The Jeff Show.

Funny men Jeff Jenkins and Jeff Houghton each came to Springfield 10 years ago, barely knowing a soul. Together, these two men have built up Springfield’s comedy scene from nothing. They've created TV shows and improv theaters. After 10 years in the Ozarks, what happens next for Springfield's leading funny men?

It’s a Friday night in July, and downtown Springfield is buzzing. It’s hot, but there’s a breeze, and the cloudless sky makes for a beautiful evening. Parking is never an issue in this town, but tonight it’s nearly impossible to find a spot.

Restaurant patios are filled to capacity, young couples saunter aimlessly down the sidewalk and teenagers whiz by on skateboards and bikes. They’re all here for the First Friday Art Walk, an evening of original art, music, demonstrations and performances in and around 25 downtown galleries.

Springfield’s arts and entertainment scene typically flies under the radar, but on the first Friday of each month, the city’s talents are very much in the spotlight. In addition to the visual arts, musicians perform at the pavilion on the square, and local theaters tease their upcoming productions with brief performances and songs. If you hang out downtown on any other day of the month, it’s likely you wouldn’t even know such a scene exists in this town.

But above the crowded streets, hidden in the attic above an Italian restaurant, a different breed of entertainers are putting on a show. Two comedians from The Skinny Improv are staring at a screen hanging down over the stage. The Facebook page of one blushing audience member is projected for all to see, and the comics poke fun at its content, improvising scenes based around photos and wall posts.

Her Facebook page says she was in her high school’s color guard, which is enough to send the performers into a ridiculously elaborate 20-minute scene. They play multiple characters — a mother-daughter color guard duo, a dopey husband, a color guard rival, a dorky-sounding announcer. They use crazy voices and made-up accents, and together they build a scene that didn’t even exist 20 minutes earlier.

It sends the audience reeling with laughter. It’s the ultimate “you have to see it to understand it” situation, and that’s why people come: to see the these two men perform live, where nonsense like this becomes comedy gold.

10 years ago, no one in Springfield had ever heard of the two performers on stage. In fact, they hadn’t even heard of each other. Both were just faces in the crowd, two men with the same familiar-sounding name — Jeff — each trying to carve out a role in a new city. Neither grew up in the Ozarks, and neither spent much time in Branson, an entertainment-focused town an hour south of Springfield, home to legendary entertainers like Yakov Smirnov.

The Jeffs’ role models came instead from famous comedy hubs like Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, Groundlings in Los Angeles and Second City in Chicago, places where big names like Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Steve Carell got their start. [1] Those groups have been around for decades, and they’re located in cities with comedy clubs, big theaters and agents looking for the next great talent.

When the Jeffs moved to Springfield 10 years ago, this town didn’t have anything like that. But thanks to the two Jeffs, Springfield’s entertainment scene has started to grow beyond its underground roots. Neither improv theater nor comedy would have a place in this town if it weren’t for them.

Between the two of them, they’ve created many of Springfield’s firsts: The Skinny Improv, an improv comedy theater; a Shakespeare festival where one Jeff debuted his own hilariously quirky play that brings zombies into the world of the bard; “The Mystery Hour,” one Jeff’s late-night talk show; and the Springfield Playhouse, an interactive theater experience for children. They’ve also expanded Springfield’s stand-up comedy scene, and both have their own stand-up routines.

They’ve done a lot for this town in 10 years, but lately, they’ve started asking big questions about their own careers. Springfield’s helped take them this far. But is there something more for them beyond the boundaries of the Ozarks?

Or is this as big as it gets?

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Jeff Jenkins, standing, in "Hamlet vs. Zombies."
(At top) Jeff Houghton, left, and Jeff Jenkins, the men behind Springfield’s comedy scene. (Above) Jenkins, standing, in “Hamlet vs. Zombies.”

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The cell phone buzzes on the table. “Hold on,” he says. “I’m going to have to answer my phone several times.” His phone is always ringing, always interrupting conversations. But when you’re as busy as he is, that’s just what happens.

“Hello? Yes, it is The Skinny Improv. Yes you can. How many would you like?”

Jeff Jenkins, 40, hangs up and punches the information into his phone. He needs to hold two tickets for next Saturday’s main stage show.

“Where was I?”

Jenkins keeps the story going. He founded The Skinny Improv 10 years ago, when he moved to Springfield to finish school. He was 30, and he decided it was time to finish up his degree. “I was at the point in my life where I was single, no major bills, why not add some student debt?” Jenkins jokes.

In 1991, he had been kicked out of Evangel University — a Springfield university that bills itself as “intensely Christian” — for not attending chapel. He left Springfield and started seriously pursuing improv comedy. He spent five years honing his talent, including a year of traveling across the country doing improv.

Then he decided to try again at Evangel, enrolling in theater and psychology classes. [2] Jenkins was both the oldest guy in class and new in town, but he was used to the latter — his father was in the military, so Jenkins moved around a lot when he was growing up. He says it made putting down roots difficult, but it also made him quick to adapt to new situations.

“It helped me get to know people quicker and talk to people, because you kind of have to break down the walls pretty quick,” Jenkins says. “And I realized comedy was what people responded to.”

This move to Springfield was no different for Jenkins. He wanted to meet people and make friends, and he isn’t the type to sit around and wait for something to happen.

He started talking to students at Evangel, telling them about his past year in improv. He wanted to know if others at his school were interested in starting something in Springfield. It turned out a lot of people were, but they’d never had the opportunity to give improv a shot. That was good enough for Jenkins.

Inexperience didn’t phase him; in fact, he embraced it. As long as people had the right attitude, he could teach them the rest. He gathered together what he calls the “Original Nine” and started The Skinny Improv. [3] Little by little, he taught them what he knew and coached them on how to work a crowd.

Word in this town spread fast, and The Skinny started doing free shows for students every other Saturday at Evangel. [4] Soon, the theater was full at every show. Jenkins was onto something.

Jenkins had done this before — he’d started his first improv group in Dallas, where he performed for about a year. He calls the experience merely “OK.” Springfield was clearly different, and The Skinny was just the beginning.

“I always made people laugh,” Jenkins says. “And I never ever thought it would be a career.”

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Mystery Jeff Houghton, the other Jeff behind Springfield's comedy scene.
Mystery Jeff Houghton, the other Jeff behind Springfield’s comedy scene.

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While Jenkins was establishing what would quickly turn into the backbone of Springfield’s comedy scene, a 24-year-old Jeff Houghton was making the move from his hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, to a place he’d never been to before, all in the name of love.

His then-girlfriend, Michelle, was born and raised in Springfield. The two had been dating long distance for a year and a half, and it was time for Houghton to figure out if the relationship was going to last. [5]

With a two-year job commitment just wrapping up, [6] it seemed the perfect time for him to make the change. He packed his things, made the seven-hour trip south and moved into the basement of Michelle’s parents’ Springfield home. It was just a temporary solution until he could find a job and make enough money to pay rent at a place of his own. Houghton had a degree in communications and a certain boyish charm, so he figured he’d be able to lock down a job by the end of the month.

Almost a year later, though, Houghton was happy to be in Springfield, but still without full-time employment. He’d been substitute teaching and waiting tables, but it wasn’t enough to sustain him if he moved out of the basement. He applied for one last job and prepared to pack up and leave if it didn’t work out.

As luck would have it, Houghton got the job. He was hired as a donor recruiter field representative at the Community Blood Center of the Ozarks, where he worked closely with the Center’s volunteers. It looked like he would be staying put after all. He liked Springfield, but he still only knew a handful of people in town besides his girlfriend. He needed more of a social life.

Houghton, now 34, says everything came together “through a very fortunate lunch.”

A friend of Michelle’s family offered to take Houghton out for a meal to see how he was adjusting to the move. He brought along another friend, Brett Stockton, who was the same age as Houghton and happened to be looking for a second roommate.

Stockton “was my entry into whatever social life I have now, Skinny and everything,” Houghton says.

At the time, Houghton didn’t have enough money saved up to cover the rent, so Stockton agreed to hold the spot for him for a couple of months. Months passed, and Houghton still wasn’t ready to move in.

Stockton’s friends would ask about this new roommate, and he’d always tell them that Jeff would be moving in soon, but the date kept getting pushed pack. Stockton’s friends started to doubt that there even was a Jeff.

“So he and his friends started referring to me as this ‘Mystery Jeff,’” Hougton says. He eventually moved in, but the nickname stuck.

One of his new roommates, Chris Sturgeon, was a member of The Skinny Improv, so Houghton went out one night to see a show. Even though he’d never done improv before, he felt immediately drawn to what was happening on stage. “I watched it and I was like, Oh, I can’t just watch this. I can’t watch this without doing it,” Houghton says. “I think that’s when I was like, Oh, I need to figure out how I get into this.”

Houghton became fascinated by Springfield’s history with television. During the 1950s, Springfield was home to a surprising number of network TV shows. Branson, Mo., is just south of the city, and the stars of Branson would come to Springfield to tape shows like “Ozark Jubilee” and “The Eddy Arnold Show.” The city hadn’t been involved in many big TV productions since then, but Houghton was eager to get involved in any form of entertainment the city had to offer.

He started taking improv classes at The Skinny from Jenkins, who immediately recognized his talents.

“I realized very, very quickly, this guy’s very, very funny,” Jenkins says. “He’s so damn funny and so damn charming. Audiences love him.”

The Jeffs were the oldest members of the improv group, and they quickly became close. Before long, Houghton was performing on The Skinny’s main stage and teaching the classes he once took himself. Since everyone in The Skinny already knew Jenkins as Jeff, Houghton went by his new nickname, Mystery Jeff. People in Springfield’s entertainment community still call him that today.

“Springfield turned out to be the perfect place for me to move,” Houghton says. “Unbeknownst to me, there’s this improv group that’s then going to have a theater that’s made up of talented people, and I can join, and then become a part of it. And I felt very fortunate for that.”

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The Jeffs perform their original rap song, “8+”.

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It’s a Friday night at The Skinny Improv, on the corner of South Avenue and McDaniel Street, but it’s easy to miss the theater unless you look up. This past October, the troupe relocated above Nonna’s Italian American Café, the third downtown venue the theater has used since moving from its original home at Evangel University.

The space is a nice fit for an improv theater. It’s not too small, but just small enough to provide an intimate setting without feeling cramped. The 70 seats are almost all occupied for the eight o’clock show. Savory smells of Italian food waft up through the worn, dark wooden floorboards, and the echo of the hustle and bustle from the First Friday Art Walk outside sneaks in through the curtained windows as the audience members settle into their seats, talking excitedly.

The Jeffs are the headliners for the first of two sets that evening. They run on stage and introduce the premise for the show. They’ll be performing a series of short, completely improvised sketches, using everything from personal experiences to an audience member’s Facebook page for inspiration. They’ll be taking audience suggestions. They want people to cheer a lot.

The Jeffs take the first of their suggestions from the audience, and suddenly, they’re off and in character. Jenkins tucks his blond hair behind his ears and twirls a lock around his finger. He grins at Houghton, who insists to the audience that they’re a couple, that they “broke up” months ago and that he can’t see them getting back together. They can grab lunch anytime though — that is, if other people are coming along.

The scene is addressing the notion of the friend zone, and the Jeffs are doing their best to recreate an uncomfortable situation found in high schools across the country. Jenkins plays the role of a persistent high school girl, while Houghton is the guy trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. They’re selling the scene, but the more the audience gets into it, the harder it is for the two men to stay in character and keep a straight face.

Jenkins inches closer and closer to Houghton, stifling a laugh. Houghton appears unsure of where the scene is going, and he lets Jenkins take the lead.

The two are fast friends, and it’s clear from the way they interact on stage just how close they are in their everyday lives. [7] There’s a certain understanding between them that doesn’t happen overnight, and it allows for great comedy.

Amber Jones, Vice President of Operations at The Skinny Improv, has known the Jeffs since she started taking classes at The Skinny six years ago. She says she’s learned a lot from them both.

“They are amazing together,” Jones says. “They complement each other very well.”

Jenkins goes in for a kiss, the perfect dramatic ending to what is perhaps the group’s funniest scene of the night. The crowd eats it up, laughing and cheering. “How did I not see that coming?!” Houghton yells as he wipes his mouth.

The audience is still clapping as the music starts and the lights go down, signaling the end of the scene. The Jeffs share a quick look. They couldn’t be happier — making people laugh is what The Skinny is all about.

“When we’re on, I don’t think there’s anybody better,” Jenkins says. “I think when we click, when we do our show, we could hang with anybody from New York and Chicago and L.A.”

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When he first arrived in Springfield, Jenkins says it was because “I lost a bet.” He’s always joking around; it’s in his nature. “When I got here nobody really knew what [improv] was. There was no scene. It was … nothing.”

Chicago and Second City have always been in the back of Jenkins’ mind. He wasn’t planning on staying in Springfield long — just long enough to get his degree at Evangel. He wanted to eventually audition for “Saturday Night Live” or be a comedy writer, and he didn’t think he could do that here. But when he started The Skinny and it took off, he got comfortable with life in the Ozarks.

Within two years of the group’s first show, Jenkins started teaching classes at The Skinny as well as performing. [8] He also moved the troupe off Evangel’s campus to its first downtown location, in a basement. The Skinny’s success — and talent — was growing. It was making money from shows, but, more importantly, it started getting recognition.

“I think if there would have been a group that said, ‘Hey, we’re opening up a theater downtown, you should come out,’ it wouldn’t have done well,” Houghton says. “But since they had built up such a following and done so well before there was a theater, it was how it worked.”

The Skinny also had a secret weapon: Jenkins, and his passion for building a community around improv.

“Jeff’s super talented, in terms of improv and acting, but then also in terms of getting people excited about things and having new ideas,” Houghton says. “I think that’s really a strength of his … getting people around an idea and getting excited about it.”

The Skinny was mentioned in local publications, Jenkins was named GO Magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2007 and more new faces started showing up at shows.

Jones says part of Jenkins’ popularity is his charismatic nature and his ability to work with other people. “He really has a vision,” says Jones, “and he’s really good at inviting people into it.”

Over the years, the Skinny has built an improv-savvy crowd, a huge accomplishment for a town that previously had no experience with improv. Jenkins says today’s audience would have walked out on those early performances because they were so one-dimensional.

“Now it’s artistic,” he says. “Now it’s got some meat to it.”

Jenkins is clearly a teacher; he cares about helping people improve in what they do, including himself. He can’t help it, even when he’s performing. When a skit goes off track or a joke gets lost, Jenkins asks the audience, “Where did the wheels come off on that one?” He laughs, but he’s really asking the question to make his fellow comics think about what went wrong. It’s all about having fun, but improv’s still an art that he takes very seriously. He cares about comedy, and he cares about creating an experience that fans of The Skinny will keep coming back for.

“Your audience loves you because you know what you’re doing,” Jenkins says. “And it’s kind of a nice pat on the pack for everybody to say, ‘Hey, here we are in Springfield, Mo., and we kinda know, we’ve figured out what we’re doing.’”

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Jeff Jenkins as Horatio in "Hamlet vs. Zombies."
Jeff Jenkins as Horatio in “Hamlet vs. Zombies.”

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Success has come to Jenkins in part because he’s not afraid to take risks. If he wants to do something, he does it.

Once he got The Skinny off the ground, he didn’t stop there. He wanted to start a Shakespeare festival — something else new to Springfield — so he went ahead and did it.

“I didn’t ask anybody’s permission, didn’t really think it through,” he says. “I just said, ‘Boys, we’re putting a show up.’ And we did.” Now, six years later, it’s still going strong.

Then he wanted to write and produce a play, so he did. Jenkins teamed up with his close friend Bryant Turnage, and together they wrote and produced “Hamlet vs. Zombies,” a Shakespearean spoof with a monster twist. It was a hit in the Springfield community.

Jenkins’ remake answered the question that the Bard refused to answer: What would happen if Denmark was attacked by a zombie horde? Thanks to Jenkins and Turnage, now we know.

The play is filled with scene after scene of zombie movie references, sexual innuendoes, shoot-outs — and some actual Shakespeare, too.

“The thing I like about it is if you like Shakespeare, you’ll get it. If you like zombies, you’ll get it,” Jenkins says. “There are enough references for both camps of people.”

After success in Springfield, Jenkins wanted to take the show to festivals. So — in typical Jeff Jenkins fashion — he did. And it paid off. “Hamlet vs. Zombies” won Best of Fringe at the 20th Annual San Francisco Fringe Festival, a title usually snagged by a show from a New York or California stage.

“Everybody was excited,” he says. “It was really cool, and you know, we didn’t have a lot of people at the beginning come to see us, just staff and volunteers. Nobody knew us, we’re from Springfield and, you know, then they started telling people and started talking to people and we started having really, really good houses.” [9]

Turnage says Jenkins is great to work with because of his knack for directing. With “Hamlet vs. Zombies” Turnage did most of the writing while Jenkins took care of the body language, character development and staging of it all.

“He will work hard to get a production up. He believes in theater,” Turnage says. “He loves making people laugh. He has some good ideas and he will do what he can to make them come to fruition.”

Jenkins has also been successful because of the culture in Springfield. It’s the perfect place to take risks in because it’s full of people willing to support locals who do stick their necks out. In 2009, The Skinny came 12 hours away from filing for bankruptcy and shutting everything down. To prevent the theater from closing, a friend stepped in and helped it get back on its feet.

Most comedy in this town stems directly from The Skinny. That stage is important to the people of Springfield, and they don’t want to see it go.

“Everybody knows The Skinny,” Turnage says. “And everybody knows Jeff.”

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An improv game from The Skinny, called “Buzz,” and featuring the Jeffs.

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Although he’s been with The Skinny since its early days at Evangel, Hougton’s recently found a new calling card in Springfield. He is the host of “The Mystery Hour,” a Springfield-centric late-night talk show.

The show — a spinoff on Houghton’s nickname, Mystery Jeff — began in Nov. 2006. It’s grown a lot since then. At the start, even though it looked a lot like other TV talk shows, “The Mystery Hour” wasn’t broadcast on television. The show started as a live, untelevised production in front of an audience at The Skinny’s theater space. The entire thing was run off of an iPod.

One of the guests on Houghton’s first show was Doug Harpool, who was running for Missouri State Senate at the time. [10] Unbeknownst to Houghton, a political science professor at Missouri State found out about the show and offered extra credit points to his students if they attended. As a result, “The Mystery Hour’s” first show had a packed house.

“So after that show was done, I was just on a high,” Houghton says. “I was like, Oh, this is it for me.”

Houghton started putting on the production once a month, with each show featuring guest interviews, a musical act and various comedy sketches. Jenkins has been an occasional player on the show. In one memorable bit, Jenkins donned a sirt and a wig to portray Missouri senator Claire McCaskill.

So sometimes the show has gotten weird. But Houghton has found a way to blend that weirdness with real discussions from local guests who just want to reach a larger audience.

“One of my thoughts with ‘The Mystery Hour’ has always been, Let me find these cool things and bring them to the surface a little bit,” Houghton says. “Because there are secretly a lot of talented people here.”

Michelle Houghton — the woman who first brought Houghton to Springfield, and who later became his wife — says the show has been a neat way for the couple to meet people in the community and to be in the know about what is going on. She also says it’s the perfect creative outlet for Houghton.

“It’s like everything that he wanted to do,” she says. “He’s got this crazy creative mind. He would just pour his energy into writing these sketches.”

Houghton has always made fun of “The Mystery Hour” as a fake TV show that he created to make himself feel important. But after five years, the show made a big change this year: They added cameras. This spring, it became a bona fide late-night talk show that airs Saturdays at 11 p.m. on KOZL-TV.

“It’s crazy,” Houghton says, ”but it’s a dream come true that I have a late-night talk show, even if it’s on local TV.”

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Jeff Houghton and Barry Williams on an August taping of "The Mystery Hour." Williams is holding up a sign that reads, "Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Iowa."
Jeff Houghton and Barry Williams on an August taping of “The Mystery Hour.” Williams is holding up a sign that reads, “Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Iowa.”

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Moving to TV wasn’t easy for Houghton. At their first taping back in April, Houghton’s wireless microphone started picking up feedback from an old radio station’s nearby transmitter. Once that audio problem was solved, a torrential downpour began outside the studio — which doubles as a local artist’s downtown art studio and gallery — and the sound of rain on the ceiling drowned out the guests. Nothing seemed to be going right.

The Aug. 10 taping brought back some frustrating memories from that first night of taping.

Houghton’s first guest was Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” and who now has his own show in Branson. But Williams was running late, and he was sick with a bad cold. On top of that, the technical difficulties piled up. Everything that could go wrong with the mics or the lighting seemed to go wrong.

Every seat in the studio was taken, and Houghton and his crew whipped out some improv to entertain the audience while the staff backstage put together an alternate plan. The audience was laughing, but they also started getting restless — and so did Houghton. He runs the show, securing guests and writing material with the small staff that he hired. He found a student from nearby Ozarks Technical Community College to direct episodes.

Getting everything set up for tapings isn’t easy, so “The Mystery Hour” tapes a month of episodes in a single night. There were four different guests backstage, but Barry Williams wasn’t one of them. They called Williams and found that he was en route to Springfield. Houghton decided to move their second guest up to the first slot, and they got the show rolling 45 minutes late.

Through all of the unforeseen issues and technical snags, Houghton somehow managed to keep his cool. He got agitated, sure, but he stayed remarkably focused and calm throughout the four tapings. There were a couple points throughout the night when he had to step into the back room alone and regroup, but he kept the show on track as best he could, always with a smile on his face

The first 30-minute taping went relatively smoothly. He ran through his nightly monologue, which he calls “Things I’ve Noticed.” He played a pre-taped fake TV ad campaign for President of Springfield, and a video of auditions for the role of “Mystery Hour” sidekick. [11] The guest was Dan Reiter, the director of sales and marketing at the Springfield Cardinals, and he was a good sport about moving up a slot. Musical guests Hamburger Cows, a bluegrass Springfield band, performed two songs — one for the first episode, and then another that would later be added to a second episode. [12]

Hamburger Cows lead guitarist Bo Brown has known Houghton for years. Like most who know him, Brown says Houghton’s a natural when it comes to entertainment. He shook his head and smiled as the team got the show back on track, “And that’s why it’s called The Mystery Hour.” Just like anything in the entertainment business, you never know what is going to happen.

The worst happened when Williams finally took the stage for the second episode. He was on “The Mystery Hour” to promote his Branson show, “Lunch with the Brady Bunch.” In the middle of the interview, his lapel mic went out. Houghton cringed for a split second in disbelief, but then a crewmember handed Williams a new microphone, and the show continued. Williams smiled and said that the mic made it look like he was eating an ice cream cone.

“I had a great time – until my mic went out,” Williams joked afterward

Still, Houghton pressed on. He whipped out a story about the first time he met Williams — yes, he’s met him before, he revealed to a surprised audience. He was a freshman in college at the University of Northern Iowa, and Williams had visited the campus to speak. Houghton had his photo taken with the TV star, and when he brought it to him to sign, he asked for a rather odd message. He wanted Greg Brady to write, “Jeff, corduroy pants they feel like sweatpants,” because it was his first experience wearing corduroy pants, and that’s what they felt like to him.

Williams had asked Houghton to get back in line and think of something better. So, Houghton returned and asked him to write, “Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Northern Iowa.” Williams did sign the picture, but he didn’t write either phrase, and he didn’t think he’d ever see the kid again — let alone be a guest on that kid’s TV show 15 years later.

Now, on this August night in Springfield, Houghton kindly requested that William write one of the two phrases on a piece of paper. Williams obliged, laughing, and wrote, “Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Iowa.” It no longer made sense, but that was the beauty of it. The crowd laughed at the spectacle of it all.

“I haven’t felt this good since I was surfing with the Bradys in Hawaii and I got a glimpse of Marcia standing on the beach in a bikini,” Williams said.

After everything that had gone wrong during the taping, Houghton still managed to get the famous Barry Williams on the show and make him laugh. It had been a stressful night, but throughout it all, he was able to keep smiling.

It all came back to the fact that Houghton loves what he does. And that he’s damn good at it, too.

“I love the fact that I have a TV show that’s filmed downtown now. It’s local, but I think Springfield has an interesting history in that way,” Houghton says. “Now you can go downtown and see a TV show.”

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The Jeffs in a parody ad for “The Mystery Hour,” titled, “Absraham Lincoln, Ab Emancipator.”

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Although he says Springfield turned out to be the perfect fit, Houghton wasn’t always so certain.

Like Jenkins, Houghton isn’t afraid to take risks. He says a lot of what has motivated him to try so many new things over the past decade is his mantra: “I got to go see about this.”

After graduating college, Houghton landed an internship at “The Late Show With David Letterman” in the talent department in New York City. He assisted with guest bookings and learned to take care of guests while they were on the show, and he did get to be in a few sketches, he says. During the internship, Houghton got a taste for big cities, and it stuck in the back of his mind.

So when he found himself in a small town in the middle of the Ozarks, he couldn’t help but wonder if he might have been able to hang with the marquee names had he stayed in the big city.

“I’m always fairly adventurous, and so I always want to go on to the next adventure,” Houghton says. “And for me, it’s more of a challenge to feel settled than it is to go on an adventure.”

Two summers ago, Houghton and his wife started to talk seriously about starting a family. Both of them knew that once they had kids, Houghton wouldn’t have the chance to give his big city dream a shot. “So I was like, OK, I gotta go see about this,” Houghton says. L.A. is the center of the television universe, so he decided to go west.

He didn’t want to make Michelle quit her job or sell their house, so the couple agreed that he would move out there for one year and see what came of it. Houghton says the worst thing about the whole adventure was seeing Michelle standing in the driveway as he was pulling away. [13]

Houghton started a daily blog called The Mystery Year to keep a record of his time in L.A. It also served as a place where friends and family could check in to see how he was doing. He posted one entry each day for an entire year, documenting his personal journey. From bombing an audition to rocking a stand-up routine to landing a part as an extra in Mad Men to missing Michelle, he recorded it all.

One of the things Houghton discovered in L.A. is that there are a lot of rules when it comes to creative content. For example, you need to get a permit in order to film anywhere, and the costs of those permits add up quickly. He also learned that in order to be taken seriously, he had to become part of the Screen Actors Guild, which is not easy or cheap.

More importantly, though, he began to fully understand the power of connections.

“I think here, it’s about opportunity,” Houghton says of Springfield. “For me, because I feel fairly well-connected at this point, if I have an idea, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll call this guy to do this and I’ll call that guy to do that’ … In L.A. I was like, ‘OK I have this idea, how do I even start on this?’”

Springfield’s comedy scene isn’t on the national map yet, and until a local performer breaks through onto a big TV show or theater production, a stage like The Skinny will remain a regional name. Still, Houghton says The Skinny Improv sticker on his bag got a couple of head nods out west. In his time in L.A., a few people told him they knew of the theater, and they were excited to meet someone who’d performed there.

But that just reiterated for Houghton that he belonged in Missouri, not Hollywood. He says the thing that makes him unique in Springfield — doing comedy and improv — didn’t stand out L.A. He knew he had to come home.

“So instead of moving away and going [somewhere else] to have these things that I want, where I’m just a little guy going to other people’s things, I can create them here and bring those things that I would love to have if I lived in a big city to here,” Houghton says. “Because there’s enough talent to support it and there’s the community support to support it.”

It was a strange realization. Houghton had to move from L.A. to Springfield to get his own TV show, not the other way around.

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The Jeffs, on the stage of The Skinny Improv, in the attic of an Italian restaurant downtown.
The Jeffs, on the stage of The Skinny Improv, in the attic of an Italian restaurant downtown.

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Just as he was 10 years ago, Jenkins is at a turning point in his life. He is recently divorced and recently without a full-time job. He’d been selling copiers during the day, but apparently you have to be passionate about copiers to sell them, he says. He’s also taking a bit of a break from performing on The Skinny’s main stage.

He’s still happy, still relaxed, still funny, but for a while now, Jenkins has been asking himself if it’s time to leave Springfield. He’s still not sure. If there was ever a time to make a move, it’d be now, without a family to keep him here or a career to tie him down.

Houghton tried the L.A. scene and ended up happier back in Springfield. But that hasn’t kept Jenkins from wondering if a move to a big city might be right for him.

“There’s always the question of, ‘Could I compete and hang and do it? Could I be successful?’” Jenkins says. “Because being in Springfield, there’s a comfortability here, you know. Artistically, I have a lot of license, a lot of freedom.”

If he were to stay in Springfield, he would consider opening a stand-up comedy club. “The town doesn’t have one, and I think they’re ready,” Jenkins says.

Houghton says Jenkins is the godfather of Springfield comedy, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that. But creating something — in Jenkins’ case, multiple things — from scratch takes a lot of work, and it can be exhausting.

“It’s really awesome that Springfield has an improv theater,” Houghton says. “Big cities can’t always sustain it, and so for a city the size of Springfield to sustain it is pretty amazing.”

Jenkins is the man who started it all and, with help from the community and his fellow improv perforfmers, has kept it all going. He’s taught improv students how to meld snappy one-liners with fully developed scenes to create an artistic, hilarious — and occasionally intelligent — form of comedy that keeps Springfieldians coming back. He says it would be tough to let it all go and move on to something new, but if he’s going to do it, now would be the best time.

Jenkins calls each scene a “living, breathing thing” and says “if you listen to it, it will tell you where it’s going.” He’s been trying to listen to the scenes playing out in his own life and figure out where they’re leading him. For now, he’s auditioning for shows around town and down in Branson to see if anything sticks. He still has Chicago on his mind, but nothing’s standing out just yet. All he’s certain of is that whatever happens next, comedy will play a role.

“I’ve been doing it 10 years, you know,” Jenkins says. “I’ve been doing improv almost every weekend for the last 10 years. And I love it.”

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In 10 years, the Jeffs have experienced an eerily parallel set of changes.

Houghton was a restless kid who wanted to get out of Springfield and move to Hollywood to make it big. Now, he’s doing what he loves right here, and he’s planning on sticking around.

Jenkins quickly grew comfortable in Springfield and made a name for himself establishing a scene. Now, he feels like his work here is possibly done. He wants to move on to bigger and better things, to explore his options elsewhere.

Neither had planned to stick around for more than a couple of years, yet here they still are. Springfield has this strange power to draw people in and keep them here. It’s growing and changing, and for people like the Jeffs, it’s the perfect place to build a fanbase and a community.

After all the change they’ve brought to this town, now is a time of personal change for each of them. They’re both doing what they’ve always done on stage — making it up as they go along, and trying to make something people love in the process.

Their futures are uncertain, but one thing is for certain: No matter where the scene takes them, Springfield will always have their backs.

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