The name alone -- Huell -- could be so easily drawled into two syllables in parody of the Tennessee accent he declined to straighten into the broadcast standard. And his ebullience -- his gusts of wonderment at all things great and small -- was made for caricature. But he didn't change that, either. It took strength of character to be Huell Howser.
His death this week is being treated (at least by some) as the passing of a beloved uncle -- the one who never married but who always sent the best Christmas gifts, the one who would go with you on the scariest rollercoaster rides, and the one whose story seemed to have too many blank pages.
Howser's biography is plain enough: born in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1945, a conventional small town boyhood, graduation from high school, and afterwards college and a degree. But Howser was keen to be more than conventional. He got an appointment as a Congressional page. He worked as an aide to Howard Baker's Senate campaign. After high school, he joined the Marine Corps reserves. But at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he was a history and political science major, he became a leader of anti-war protests. He once considered running for Congress.
Something about Howser -- something that might be called charismatic -- overcome the impression he made then of being big and unformed. He was noticed and offered a job with the Nashville NBC affiliate where Howser did feature reporting that in style and content pointed toward the Videolog segments he produced for KCET almost 20 years later. Despite the perennial grin, he wasn't good 'ol boy enough for Nashville where, according to a 2003 profile in Los Angeles magazine, Howser's reporting became increasingly critical of the city's indifference to its past and its marginalized residents. Mike Kettenring, his news director, thought that Howser was the most talented reporter he had ever worked with and eventually one of the most difficult. Knowing that about Howser adds some complexity to the boyishness he portrayed.
He tried to repeat his Nashville success in New York, but the fit was wrong and it stayed wrong through other proto-Howser programs. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1981, he returned to the grind of feature reporting for what is now KCBS News and occasional interview segments for Entertainment Tonight. But that was a step back. The conventions of that kind of television separated him from the gifts he was convinced he had. The clichés of soft news kept him from being intimate, from being -- in his outsized, harmless way -- seductive. People who knew him (I didn't) say that he was that way all the time. People who had met him just once -- as comments posted to the KCET's website affirm -- say that Huell was unfailingly Huell.
Although there were hints that wasn't always so. There were those blank pages. There was that reticence on which Howser projected a personality.
He volunteered at KCET in 1987 to produce the three-to-fifteen-minute segments that were shown as Videolog, not much different from the news features Howser had done in Nashville and attempted in New York, but now the fit was right -- stripped down to the minimum of production values, often one continuous, unmediated shot -- with Howser delivering the actuality of lives being led without any of the contrived anxieties of 1990s, in-your-face TV. By his warmth and joyous interest, Howser always drew something -- perhaps only a reflection of his pleasure in meeting them -- from unattractive, untalented, and earnest avocado farmers, minor bureaucrats, old lady docents, the collectors of things, the sellers of things, and even the people standing around gawking at this large, pink, glowing man with a microphone honking "Isn't that amazing!" at every quirky bit of California.
He deliberately kept the shots wide, with plenty of background, so that viewers could see the place from which the story had come, so that the story and its ordinariness might enlarge the space of the viewer's imagination. Howser wasn't a moralist, but there's some moral value in that.
By 1990, Howser was a hugely successful public television personality. He series grew beyond Videolog and later "Visiting" to include "California's Gold," "California's Golden Parks," "California's Golden Coast," "Our Neighborhoods," "Downtown," "California's Missions," and "Road Trip with Huell Howser" with episodes that accumulated in the thousands. His programs appeared on all 13 public television stations in California as well as those in Hawaii, Nevada, and Oregon. They're still stripped six nights a week on KCET. And Howser was a smart businessman. He made money. And he raised money for public TV. He was famous. He was satirized on "The Simpsons." He was driven by his work and led a somewhat lonely life.
Howser's on-air intimacies were intentionally brief. His amazement at the extraordinary that is hidden in the ordinary went only so far. That was part of his project. He insisted that his only purpose was to send viewers into their own neighborhood fired with the belief that something equally remarkable resided there if they only exposed themselves to it with the singular lack of prejudice that was Howser's defining -- and best -- characteristic.
Howser was an evangelist of the everyday, not its anatomist, but he also was a journalist who had a sophisticated understanding of what his kind of television could do. He chose to adopt its limitations, swearing off the tragedies that are equally present in the everyday. He was a remarkable storyteller who told only part of the story.
At first, Howser's target audience -- unusual for public television in the 1990s -- was the white, middle-class, and older California demographic that historian Kevin Starr has called the "folks." Howser's niceness was a consolation at a time when the "folks" found they were becoming a minority. The "folks" radiated their pleasure back at Howser's televised presence, happy to go a cat litter factory or a low-rider car show or a farm town in the Central Valley or anywhere. They were happy just to see another Californian so happy. Twenty-five years of visiting later, Howser's audience grew to be as diverse as public television's. Some part of his audience today watches ironically the least ironic man on television, who wanted you to fall in love with California as much as he needed to.
Howser's thousands of episodes will be around a long time, and any journalist who wants the same success will have to watch a lot of them to understand fully what Howser did in them and with them. He redeemed the spectacle of nobodies talking about themselves on camera. I've heard it suggested that Howser no longer had a place in a YouTubed media ecology, that millions of goofy, look-at-me videos have taken up all the room formerly occupied by a beaming Howser interviewing a pastry chef in Solvang or the painters of the Golden Gate Bridge or a collector of tiny violins. No place for Howser would confirm how coarse our account of ourselves has become.
Howser believed in California, which was larger than the California he preferred to visit. He wanted you to feel at home there with an attachment that many Californians still find difficult. He leaned into his viewers -- all head and big body and loud yawp -- but it wasn't entirely the awful sales pitch we've grown accustomed to. He wanted you to like him, certainly, but he wanted as much for you to like the people he talked to, plump with their stories. They're your neighbors around the corner, Howser said, if only you were brave enough to walk up to them, grin broadly with a "howdy," and reach into their lives -- and into their hearts sometimes -- to bring out of them their amazing stories.