Huell Howser: Godfather of Public Television Bedlam

by Brent Eyestone

Somewhere around the advent of video tape and subsequent, affordable video production, there was an alarmingly sharp spike in grown-ass men with no prior experience just completely going for it on the weekends; self-producing their own slice of life and hobby-driven content. I remember my dad and his military buddies starting some sort of custom fishing rod-decorating side business that delved headlong into video production in hopes of standing out at trade shows and perhaps getting picked up by whatever regional sportsman programming opportunities they imagined were available at the time. Like all things baby boomer, much of the small-production video programming of the era was marked by cocksure, surface level narratives and all the compelling grit of a deleted scene from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

And then there was Huell Howser.

Huell Howser (right) with his friend Bill Esparza

A man whose given name was an amalgamation of his parents (Harold and Jewell), Huell was clearly on some other shit when it came to his contemporaries in the baby boomer video production auteur movement of the 1980’s. While his hosting and production style had nearly all the markings and common practices of the times, there was a diabolical waggishness at the core of his creativity. One could even perceive of Huell as an early progenitor (if not outright inspiration) for the chaotic pseudo-documentary-comedy style later brought into mainstream television and film by Sacha Baron Cohen via his Ali G, Borat, and Bruno characters.

Check out this clip of Huell completely pushing every button of a United States border patrol guard in December of 1991:

Invasiveness. Feigned lack of comprehension. Repetition. Straight up SETTING A PICK for a Mexican guy to sprint into the country unchecked. Soft yellow fleece… Huell Howser was all about that life and set the template for Cohen, Tom Green, "Wonder Showzen," "Loiter Squad," and countless others to pick up and run with on much wider platforms years later.

Sadly, Huell passed away on January 13, 2007. Most of his productions were regional in scope (“California’s Gold” being the most notable at 24 seasons on KCET in Los Angeles), so he never got full credit and appreciation for what he was doing at the time. If you check out the all-knowing smile toward the camera at 0:22 in the clip above, I’m not even so sure adulation mattered that much to him. Regardless, roughly thirty years after the home video revolution that gave us Huell Howser, we celebrate his work via another form of revolutionary video distribution: countless clips archived around the web. You can check out out any number of his episodes and outtakes via a simple search for his name.

Long live Huell Howser.