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The awe of Huell Howser

TELEVISION CRITIC

I am a fan of Huell Howser, the roving reporter.

I state this without irony or any attempt to be provocative. I think of him as a kind of natural wonder, practically the last living representative of local television in Los Angeles, and for all I know, in America, that species having largely been crushed under the weight of media conglomeration. And as an ambassador: the man who takes TV to the people and puts the people -- the sort of ordinary people TV ignores almost 100% of the time that Howser isn’t on -- on TV.

And though I think he would object, I regard him as a kind of artist. Like the work of , the French photographer whose 10,000 images of Paris form a detailed picture of life there at the turn of the last century, Howser’s video interviews will give future Huell Howsers their best look at life here at the turn of this century, in all its many colors and voices and varieties of dessert. He is like a man from the past and the future all in one, so old-fashioned as to have become absolutely singular and therefore practically avant-garde.

I met him recently at a sidewalk cafe close to his mid-Wilshire apartment to talk about what he does. What he does is as simple as it looks and more subtle than you might imagine. He plays down its difficulty: “It’s pretty basic stuff,” he said. “It isn’t brain surgery.” But he also made clear that there is nothing random about the way he works. He has been doing more or less this job since the early 1970s, in Nashville, New York and L.A., and his programs embody not just his ideas about television but an entire worldview.

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He has lived here nearly 30 years; the first five he spent working for KNXT (later KCBS) as a features reporter, and for more than 20 years he has worked, as a self-producing, independent contractor, out of KCET. His programs -- he has seven series now in production, including “California’s Gold,” “California’s Green,” “Downtown,” “Road Trip” and “Visiting” -- are available free to the state’s PBS affiliates. For any citizen of Los Angeles under the age of 40, he’s a given, as fundamental to the landscape as the La Brea Tar Pits or the Watts Towers.

“We have two agendas,” he told me. “One is to specifically show someone China Camp State Park or to talk to the guys who paint the Golden Gate Bridge. But the broader purpose is to open up the door for people to have their own adventures. Let’s explore our neighborhood, let’s look in our own backyard, let’s go down to Koreatown and buy some kimchee. We won’t do a story on what it’s like to spend the night in a $10,000 hotel suite. We do things to put the spotlight on the fact that every single person we meet potentially has a great story to share. Can I repair a car? No. Can I cook a meal? No. Can I paint a picture? No. Can I talk with people? Can I help them tell their stories? Absolutely.”

It is all very lo-fi and DIY. “I don’t have an agent,” said Howser, 58. “I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a press agent, I don’t have a wardrobe guy, a makeup guy, a parking space, a dressing room. It’s basically me and a cameraman and an editor and a couple of guys in the office. I can go out between now and noon and do a full 30-minute show just talking to people on the street and have it on the air tonight. It’s an economic model that’s a production model, but it’s a model that I believe in philosophically as far as what the viewer should see.”

Take the single hand-held microphone that Howser employs. “If you take the time to put a lavaliere [a lapel microphone] on somebody you’ve lost the spontaneity. If you have a sound guy with a big boom mike it’s intimidating as hell. A hand mike gives me the option of talking to you, and if you see [imaginary person just over there] doing something interesting, I just go, ‘What’re you doing over there?’ And it allows me to put my hand on your shoulder and talk to you, whereas a lavaliere disconnects you from a person and makes it more of a television show. ‘You’ve got to stand right over here, move two inches this way, and look in the camera -- testing one, two, one, two.’ By the time you do all that it’s gone.”

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Visually, it’s the same thing: long takes, few edits, as much unaffected experience as possible. (Cameron Tucker has been his cameraman for the last several years, replacing the retired Luis Fuerte.) “It’s not unusual for us to have 6-, 8-, 9-, 12-minute sections, just edited head to tail,” he said. “I did an interview with David Hockney where he showed me around his studio that didn’t have any edits. And we always shoot wide because I want the viewer to see what you would see with your eyes if you were there, so when I’m sitting here talking with you” -- meaning me, across the table -- “I see you but I also see the bush over your shoulder. I see the Brinks trucks behind you. That’s life.”

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The basics

He doesn’t over-prepare for his interviews, because “by nature I’m not an actor, so if I already know what’s behind the door I can’t be surprised when we open it.” As an audience surrogate, his questions tend toward the basic: What does this do? How long has this been here? But basic questions are often the necessary ones that interviewers neglect to ask.

“It kind of fits my personality,” he said of the job he has made for himself, “because I have a very short attention span, I walk into a grove of redwoods, I’m awe struck at their beauty and their size, I stay there for an hour with the ranger hearing about the history of the redwoods and I’m ready to move on. It doesn’t diminish the excitement I had when I was there, it’s just that there are thousands of subjects out there that I want to know.”

His thick, brush-cut hair; broad-shouldered, erect bearing; and pin-neat, pastel way of dressing -- combined with a boyish face and wide smile -- give him the aspect of a drill sergeant in an army whose mission is happiness. With his family-friendly exclamations -- “Wow!” and “Oh my gosh!” and “That’s amazing!” addressed in a hearty Tennessee accent to what can seem the least amazing things -- he is easy to lampoon. So far beyond being a glass-half-full guy, I imagine him being handed an empty glass and crying, “Hey! I’ve got a glass!” And if he had no glass, he’d find out where they make glasses, and go down and do a piece on the place.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Are you putting that on?’ ” he said, of his golly-gosh demeanor. “That’s kind of a sad commentary, don’t you think? Like there’s got to be something wrong with someone who’s enthusiastic and happy like that. Do I have bad days? Yes. Do I get depressed? Yes. Am I concerned about the state of the California economy and budget? Yes. I’m not some Pollyanna who doesn’t recognize the fact that there’s hunger and poverty and racism in the world.”

Adam Carolla mocked him regularly on his KLSX-FM morning radio show, but there is a lot of love where Howser is concerned. (I tried a Google experiment: The phrase “I love Huell Howser” received 4,340 hits; “I hate Huell Howser,” four.) A ham and pineapple cheeseburger in Yermo, a double chili cheese dog at Pink’s and a doughnut at Stan’s in Westwood all bear his name. He was integrated into an episode of “Weeds” last year, and “The Simpsons” used him, as Howell Huser, in the 2005 episode “Something About Marrying.” He found out about that only afterward from friends, and “so I called the head guy the next day, Matt Groening. I said, ‘Matt, you should have told me I was on -- I’d have had a party!’ He said, ‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I think we had the longest writers meeting ever because everybody around the table wanted to do their Huell Howser impression.’ ”

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(Groening confirmed the story by e-mail: “Yes, everyone at ‘The Simpsons’ does a Huell Howser impression. We all love him. I have on my permanent do-not-delete TiVo Huell’s visit to the Bunny Museum. I hear, but haven’t seen, that Huell’s climb up a wind turbine tower is a classic. At the show we all love HH so much that after first sending him up, we had HH play himself in an upcoming episode,” a fact that Howser himself neglected to tell me.)

There is something of the friendly alien about him, the man from space for whom everything -- every flower, every doughnut, every doorknob -- is new and miraculous. He is famous for stating the obvious, but the obvious things are exactly those things that we forget how to see.

There is a viral video called “https:// Huell Howser Tripping,” ,” in which his speech has been cut up and electronically stretched into an expression of psychedelic ecstasy: “We can now reveal . . . and actually touch . . . the next day . . . oh boy . . . ooooh baby . . . oh my gosh. . . . Now this . . . I have never . . . experienced anything like this or felt like this before.” Howser is no sparkle-eyed psychotropic adventurer -- though he did once wear long hair and bell-bottoms -- but his ideas about TV and the world are not so far from the William Blake poem:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

Or half an hour, as the case may be.

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“A lot of people say, ‘You’ve been doing this so long, you’ve been everywhere. Aren’t you about to run out of places to go?’ ” Howser said. “What are you talking about, ‘everywhere’? You could tell me that I couldn’t go outside of a five-mile radius from where we’re having breakfast right now for stories and I wouldn’t blink an eye. There’s enough right within five miles to keep me busy the rest of my life. Why are we looking so hard? It’s right under our noses.”

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com


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