When it comes to late-night antics in a college town, 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday is not unreasonable. That’s when, on a recent weekend, the doors flung open at the historic Gillioz Theatre in Springfield, Mo. With trumpets, trombones and tubas blasting, the 16 members of the Brass & Sass marching band from Missouri State University blew their way into a parade along Park Central East.
Behind them was a crazy redheaded guy in a suit, waving a flag. More than 100 people, mostly mature, responsible adults, bounded along, many livestreaming the activity on social media. Others on the street clapped and cheered. Passing cars honked.
But this wasn’t some college shenanigans on the verge of police intervention. This is a regular occurrence, when Jeff Houghton wraps an episode of “The Mystery Hour.”
“The Mystery Hour” is a nationally syndicated talk show with a live audience, in the style of Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and the like. Except this one isn’t taped in New York or Los Angeles. It’s shot in the middle of the Missouri Ozarks, in a place most Americans don’t even know exists.
And that’s just fine with Houghton. It’s more than just fine. It’s exactly what he wants.
“People on the coasts are baffled by this, but my passion is showcasing cool people doing amazing things in surprising places,” said Houghton on the morning after the taping.
He leaned over the breakfast table with a mischievous grin. “It’s way more interesting that it’s shot in Springfield, don’t you think?”
Coast-ish to coast-ish
Much of the world first learned of Houghton with the viral video “Instagram Husband” in 2015. “Today,” Time and BuzzFeed all picked up the video about men and their Instagram-addicted wives.
A native of Iowa City, Houghton fell in love with a girl from Springfield and didn’t hesitate to move to the Ozarks. Unemployed with a degree in communication studies, Houghton lived in his girlfriend’s parents’ basement. Because that’s always impressive.
But not before he did an internship with the “Late Show With David Letterman” in New York. There, he honed his skills by holding the door for guests on the show.
Houghton eventually married the girl, moved out of her parents’ house and began substitute-teaching. And he started hanging out with the Skinny Improv group in Springfield. Houghton’s own improv sketch featured a late-night talk show host.
Before long, the Gillioz Theatre invited him to perform. Then a local TV station asked about taping it and all of a sudden, without any plan, Houghton had become the host of a late-night talk show that now airs in 17 markets, “coast-ish to coast-ish.”
“We’re in Bend, Oregon, so even though Bend is not on the coast, Oregon is,” explains Houghton with that same mischievous grin. “And we’re in Charlotte, North Carolina, and you know, that’s coast-ish.”
KAAL-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rochester, Minn., was the third station and first outside of Missouri to pick up the show.
“Quirky is not the right word for it, but it’s certainly entertaining,” said Harlan Carlson, the traffic/programming manager for KAAL. It airs on Saturdays at 11:30 p.m.
KAAL (Ch. 6) covers much of southeastern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Carlson admits that Houghton’s Iowa connection was appealing. “As a small-market station, we are always looking for quality programming that fits our budget,” Carlson said. “ ‘The Mystery Hour’ is very fresh and a lot of fun.”
A half-hour ‘Hour’
Most people have little idea of what it’s like to be a part of a studio audience. And unless they invest in a trip to New York or L.A. and take a chance in the ticket lottery, most people will never see one.
But “The Mystery Hour” in Springfield changes that. About 600 people attend the shows taped at the Gillioz Theatre, a National Historic Landmark built in 1926. Proceeds from all concessions, including alcohol, benefit the theater. And just like on “Oprah” or “Ellen,” audience members occasionally receive gifts. On a recent show, Houghton gave away autographed frozen TV dinners.
Houghton starts off with a monologue. He has a desk with a fake vintage microphone, à la Johnny Carson. He has a couch for guests. And he has a sidekick — Michelle “Mo” Holloman, who studied at the Second City in Chicago.
“The Mystery Hour” is 30 minutes long. Get it? Those in the live studio audience get to see all of the bloopers that folks at home don’t see, including Houghton’s hilarious commentary on his own mistakes.
The crew tapes three episodes in one night, using four cameras. Choose a seat closer to one of the playback monitors to better understand the taping process. Or choose a seat near the front to better hear the off-camera jokes.
One of the guests at August’s season premiere was actor Chauncey Leopardi. That name might not ring a bell unless you are a fan of the 1993 coming-of-age movie “The Sandlot.” Leopardi played Squints, the goofy kid who faked his own drowning so the lifeguard, played by Marley Shelton, would perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him. The “Mystery Hour” audience screamed when adult Squints repeated his famous line, “Been plannin’ it for years.”
Comedian Orlando Leyba was another guest. Leyba has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and has an HBO special.
The third guest was local 8-year-old golfer Landon Nichols, who has a number of national tournaments under his belt. He and Houghton lobbed golf balls into the audience.
Like many great comedians, Houghton’s jokes are not funny entirely because of the words, but more so because of the delivery. Houghton worries about things like tug-of-war. “Shouldn’t it be war-of-tug?” He keeps his show family-friendly because, “Well, you know, Missouri.” It’s all in the delivery, the timing, facial expressions and the audience reaction. And the audience loves Houghton.
And, when it’s all over, there’s a two-block-long parade from the theater to the Hotel Vandivort for the after-party.
“When I look at the crowd, I see a community,” Houghton said. “I look at this thing we’ve created and how it celebrates this place we’re all in together, how people are happy together despite their differences. This is what it’s about.”
If you go
“The Mystery Hour” tapes eight times a season at the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield. (gillioztheatre.com). The next tapings are Nov. 30, Jan. 18 and Feb. 8. Tickets are $12-$14 (themysteryhour.com).
The Hotel Vandivort (hotelvandivort.com) is a sponsor of the show. Stop by Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe across the street from the hotel (gaileysbreakfast.com). The “Mystery Jeff” is a permanent menu item.
For more to do in Springfield, visit springfieldmo.org.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.