Growing up in Southern California I probably knew as much about Huell as any other kid: the giant weirdo from Tennessee who--at the sight of a dog who happened to eat avocados--would lay on this ecstatic country euphoria normally reserved for the birthday boy who finally got what he'd wanted for years.
He was Bob Ross. He was Wally George. He was everything we laugh at on YouTube now. He was the kind of dude who shows up on TV during a drunk Friday night when you and your friends are exploring the deepest, darkest tunnels of cable access. "Who gets that excited about a dog?" "How did he get his own TV show?"
You and your friends laugh, and change the channel a half hour later.
Everyone has their own impression of Huell. Conjuring their best bewildered Tenessee drawl they'll yelp "That's amazing!" and you got the sense that even though this guy was funny--not everyone thought he was in on the joke.
But he was so much more than that. When I first started in radio I asked Queena Kim, my predecessor, how I could do better interviews. I listened to Fresh Air, Diane Rehm, This American Life... she said those were all great shows, but I had the wrong role models. Pound for pound, she said, there's no better interviewer in public media than Huell Howser.
I started to watch California's Gold again--this time with a new eye. In an era when every journalist was obsessed with complex, clever questions--Huell wanted the basics: "What's that?" "Why is that?" But in doing so he'd draw out brilliant, concise answers. Everyone learned something. Everyone was on the same page. Queena was right.
And his enthusiasm--his joy for all things Californian--it was funny at first, but then you realize he's not faking it. Huell would walk into a restaurant in the middle of the desert, all smiles, and start taping without so much as a heads up. It didn't matter if nobody knew him: when he looked at a portrait on the wall and said "that's amazing," everyone else agreed. Huell was contagious.
Now it's my job to tell interns to watch Huell Howser. I'm happy to.
Just last week, a friend of mine went to Napa to visit family. We were talking about the area and I remembered an episode of California's State Parks where Huell visited the Bale Grist Mill--it's one of the last remaining water powered mills in the country--you can still buy wheat there. I sent him the link and a few days later got back an excited text--he and his family loved it.
Huell Howser was a giant weirdo from Tennesee who, through naivety and charm, made California exciting for newcomers and lifers alike. That's amazing.