The last sincere man on television is going off the air.
Huell Howser, the relentlessly curious creator and host of PBS travel show California's Gold, will be making no new episodes, it was reported.
Howser, known for his outgoing persona and complete lack of irony, issued no public statement regarding the end of his two decades on public television. The Los Angeles Times mentions rumors of illness, but also that PBS and Howser's home station, LA's KCET, went their separate ways a few years ago, and so perhaps the decision to end the show was a budgetary one. Regardless, it means an end to the most childlike exploration of the state of California ever to be committed to a medium.
Howser's exclamations of "Oh my gosh" and "That's amazing!" will live on in syndication, though, and also, as the Tennessee native says, "Ah-Tunes."
Howser worked in television news in Nashville and New York before moving to L.A. in 1981 and discovering in California a paradise of stupefying wonders. He explains the show's mission on his website:
"We operate on the premise that TV isn't brain surgery. People's stories are what it's all about," says Howser. "If you have a good story, it doesn't have to be overproduced. I want our stories to reveal the wonders of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture, and natural wonders."
Exploring such stories in that trademark no-frills way often led to honest-to-gosh discoveries, as in his show about the real crookedest street in San Francisco (which isn't necessarily Lombard):
Howser's topics reflected his wonderment at the world around him. And as the show evolved he seemed to become a Zen Master of public television: From early episodes like "L.A. to San Francisco Bay," "Joshua Tree," and "Gold Country," the show later took a deeper, simpler, more microscopic look at California with "Hops," "Flagpoles," "Baseball Sod," "Ladybugs" (episode description: "Huell goes on a honest-to-goodness ladybug hunt in a secret location and answers the burning question, 'Just where do ladybugs come from?' You'll be surprised and overwhelmed at what he uncovers."), and good old episode #8003, "Things Beside the Road." In "Avocados" Howser encounters the sublime itself:
His folksy bonhomie and that voice -- the incredulous twang of someone's great aunt -- made him, in the parlance of the great man himself, an avocado for the dogs of comedy. He was immortalized in The Simpsons as "Howell Huser," a TV personality who falls off a turnip truck into Springfield. Dana Gould spoofed him on The Adam Carolla Show, and he became a part of James Adomian's stand-up, where his naivete extended to subjects including "skin," as in this (wildly NSFW) Comedy Death-Ray Radio podcast:
Howser's sincerity was virgin's blood for this ironic age. But it was also inspiring. Why not be "surprised and overwhelmed" by ladybugs? We who demand polish and sophistication and high production values sometimes struggle on our couches against his pronouncements on the utterly obvious, his slow revelations, his wonderment at Spam or sauerkraut or the mysterious inner workings of In-N-Out Burger.
But when everything is so relentlessly packaged, so thoroughly produced, it is rare to see someone on TV being so plainly and candidly and embarrassingly human. The appeal of his "people's stories" is that they were always also about him, showing us how to see all this stuff, goofy as it (or he, or us, maybe) is. Where would you ever find a guide like that again?
Even the most produced thing he ever did, a music video, is basically just his career to-do list, set to music:
On one of the last episodes, "Jacarandas," Howser weighs whether the trees are a "mess" or a "miracle." He talks to Rev. John McLean, a pastor at L.A.'s Center for Spiritual Learning, and we discover that Howser based the episode on one of McLean's recent sermons. McLean then tells the story (all the while he and Howser are standing in the middle of the street, jacarandas abloom behind them) of talking to a friend who mentioned wanting to be a novelist. Only McLean thought he said "marvelist," and is moved at the implications.
"What a way to go through life," he says, "if you looked at everything as if it were truly a marvel." He's saying it to Howser, but it's up to us to see the irony.