In a TV arena in which premiums are placed on the fanciful and trendy, screaming housewives and snarling reality-show participants, no one seemed more out of place or less likely to become a popular star than Huell Howser.
His platform was traditional and unflashy -- highlighting familiar and off-the-beaten-track spots all around California in public television series with titles such as "California's Gold," "Visiting," "Road Trip" and "Downtown." But though his shows were focused on points and people of interest, it was Howser who turned into the main attraction, tackling his subjects with an awestruck curiosity and relentless enthusiasm. His upbeat boosterism accompanied an appearance that was simultaneously off-kilter and yet somehow cool with a hint of retro -- a thick, square mane of white hair, sunglasses, shirts that showed off a drill sergeant's build and huge biceps, and expressions that ranged from pleasantness to jaw-dropping wonder with some of his discoveries. Often, he wore shorts.
Topping it all off was a molasses-smooth Tennessee twang that gave an irresistibly folksy flavor to his frequent exclamations of "Oh my gosh" and "Isn't that amazing." The voice and the aw-shucks demeanor were also catnip for comedians who delighted in imitating his tone -- he was once parodied on "The Simpsons," and he was a favorite target of comedian Adam Corolla on his radio shows and podcasts. But he also proved to be a savvy businessman through his deals with broadcasters and sales of his shows on DVDs.
Check out this video clip of Huell on "The Simpsons."