as something that can be deciphered and cracked, but there’s often no rhyme or reason to what happens online because it’s just a big cross-section of people," he says. "A lot of people spend all their time trying to figure out how they can use the Internet to their benefit, but what they should really be doing is trying to connect with people."
It helps when you’re as skilled in the art of "charm and disarm" as Anner.
"Humor is a good way to bring the audience into the spirit of the adventure," he offers. "If I have to get into my underwear or dress up like a rapper to make people smile and laugh, then I’m gonna do it. I’m not afraid of nudity… or hip hop."