Jeff Houghton does not simply walk through the curtains on stage at The Gillioz Theatre. Instead he does a sort of half-bounce, half-skip, showing the live audience his energy before he even speaks a word. It’s December 4, 2015, and he’s about to host the last three The Mystery Hour episodes of the year. He’s amped. He’s pumped. He’s ready. It’s show time, and he’s about to do what he does best.
As he greets the crowd, Jeff awkwardly fiddles with his clothes, pulling at the insides of his blazer and haphazardly flashing his hands around in front of his skinny tie. His blonde hair is perfectly coiffed to the right side of his head, giving him a clean, sophisticated Don Draper-esque appearance. He flashes a smile, his white teeth seen by the farthest seat in the house. And before you know it, he has a crowd of 700 people in stitches. Later in the night, Jeff shares one of The Mystery Hour’s latest creations—a spoof commercial called Instagram Husband that pokes fun at the idea of guys who regularly succumb to their wives’ desires of capturing every moment of life and posting it on Instagram. A roar of laughter takes over the audience. Everyone sitting there thinks it has the chance to go big. And a few days later, the video is shared and shared again all over social media. It has been mentioned in Time, Adweek, Buzzfeed and many other big-name titles, both in the U.S. and around the globe, and at press time it had more than 4.7 million views on YouTube. Jeff’s idea has gone crazy. People are talking about it and watching it all over the world.
So, how does Jeff Houghton produce a quality late night talk show and hilarious viral videos all from little old Springfield, Missouri, and all without any real budget? And where does he get his drive? We sat down with him to find out.
A Kid From Iowa
Although he’s now one of the most recognized faces in downtown Springfield, Jeff actually spent most of his life in Iowa City, Iowa. His mom was a dance teacher, and his dad just recently retired from his position as tennis coach at the University of Iowa. “We were much more of a sports family,” Jeff says. “I played tennis and ran cross country in high school, and I played basketball a couple of years. I never did theater or drama or anything like that.”
If you met him today, you’d probably think Jeff was that old classmate who was cracking jokes in class or playing pranks on the teacher—he can’t get through 30 seconds of The Mystery Hour without saying something hilarious. But that wasn’t him, either. “I was never the class clown or anything like that,” Jeff says. “I’m definitely not a ‘Hey, look at me’ sort of guy.” As he describes his younger self, he actually paints a picture of a slightly awkward, shy kind of kid. He seems as if he was the one who simply blended in while walking down the hallway, and the kid who never really talked to girls much. “In high school, I was always too afraid to put myself out there,” he says. “I think it’s a learned, practiced kind of thing.”
Fast forward to 2000. Jeff graduated from the University of Iowa, where he studied communication studies, and he moved to New York and first found his desire to perform while interning at the Late Show with David Letterman. “I worked in the talent department,” Jeff says. “It was when I was there that I thought, ‘Well this is nice, but I really want to be on stage.’” And while he was in the city, he also discovered his love of improv. “I went to Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) shows every week while I was there,” he says. But after his internship ended, he left his teensy apartment filled with blow-up mattresses and found furniture, and he headed back home.
It wasn’t long before Jeff’s next adventure took him from Iowa to Minnesota, where he interned at and eventually started working for Young Life. This gig included working at a camp, where he performed on-stage skits and fed his new desire to entertain. And he also found another interest: a girl. “I think the first time I noticed him he was on stage leading the entertainment for the entire camp,” says Jeff’s now wife, Michelle, a Springfield native who was also at Young Life. “Everything that came out of his mouth was funny. He had this presence on stage that was kind of magnetic, and attractive.”
Jeff and his wife, Michelle, take their son, Elias, to Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe on a regular basis. The couple has been there so often they even have menu items named after them.
About a Girl
Jeff’s Young Life position eventually took him to the small town of Traer, Iowa, and Michelle returned home to Missouri. “I love going on different adventures,” Jeff says. “When this came up, I was like, ‘When am I ever going to get to live in Small Town, Iowa? I’ll never get to do that again!’” As he does most things, Jeff took on the opportunity with full enthusiasm. But after a year and a half of living in Traer and dating Michelle long-distance, he wanted to know if this girl was forever. “You know how in Good Will Hunting, at the end, Matt Damon’s character says, ‘I gotta go see about a girl,’ and it shows him driving away from Boston in this crappy car?” Jeff says. “That was me. I was like, ‘Uh, I think I gotta go see about a girl!’”
Jeff moved to Springfield and worked as a substitute teacher as he searched for other jobs. As he describes those days, his love of humor shines. “I entertained myself when I took roll call,” Jeff says. “I’d pronounce kids’ names wrong on purpose. You know, because substitute teachers always do that.” But after chasing kids and trying to remember math from 20 years ago, he said goodbye to the subbing gig and landed a position as a field representative at the Community Blood Center of the Ozarks. And it was during this time that he got to know Springfield, too. “I did not like Springfield before when I would just come to visit Michelle,” Jeff says. “I knew it as a lot of chain and big box stores. I felt like, ‘This could be anywhere. Is there any unique identity here?’” But when he actually made the move in 2003, Springfield’s downtown renovation started amping up. “It was the renaissance of downtown that kept me around,” he says.
Jeff fell in love with many of downtown’s local shops and restaurants. “I love Gailey’s,” Jeff says. He and Michelle go there so often that they even have menu items named after them. “The way he got his own menu item is actually kind of funny,” Michelle says. “We started going there right after it opened. We would have the same waitress, and Jeff would just kind of nod at her when it was his time to order.” At first the waitress was confused. “Then, she would finally just say, ‘Umm, your usual order?’” Michelle says. And it stuck. Today it’s still a favorite place for the couple, but now they bring along their 3-year-old son, Elias.
Another one of Jeff’s favorite things about Springfield was The Skinny Improv, a former Springfield comedy club that he first saw perform at Evangel University before landing a spot downtown. “I thought, ‘Man, this is exactly what I want to do!’” he says. “I knew I couldn’t go to any more shows without being on stage.” Jeff started taking improv classes, and eventually he became a part of the group. “It was the best, man!” Jeff says. “A lot of people say that high school was the best four years of their life or college was the best four years of their life. I always say, ‘Yeah, those were okay. But those old Skinny days, man. Those were the best.”
After a few more years of dating, Jeff and Michelle got married in July 2006, the same year Jeff started The Mystery Hour. “I said to Jeff Jenkins, who I did The Skinny Improv with, ‘What if I start a late night talk show here?’” Jeff says. “He said, ‘I’ve always thought that would be a good idea! You should do it!’” Jeff’s voice grows with excitement as he retells the story of his first-ever performance. “After I got off stage, I was on such a high,” he says. He sits up straight, and a super-sized smile takes over his boyish face. “That was when I was like, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do!’” he says.
“We started it as a live 10 p.m. show after the Skinny’s main-stage show.” Michelle was fully supportive, and she was a member of the audience for years. But lately the two have worked to make her a much bigger part of the performance. At the latest taping in December 2015, she sang a solo in a lead Christmas caroling skit, perfectly blending in with the rest of The Mystery Hour crew. In fact, you’d never know the two were a couple if Jeff didn’t proudly announce it to the crowd. “That woman who just sang about being single—that’s my wife!” he says. The two are still crazy about each other, and it’s adorably obvious. “We complement each other well, which is to say that she’s very on top of things,” Jeff says. “I’d have a hard time getting things done without her.”
After Jeff spent a few years of performing on the weekends and working at the blood center, he considered moving to Los Angeles. “I knew I liked the idea of it, but I didn’t know if I’d like the day to day of it,” he says. “So I went out to LA and took some meetings, as you say in LA, or as we say here, ‘Had lunch.’” His visit made him decide to give it a try, and he moved there for about a year. “I started a blog, The Mystery Year, when I was there,” Jeff says. “At the end of each day, I would write the story about what happened. I feel like I started as a guy who could kind of write, but by the end of the year, I thought, ‘Hey, I’m a writer!’ And that was a really neat thing that came of it.” But that was what stuck the most. After landing a few smaller gigs, including being an extra on Mad Men, Jeff and Michelle, who stayed back in Springfield, decided it wasn’t a forever thing. They knew it was time for him to come home.
Jeff introduces the band Tripwire before they perform at the live taping of The Mystery Hour.
Shining on Stage
When Jeff returned to Springfield, he met with people from KOZL, who wanted to air The Mystery Hour on TV. “I was like ‘Let’s do it!,’” Jeff says. “Then I thought, ‘I don’t have a set. I don’t have a crew. I don’t have a cameraman. I don’t have anything!’” He worked with his friend Frank Gonzales, who is now the producer/house manager for The Mystery Hour, to figure things out. “When you see someone chasing their dreams with such passion, it’s hard not to be inspired to jump on board and help out,” Gonzales says. “As soon as I saw what he was doing, I asked what I could do to help out.”
More and more people hopped on board, helping create a quality show that draws nearly 700 guests at every taping. “I always call it the shared passion project,” Jeff says. “I had the idea and drove it by myself for a number of years. We went from a live show that was recorded to a show that is actually made for TV.” By 2013, FOX KRBK (now FOX 5) called and wanted to air the show as well. Soon after, Jeff started attracting bigger-name guests, with GigSalad stepping in to help book guests and Hotel Vandivort becoming the accommodations sponsor.
One trip to the show now, and you’ll know why so many people want to be a part of it. Jeff is truly in his element while performing. “By the time it’s show night, he’s just so relaxed and confident and on point,” Michelle says. “It’s him doing everything he loves to do.” Not to mention, he’s absolutely hilarious. But the most captivating thing about him is that he’s not the kind of hilarious you’d expect. “He’s not put-it-out-there-in-your-face funny,” Michelle says. “He’s just really quick, and he’s very unassuming.” He also finds humor in things that most people aren’t so comfortable with. “He’s never embarrassed,” Michelle says. “He thinks embarrassing things are funny—the kind of things that would make me hide in the corner.” And Gonzales agrees. “He’s more observational funny,” Gonzales says. “He’s not performing for you. He likes to take you along with him.”
In addition to many live skits with his regular crew members, the team also does work on their own time and debuts it on the show, including Instagram Husband. “I had the idea last summer,” Houghton says. “It’s basically an exaggeration of my wife and me. Then I started sharing the idea with people, and they all basically said, ‘Oh my gosh, I relate to that.’”
As for what’s next, that’s still to be determined. But one thing is for sure—The Mystery Hour will live on. “I’d be very happy if the show is never more than it is right now,” he says. “It’s not quite perfect yet because I make little money. But for me, it’s really neat to be living in Springfield, and I’m a writer and an actor. Legitimately.”
Of course, as a life-long dreamer, Houghton says he would also love it if The Mystery Hour got much bigger, attracted more big-name guests and became syndicated elsewhere. “My ultimate goal would be to keep it here and syndicate further,” he says. “I’d like it to be that quirky thing that stars want to come and do if they’re in a movie. Like, ‘Hey, I gotta go do that talk show in Springfield, Missouri.’”
Jeff prepares backstage before he greets the audience that fills Gillioz Theatre with nearly 700 people each month.
One Crazy Ride
Jeff Houghton shares the 10 most defining, random and memorable moments in his working life.
“How many guys in cat suits can you fit in a New York City coffee shop? I got to dress up as a guy in a cat suit and got shoved into a coffee shop with other people dressed as cats for David Letterman.”
“I joined the Skinny Improv. Improv, specifically The Skinny Improv, is my first love. Joining The Skinny is what started all of this. I did shows every weekend for several years; it was such a big part of my life.”
“I hosted the first The Mystery Hour show. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but a crowd turned out for it. We had on Matt Lemmon, editor of former Go Magazine, and Doug Harpool, who was running for state senate.”
“Yakov Smirnoff comes on The Mystery Hour for the first time. It was our fourth show, and he had no real reason to come on, but he did because he’s awesome. He’s been on the show a few times now.”
“I moved to LA and also started a blog called The Mystery Year. I updated the blog every day about the ups and downs of going for your dreams. That experience of writing every day helped me become a writer.” Editor’s Note: Check it out at themysteryyear.wordpress.com.
“I worked at an Apple store in Los Angeles. Michael Caine asked me a question about his iPad. I answered it.”
“The Mystery Hour premiered on television. I can’t say it was good at the beginning, but it was on television.”
“We made a crowdfunding video, Missouri is Awesome, for 5 Pound Apparel, and it went Missouri-viral. It was a ton of fun and helped me to get a lot of video work after that.”
“I won a Mid-America Emmy for On-Camera Talent—Performer/Host for The Mystery Hour. Really though, it’s an award for the entire show. It was a big moment for us.”
“Instagram Husband. Millions of views, I still can’t figure out what is going on.”