The Mystery Hour's Jeff Houghton and Nate Black perform on stage. (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

The Mystery Hour has been a staple of locally produced Springfield entertainment for well over a decade now. From its humble beginnings in 2004 as a small basement improv comedy show, it went on to become something that could be found nowhere else in the Midwest: a full-scale, televised, late-night talk show, complete with guests, music, skits, sponsors and huge studio audiences. 

By the time the TV show wrapped production around the middle of last year, it had 225 television episodes broadcasted in 17 different markets across the country and four Emmy wins under its belt.

Much of the show’s success, according to creator and host Jeff Houghton, can be contributed to the local community.

Jeff Houghton (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

“You can do cool things here,” says Houghton of Springfield. “Obviously, other TV shows are super well-funded, you’ve got people on set, and that’s all you need. With us, it only works with community — people chipping in in different ways. That’s the basis of how you can do something cool where you are— a bunch of people adding different stuff and supporting each other.”

Now, in 2022, The Mystery Hour is ready to resume producing regular content — but this time, with a smaller, more intimate feel.

A revival of improv, intimate and in-person shows

It’s a full crowd at La Habana Vieja. (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

“We grew it into this big thing, and I loved doing it,” says Houghton. “But for me, when the pandemic started, it was the first time I’d slowed down in years. It gave us a chance to re-evaluate. I needed to slow my life down. TV is awesome, but it just kind of felt right in a lot of different ways.”

The question at hand, then, was what direction to take The Mystery Hour next. How could he and his crew continue to use the show’s core elements — live performances, witty comedy and creative videos — on a smaller scale? 

“I feel like I recently came out of my pandemic slumber, like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do things again. I gotta keep it going,’” he says.

Fans around the Ozarks were given a taste of just what a scaled-down Mystery Hour could be like with a series of “pop-up” shows. Houghton and his crew would occasionally take The Mystery Hour “on the road” to different locations like Pappy’s Place BBQ, Pythian Castle and even the Owen Theater, tucked away in the quaint little town of Seymour. 

“It was fun creatively trying new places, seeing what we could do,” he says.

“Over the years, I’ve always kind of put a pin in places in my mind. I’d love to just do pop-up shows all over the place all the time. It’s beneficial for us, for the venue and the crowds. I like shining a spotlight on people and places. It really brings me joy.”

The Mystery Hour performs at La Habana Vieja. (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

The Mystery Hour’s new home

One such location in particular that stood out to Houghton was La Habana Vieja over on Commercial Street. On first visiting the local Cuban restaurant for lunch, he was impressed by its back room, featuring a large stage and lighting fixtures. It would be the perfect place for a series of smaller shows. They performed a pop-up show there in February that acted as a sort of “pilot” for what this new incarnation of the show would become. Then on Sept. 16, they started official regular shows at the restaurant.

La Habana Viejas on C-Street. (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

It will certainly be a more intimate show than what has been typical for Houghton and crew over the past decade, a small venue that seats around 60 people as opposed to crowds upwards of 900 at the Gillioz. “What’s fun is, 60 people in a room that seats 60 feels amazing,” says Houghton. “It’s all related to how much capacity there is. We love that feel of a small, packed audience.”

A large focus of this new version of The Mystery Hour will be on improvisational comedy as opposed to scripted. “Doing it in an improvised way makes a lot of sense for all of us involved to just kind of get that itch scratched with performing and feeling that connection with a crowd of people,” says Houghton. The show will begin with short-form improv, followed by a guest interview, then a long-form improv piece — typically around 45 minutes — based on said interview. Finally, a musical guest will bring the show to a close. Future shows may try to incorporate the video skits that the crew is well known for producing.

“Short-form improv is like a game, like ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ Houghton explains. “It’s some sort of construct you’ve got to play within. Long-form is, like, just a one-word suggestion, and you’ll go off of that, creating your own scenes. There’s no guardrails or things set up. When it’s not done well, it feels very long. When it’s done well, it feels awesome. It’s all about teamwork, you and whoever else is involved, playing off of each other. It’s all based on having trust and support with who you’re performing with.”

Moving away from online-only content, to ‘you had to be there’ shows

The audience at La Habana Vieja. (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

Trust and support won’t be in short supply at these performances. After all, the show features most of the same Mystery Hour cast and crew that Houghton has been working with for many years now, all seasoned pros at their craft. “Most all of us that performed at The Mystery Hour have an improv background,” he says. “We all love it. There might be a few new faces, but people will recognize most everybody.” 

In a sense, this new show brings Houghton and his friends full circle, back to the simpler days when The Mystery Hour was a small improv-based show.

“In the early days, it was partially scripted, partially improvised,” says Houghton. “Then it became entirely scripted to the minute, because we were on TV and had to hit our times. This is kind of like a new incarnation of it, taking elements of both of those. We aren’t recording anything, putting it up online. What I’m really into right now is the kind of ‘you had to be there’ feel of it. That’s what’s super fun about an improv show. You tell the jokes you saw at an improv show the next day, they don’t make any sense. Comedy will all be made up on the spot, then we’ll have an interview with a cool person doing something cool. Just a cool moment one night in a back room.”

The future is flexible

Houghton doesn’t know what form The Mystery Hour might take beyond the initial handful of smaller shows, but with the fluidity that its new format allows, the sky is the limit, and the ideas are plentiful. 

The Mystery Hour performs. (Photo: Matt Loveland Photography)

“Good business owners are able to pivot quickly. I pivot slowly,” he says with a laugh. “Throughout the past couple of years, I have had a million different ideas, and I’m just starting to pursue them… I think the idea now is to keep the monthly improv shows as our base, kind of see how it goes the next few months, then after that, kind of branch out, maybe do occasional bigger shows or some pop-up shows in brand new places again… 

“One of the elements was seeing my performing friends again, having a time we’ll all get together once a month and see people, reconnecting with all that.”

It’s been a long, winding, and entertaining road for The Mystery Hour and Houghton’s career so far. In a popular YouTube video posted several years ago called Make Something Where You Are, he talks about the importance of chasing your dreams, making the most of what you have, and not being afraid to take leaps of faith. Those aren’t just empty words.

Looking at The Mystery Hour’s history, there’s no question that he has lived them, starting up a small improv show, transforming it into a televised late-night talk show in the middle of the country, bringing it to a close, and now bringing it back in a smaller, more intimate format. “We’re the only show I know of that was pre-televised, televised, and post-televised,” he says.

The Mystery Hour has upcoming shows at La Habana Vieja restaurant on Friday, October 14, November 18, and December 16. Tickets can be purchased online at themysteryhour.com.

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Paul Cecchini

Paul Cecchini is a freelance writer, aspiring author and award-winning former editor of the Mansfield Mirror newspaper (the Missouri one, not the Texas one). His writing mantra is that everyone has a story, and he’s always on the lookout for the next one to tell. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @peachykeeny or view a sampling of his published work at muckrack.com/peachykeeny. More by Paul Cecchini