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The wonder and awe that make up Huell Howser

LOCAL TV

He admits his shows are simply made. But that's intentional. To him, everybody has a story to share.

July 26, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Huell Howser: In today's Calendar, an article about Southland TV personality Huell Howser says he's 58. He's 63.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 02, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Huell Howser: In last Sunday's Calendar, an article about Southland TV personality Huell Howser said he is 58. Howser is 63.

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.

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."

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

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