When I moved to California, nobody had to tell me about Huell Howser. He was just there, ubiquitous. And I was instantly a fan.
I have always loved regionally-produced television. I grew up in Chicago watching the numerous original shows made by WGN, and it was always important to me that Fred Rogers never left Pittsburgh and that "Mystery Science Theater 3000" was shot in Minnesota. I liked that good TV was being made in the boonies, that there were exceptional shows that weren't being pumped out of the Hollywood machine. So it is ironic that it was when I moved to Los Angeles to "make it big in show business" that I was introduced to my favorite creator of outsider television, Huell Howser.
I don't remember which episode it was, or even which show of his it was (when I watch Huell now I still don't know whether I'm watching "Road Trip" or "California's Gold" or "Visiting...", nor does it particularly matter to me) that first exposed me to Huell's work, but I was immediately taken with the charm and humility of both the show and the amiable man with the linebacker build who hosted it. There was such an affecting lack of polish, such an earnestly homemade quality to the show. And Huell was so full of genuine enthusiasm and wonder over whatever, wherever or whomever was his topic. An utter lack of cynicism. An infectious boosterism for his, and now my, adopted home.
If you haven't seen it, watch the episode where Huell visits a place called Newberry Springs, a desert town that one could judiciously call the middle of nowhere (the now beloved Bagdad Cafe segment happens here). This episode isn't just a simple travelogue, it's a universal existential portrait. Everything goes wrong. Everything Huell and his crew have come to see (which isn't much to begin with) is either closed or no longer exists. But he pushes on with aplomb, eventually resorting to just pulling the van over and knocking on doors when they spy something (anything!) of interest. He sees two guys doing yardwork and ends up having a spaghetti lunch on their back patio. He finds an old guy with a yard full of rocks, some of which the man licks in order to help Huell recognize their potential beauty. The episode even includes a segment in which Huell stops at a roadside store that he describes at length as chock full of interesting attributes, but of course the punchline is that it's closed.
Any other show would have cut that segment out; indeed, most shows would have probably deemed the whole episode a bust and never aired a moment of it. But Huell shows us the whole thing, and the viewer gets to share in his experience -- the initial excitement, the disappointment and frustration, and the eventual triumph of his relentless upbeat optimism. He truly makes something out of nothing. It is one of the most uniquely compelling and entertaining hours of television I have ever seen.
My friend James Adomian wrote a lovely tribute to Huell earlier this week, and in it he notes how it seems that everybody in L.A. has a story about a personal brush with Huell Howser. My family and I used to frequently see him eating breakfast at Du-Pars in the Farmer's Market, which we always felt was a perfect place for a Huell sighting (he always ordered the same thing as far as I could tell: a short stack and a huge glass of milk). I never played the "Hi, Huell, I'm on TV, too" card. We would always just say hello anonymously and let him enjoy his meal. One time, when he was seated behind me, I eavesdropped on an exchange he had with a woman who recognized him. She approached, and with no preamble just announced, "You ought to do a show about me. We live in Burbank and raise miniature horses in our backyard." I sat in my booth and rolled my eyes. This lady doesn't understand how show business works, I thought. You can't just stroll up in a coffee shop and book yourself on a TV show. But a minute or so later I heard Huell's voice say, "Well, all right! We'll see you Tuesday at nine o'clock!"
I was wrong. You can just book yourself on a TV show when that show is hosted by someone as open and curious and unjaded as Huell Howser. His kind of attitude is something to aspire to. I will miss seeing him on new adventures, but I am glad that he has left behind such a vast, impressive body of work. I didn't know him personally, but as a viewer, I do think I knew him well. And I feel safe in saying that he was a very good man who made a lot of very good television.