I Remember Huell Howser

Huell Howser and Servers at Philippe
In July, 1969, the purchase of four new RCA cameras finally gave KCET the ability to broadcast in full color.

That name alone - Huell - made it easy to parody the Tennessee accent he declined to straighten out into the national broadcast standard. And his on-camera gusts of wonderment at all things great and small were equally made for caricature. But he wouldn't change that, either.

It took strength of character to remain the Huell Howser we still watch on KCET.

His death in 2013 was treated (at least by some) like the passing of a beloved uncle - the uncle who never married but who always sent the best birthday gifts, the one who would go with you on the scariest rollercoaster, and the one whose life at the end seemed to leave blank pages.

After his death, one news commentator wrote of Huell Howser's circumspection. I thought of it as his wariness.

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Huell Howser's biography was conventional enough: born in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1945, 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 for Howard Baker's Senatorial campaign. After high school, he joined the Marine Corps reserves. 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.

Huell Howser had something he wanted to be and something he wanted to say. Something about him - something called charisma - usually overcame the impression he made of being big and sort of unformed.

His presence was noticed, and he was offered a job at the Nashville NBC affiliate where he did feature reporting that in style that pointed toward the "Videolog" segments he produced for KCET years later. Despite the 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 African American residents and their untold stories. Knowing that about him added complexity to the boyishness he portrayed.

After Nashville, he tried something like "Visiting...with Huell Howser" in New York, but the fit was wrong and it stayed wrong through other proto-Huell Howser programs. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1981, he went back to the grind of feature reporting for KCBS and occasional interview segments for "Entertainment Tonight."

But that kind of TV was a step back. It separated him from the gift he was convinced he had for connecting with people who weren't wannabe celebrities. The clichés of soft news kept him from being - in his outsized, harmless way - intimate. People who knew him (I didn't) say that he was that way all the time. People who had only met him - as comments posted to the KCET's website affirmed - say that Huell was unfailingly Huell.

There were hints that wasn't always so. There are those blank pages and what appeared to be loneliness.

He volunteered at KCET in 1983 to produce the short segments that were shown as "Videolog," not much different from the news features he had done in Nashville and attempted in New York. But now the fit was right and stripped down to the minimum of production values -- often one continuous shot.

Huell Howser delivered the actuality of lives being led without any of the contrivances of 1990s "reality" TV. By his warmth and joyous interest, he drew something - perhaps only the reflection of his apparent pleasure in meeting them - from unattractive, untalented, and earnest avocado farmers, minor bureaucrats, old lady docents, the collectors of things, the sellers of things, the endless explainers, and even the people just standing around gawking at this large, pink, glowing man honking "Isn't that amazing!"

By 1990, Howser was a hugely successful public television personality. He series grew beyond "Videolog" and later "Visiting...with Huell Howser" to include "California's Gold," "California's Golden Parks," "California's Golden Coast," "California's Green," "Our Neighborhoods," and "Road Trip with Huell Howser." The episodes total in the thousands. His programs eventually appeared on all 13 public television stations in California as well as in Hawaii, Nevada, and Oregon. They're still here on KCET and elsewhere.

Huell 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.

His on-air intimacies were intentionally brief. His amazement at the extraordinary hidden within the ordinary only went so far. But that, I think, was part of his project. He insisted that he wasn't a substitute for viewers going into their own neighborhood fired with the belief that remarkable things resided there if they only exposed themselves to it with the same lack of prejudice that was Huell Howser's best characteristic.

He was an evangelist of the everyday, but he also was a journalist who had a sophisticated understanding of what his kind of television could do. He was a remarkable storyteller who chose to tell the part of the story that was Huell Howser's. It wasn't the whole story, but what story ever is?

Huell Howser also believed in California, which was much larger than the California that tourists visit. He wanted his viewers to feel at home everywhere here with an attachment that Californians still find difficult to sustain. He leaned into his viewers - all head and mouth and loud yawp. He wanted you to like him, certainly, but he wanted as much that you should like the places he went and the people he talked to, every one of them plump with the stories he drew from them.

At first, his target audience was the demographic that historian Kevin Starr called the "folks." The "folks" radiated their pleasure back at Howser's televised presence, happy to go to a cat litter factory or a low-rider car show or a farm town in the Central Valley or anywhere with him as their guide. They were happy just to see a Californian happy. Twenty-five years of visiting later, Howser's audience was as diverse as public television's, although some part of his audience watched ironically the least ironic man on television.

Huell Howser preached the abundance in everyday life that anyone should be able to see, particularly when the ordinary is viewed with joy. I don't know if the joy was a pose for him, but it's easy for me to see the subversion of expectations in Huell Howser's joyous demeanor.

His thousands of episodes will be around a long time, and any journalist who wants the same success will have to watch to understand fully what Huell Howser accomplished with them. I've heard it suggested that he no longer had a place in a YouTubed-media ecology, that millions of look-at-me online videos have taken up all the space he formerly occupied.

I don't think so.

[This essay, in a different form, originally appeared in SoCal Focus in 2013.)

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