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The wonder and awe that make up Huell Howser

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

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."

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.

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.' "

(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 "http:// 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.

"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."

--

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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