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Jeff Houghton takes “The Mystery Hour” stage to huge applause at the Gillioz Theatre. The first of three taped episodes is about to begin.
Jeff Houghton takes “The Mystery Hour” stage to huge applause at the Gillioz Theatre. The first of three taped episodes is about to begin.

Day in the Life with Jeff Houghton

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“The Mystery Hour” is a whirlwind of entertainment with Jeff Houghton at its nucleus.

Taping three episodes at a time, today includes the season five finale and Houghton’s already running late.

At 10 a.m., Hite Media Productions is inside the Gillioz Theatre for setup, and the show’s six load-in volunteers are carting set pieces from storage across Olive Street.

Houghton rolls up at 11:21 a.m. in his green Honda Accord wearing a Joshua Tree National Park T-shirt and Nikes. The host was up until 2:30 the night before working out jokes, cobbling together props and consulting his bright orange moleskin-like notebook.

Houghton is a list maker, and the day’s list has just begun.

“It’s going to be pure craziness around here in a couple hours. You’ll probably see me in my underwear at some point,” he says.

Piled in through the loading dock door, Houghton sorts props – a picket sign reading “Your show sucks,” a 1970s wig, various ties – but he can’t find the crucial prop he’s seeking: a pair of size 52 black dress pants he just picked up at a thrift store. The pants are integral to the third skit of the night.

Although it’s 15 minutes before his scheduled lunch at The Order with show guest Maribeth Monroe – of “Workaholics” and “The Brink” – Houghton has to run home for the pants.

Post lunch – which he was late for after running home near Mercy Hospital – the funnyman is back at the Gillioz by 2 p.m. for rehearsal. Houghton is an improv man, but behind the scenes everything is carefully coordinated to produce the optimal environment for organic laughter. Tonight is the show’s first themed episode – a sleepover. The final guest was billed as “Eric Donovan, amazing local entrepreneur,” but in reality it’s Houghton and longtime friend Nate Black dressed in a three-legged suit – hence the oversized pants.

“I made that name up,” Houghton says. “I wanted it to sound respectable, yet intriguing.”

Houghton has a pair of replacement pants in hand with an idea to cut them in half and create a third leg. But the waist is only 46 inches.

The friends manage to jam one leg each into the pants, but the shirt and jacket combo proves less inviting. Still sweaty from a brisk walk to Hotel Vandivort to retrieve Houghton’s car, the improv actors now are crammed into a triple extra-large shirt.

“You’re so moist right now,” Houghton says of Black’s armpit pressed against his neck. The results are hysterical, yet not functional. By tonight, they will have worked out a solution – no shared pants, cut the jacket down the back – but now it’s time to check another item off the list. The evening’s first guest is “joggler” Chris Essick, and show writer’s have a grand idea for a street-side performance ala David Letterman’s skits along Broadway.

By 4:30 p.m., Houghton is headed across the street where friend and Dapper owner Sean Brownfield has a chair ready. Brownfield provides hair styling for the cast and wardrobe consulting for Houghton. As Brownfield cuts, Houghton goes over his list.

Official hair and makeup begins an hour before the show. The dressing room/makeup studio/green room in the Gillioz basement is buzzing. Monroe is ready to go – in a red floral dress spontaneously purchased at Five Pound Apparel that day.

Houghton is in Cara Griffen’s chair, and the airbrushing has begun.

“We have to do my hands and ankles now,” Houghton said. “People noticed when my face was tan and my ankles were freakishly white.”

As 7:30 rolls around, Houghton is pacing the Gillioz stage. Hair done, suit on, list checked – he’s about to go live, and he’s nervous. The curtain opens. Blindingly bright stage lights shine through. The crowd cheers. It’s showtime.

Things are going smoothly until Essick heads outside for his jogging while juggling skit. Houghton’s waiting and waiting, but he’s nowhere to be found. They stall for time, eventually having to cut taping as Black frantically searches. Turns out, Essick went back stage to change first – a detail nobody told Houghton. Taping resumes.

The moments between episodes are efficient chaos. The all-purpose room is full of guests, staff and friends forcing Houghton to change just outside in the hallway. The organized dash is a tornado of tie options from Brownfield, makeup touch-ups and last-minute props.
 
Monroe kills the second episode. She’s quirky, funny and the audience loves that she accidently cussed on-air. The audience is in stiches for Houghton and Black’s two-headed man routine.

And just like that, it’s over.

In Houghton’s favorite moment of the night, he helps lead an audience parade around 10:45 to Hotel Vandivort for the after-party. Hours later, writers and crew gather at The Brick Slice House for pizza.

The episodes will air over the next few weeks, but Houghton already is thinking of next season. A late-night talk show in Springfield shouldn’t work, but somehow the nucleus keeps it all going.

“When nobody is telling us what to do, we can do whatever we want,” Houghton says.

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