An Iowa City native is bringing his own talk show back home for the first time

'The Mystery Hour with Jeff Houghton'

The Englert Theatre, 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 24, $28-$53

Iowa City-native, Jeff Houghton, is the host of *The Mystery Hour with Jeff Houghton*, a Midwestern talk show. - Photo contributed by Jeff Houghton
Iowa City-native, Jeff Houghton, is the host of The Mystery Hour with Jeff Houghton, a Midwestern talk show. – Courtesy of Jeff Houghton

Stephen Colbert better watch his back. The Midwest has its own, homegrown talk show, and it’s hosted by an Iowa City native.

“We can do awesome things in the Midwest,” said Jeff Houghton, the host of a Springfield, Missouri-based talk show. “Sometimes we’re a little too humble.”

The Mystery Hour with Jeff Houghton is a program that started in 2012 before being syndicated on various stations around the country for 10 years. In 2021, The Mystery Hour refocused on live performance.

“So we do tour shows, but then we do a monthly show here [in Springfield] as well,” Houghton said. “We started out as a live show, so I like to say that we’re the only show that was pre-televised, televised and post-televised, and it just keeps going.”

This week, Houghton brings that touring version of The Mystery Hour to his hometown of Iowa City. The show is structured like a live talk show, including pre-recorded comedy videos, musical accompaniment – in this case from James Tutson and the Rollback – and special guests, including Mayor Bruce Teague.

The Englert Theatre will host the performance at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 24.

The last time Houghton came through Iowa City was in December, visiting family for the holidays, but this Englert engagement marks his first time performing in his hometown.

“I never did any sort of performing growing up outside of like, the house,” he said. “I never did a play in high school or college … I’ve never performed anything in Iowa City.”

Though he loved the idea of comedy growing up, Houghton felt too shy during his younger years to give it a shot, he explained. It wasn’t until after he interned with David Letterman on The Late Show and moved back to the Midwest that he started performing.

Jeff Houghton conducts an interview for his talk show. – Courtesy of Jeff Houghton

Houghton joined a local improv group when he moved to Springfield with his wife. After a few years of improv, Houghton and his group began holding performances using a talk-show format.

“[I] tried it, no cameras or anything, just for a live audience. And I got done with that first one, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, I love it, this is what I want to do,’” he recalled.

The show continued as a live, unfilmed performance for about five months. Over a year later, Houghton got on TV.

“We’d just call and e-mail stations across the country,” he said. “It’s entirely DIY, all these people coming together with all these different talents, and I was kinda the ringleader of it.”

Houghton estimates having 25 people on set for a weekly TV show. For touring performances, like this one, it’s a smaller operation, fewer than a dozen people at most.

Though Houghton doesn’t aim to compete with Colbert, he’s found a niche in the novelty of running a talk show from the middle of the country. He has previously pitched the show to different networks, but he enjoys the freedom of running his own operation,

“The only person in charge was me, so we got to do what we wanted,” he said.

That liberty led to unconventional episodes, like one where a man tried to fall asleep on a cot for the whole runtime while the program proceeded largely as normal. Or another episode where Houghton wore a helmet camera that the feed would cut to.

“We were definitely heavily influenced by the old Letterman Late Night days … when he would do fun, odd things just to do them,” Houghton said.

Tickets for the upcoming performance start at $28. Proceeds from the show will be donated to Inside Out Reentry Community, an Iowa City-based nonprofit that helps people who are exiting the corrections system to re-enter the community.

“It’s both a show and a fundraiser,” he said. “I’ll do an interview with Michelle Hienz [Inside Out’s executive director] … and learn about this awesome, Johnson County nonprofit.”