Huell Howser died last night and there's never been a night I wished more I was in California.
For me, growing up in Los Angeles in the '90s, Huell Howser was the most consistently watchable entertainer on TV. I was more of a radio geek as a teenager, but Huell I watched whenever I got the chance. A lot of us did. And if you missed something, friends would swap stories of California's Gold and Visiting and his other shows on KCET, always lapsing into impressions of his awe-struck exclamations: "This is amazing!"
His voice is so familiar to me and so closely tied to his love of the state that it might as well be the voice of California itself in my mind. So when I got into sketch comedy I felt compelled to do an impression of Huell because he was such an innocent and joyful character to mimic, and it was fun to get to play him for a few minutes on stage.
Like a lot of us, I heard and re-told stories of real-life Huell Howser encounters. Friends had spotted Huell all over Southern California: at the Hollywood farmer's market, at Whittier Narrows, at a historic hotel in Palm Springs. Huell eyewitnesses always re-tell their particular tale with a gleam in their eye, as an encounter with a mythological character. It seemed you had a 1 in 10 chance to meet Huell Howser if you grew up in California, but I never did. So I made up my own Huell stories and told them in-character on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast.
And then he called me on the phone.
I was at party when I got a call from a blocked number. A voice on the phone asked, "Is this James?" and I asked who was calling - and his answer came booming back enthusiastically: "This is Huell Howser! I heard you been doin' an impression of me on the internet!"
For a moment I wondered if it was a friend pranking me, but instead of any cartoonish caricature, here was Huell, boisterous but now measured, self-aware and razor sharp. Oh no, he heard, he's angry, he's going to tell me to stop.
I remember locking myself in the bathroom so I could hear him as I fumbled for the right words. I told him clumsily that this was like taking a call from a fictional character, like Big Bird or Sherlock Holmes. His tone was gracious and vulnerable. "Well, I guess it must be pretty easy to do a dumb Southern accent!" - an exclamation as always. I was floored. We laughed. He was right.
After a few minutes we were just talkin' - comedy and California - and talkin' with Huell Howser was so fun, even for five minutes. He knew a little about everything and had a story for every place I mentioned.
We talked about his PBS shows, which I watched a lot. I could watch Huell in any mood and with anybody. It's hard to pick a favorite episode.
There was the jojoba farm, where Huell introduced the episode standing in a pile of horse manure, "Well, folks, I guess I'm just standing in a big ol' pile of horse manure!" and marveled at the miracle of plant life from every angle. "Look at all this jojoba! And it's just growing out of the ground!"
There was the avocado farm, with an avocado-eatin' dog that fascinated Huell. And of course there's the one where Huell goes to Sacramento to visit the capitol building steps - exhaustively confirming with the state trooper one of the definitive properties of stairs themselves: "So these steps go down and also back up?!?"
Maybe the funniest was his epic visit to the Bagdad Cafe, a mythical California place out on some California backroad that only he would find - a classic Huell location. "Well, I don't know anything!" Huell says gleefully, and plunges in to find an adventure anyway. Everything goes wrong with the Bagdad profile, from the flustered, unprepared staff to the bizarre roadhouse patrons to the portrait of Burt Lancaster that Huell confirms by phone has no significance whatsoever to the restaurant.
But my personal favorite Huell Howser adventure has to be an episode of California's Gold where he went to investigate the legendary Yosemite firefall. It's fascinating and sweet and hilariously off - the perfect balance between earnest documentary and accidental comedy. Huell Howser hikes through Yosemite asking about the long-gone firefall ritual, ambushing bewildered tourists with his microphone, interviewing colorful Yosemite fixtures - the local chronicler, the piano player and the improbable California park ranger with the thick Boston accent - all to learn more about the artificial firefall events that were discontinued decades ago.
And then at the end, somehow magically Huell shows us the firefall. In a sincere and touching final shot from Luis Fuerte on camera, we see a nearby natural "firefall" - a winter sunlight phenomenon a few miles away from the former artificial one - and a sad love song plays over the closing credits. I've watched a lot of Huell, and many episodes I've seen several times, but "Yosemite Firefall" I've seen dozens of times - and as funny as it can be to laugh with and at Huell throughout it, he suckers me in every time and I cry at that ending. It is some of the best television I've ever seen: a beautiful, poignant glimpse at the natural beauty of California - and now a fitting tribute to its favorite adventurer.
There are places all over California like the Yosemite Firefall and the Bagdad Cafe that many of us learned about for the first time from Huell Howser. It will forever be impossible to visit any attraction or oddity in California - historic district, Victorian theatre, roadside tavern, shipyard, air show, railroad museum, Spanish mission, aqueduct, merry-go-round - without knowing there's a good chance that Huell Howser was there. And he had questions.
"Look at this! What is all this?"
No matter where he was, that was Huell's all-encompassing question. Tell me everything there is to know about all of this. It is a question that we laugh at as comically naïve - how could this world be that interesting? - but then there was Huell Howser showing over and over that this world, or at least the California part, can be an endless series of adventures. We laughed. He kept exploring.
We are lucky there was someone as fearless as Huell to ask those questions and take us along for the trip. He was fascinated by life, investigating all details, learning about the world around us, the people before us, and above all sharing our stories.
"Well, if it gets a laugh, I guess it's all in good fun!" he said on the phone.
Yes, it was great fun, Huell. Every moment. You lived a life of infinite celebration, and you will remain a truly amazing part of California's Gold.