NEW YORK CITY — Inside the Manhattan Center on Friday night, the dean of "Saturday Night Live" comedians couldn't stop laughing as he delivered a joke written by Matt Meese while taping a "Studio C" comedy sketch before a live studio audience of 1,500 screaming fans.
A night earlier, Billy Joel played a sold-out show around the corner at Madison Square Garden, "the world's most famous arena." Down the street, the nearby Empire State Building classed up the skyline over New York's bustling, food-cart-lined streets. The city's air offered a mixture of aromas from honey-roasted peanuts, chicken kebab pitas and pretzels to the exhaust of delivery trucks and midtown Manhattan traffic.
In other words, on Friday night BYUtv's "Studio C" had arrived in the place that proves you can make it anywhere.
"The caliber of the material they're doing is so good," said Kenan Thompson, the 15-year "Saturday Night Live" veteran who hosted Friday's "Studio C" show and joined two sketches with the cast a month after he landed his first Emmy nomination. "They do so many different premises, and all of their stuff is easily watchable and easily laughable. It's so family friendly. You can just enjoy the pureness of it, because it is funny, from A to Z.
"That's what I've taken away from this. They're great."
But Studio C's arrival here was also a farewell. Friday night was the final taping of BYUtv's runaway hit show with the original cast. Though Friday's episode will air as the premiere of season 9 on BYUtv on Sept. 10, the cast wrote and taped the rest of the season earlier this year.
After six years and nine seasons, they'll still do some editing and audio work through the rest of the year, then Meese and the other nine original cast members will head out on their own. A new cast will take their place for season 10.
The turnover raises questions about the future of BYUtv's No. 1 show, its original cast and their replacements. Can "Studio C" continue to to be the centerpiece of the network's lineup without Meese, Mallory Everton, Jeremy Warner and the rest of the original cast? Can those cast members succeed without "Studio C?" And just who will replace them?
"This was the end and the beginning," said Tori Pence, who joined the cast a couple of years ago and will be part of the new cast for season 10. "It's goodbye, love you all, and now the next group of us will keep going. It's such a weird feeling."
Pence regularly hangs out at the homes of the original cast members, a younger product of Brigham Young University's Divine Comedy club that spawned "Studio C" in 2012. Divine Comedy is the closest thing the school has to a fraternity in terms of the closeness of its alumni, Meese said.
Still, Meese and the others haven't told Pence what they'll do next.
"They whisper, whisper, whisper," she said, laughing. "They're real tight-lipped about it, because that's more exciting. It feels like Christmas is coming. I can't wait to find out what they're going to do next."
What they're not going to do is break up the band, said Stephen Meek, one "Studio C" original who married another, Whitney Call. The couple has three children. All 10 original cast members will continue to work as a team, moving ahead without the show.
Their fans won't have to wait long for their next move.
"We'll have a lot more content coming out, sooner than most people think," Meek said.
They can't yet say what exactly they'll do and where fans will be able to find it, although they said they will use multiple channels to provide it.
"I can tell you that the fans are gonna be happy with what we're doing, and it's not going to be one thing," Meese said. "If they like "Studio C," they'll like what we're gonna do next, and we'll expand on what we've done before."
He offered a few details. For one, they'll do more parodies.
"We've done some parody sketches, but we haven't done any music parodies," Meese said. "I think those are on the horizon."
They'll also do more topical comedy because they will be able to conceive, tape and distribute their performances faster. "Studio C" episodes usually are taped six months before they air. The cast has longed to move quicker.
"We want to do some of that humor that capitalizes on what's hot in popular culture," he said.
The bottom line is flexibility, Meek added.
"Right now "Studio C" takes up every ounce of our time," he said. "The ability to do a lot of other content, whatever that may be — sitcoms, more short-form content, films — everybody has a lot of ideas. We'll go a lot of different directions."
BYUtv doubles down
BYUtv is making a larger bet on "Studio C" even as the cast turns over. The show has been such a hit, said Michael Dunn, managing director of BYU Broadcasting, that BYUtv has multiple additional clean comedies in production to surround "Studio C" in the network's lineup.
"We decided if there's fish, let's fish," he said. "Let's build other comedy shows to support it."
Before, "Studio C" might have been followed by a nature program, which made Dunn cringe.
"I can feel 150,000 TV sets clicking off with all those kids," he said. Kids, along with their parents, are BYUtv's target audience.
Unfortunately, the new shows aren't ready this fall to run alongside the original cast's final season. However, they will be ready when season 9 repeats in the spring and for season 10 and the new cast in fall 2019.
Dunn said the cast's decision to leave didn't surprise him. He admitted it did cause one moment of angst.
"Yeah," he said, "it was, wow, this is the franchise."
But that was fleeting.
"I'm not nervous, I'm optimistic," he said. "I'm excited, only because we're not starting from scratch. The formula is there, the recipe is there. What we have to do is plus it, find that talent and mold it into what people will think of as season 10."
Pence will return. So will Dalton Johnson, a BYU student who is another recent addition to the cast. A casting call is underway for "creative, hilarious and talented" people. The online form requires only a few details from applicants before providing a space for answers to these two questions: "What's yer talent?" and "Blimey! Prove ye're meant for this."
"The concept of 'Studio C' is so airtight, so time-tested, we know we have a hit on our hands," Dunn said. "We just have to get the right people in the right seats. This is truly a win-win. It gives this great cast a new opportunity."
Who/what is next?
Dunn inherited "Studio C" when he took over BYU Broadcasting more than a year ago. He knew the original cast, which also includes Jason Gray, James Perry, Natalie Madsen, Stacey Harkey and Adam Berg, wouldn't be around forever.
"With great talent like this, there's a restlessness," he said. Seeing them leave is like seeing a son or daughter go to college.
"That they stayed together this long is really a miracle," Dunn said. "'Saturday Night Live' has been a hit for 42 years and it's just been a revolving door of comic geniuses that's come through there. I can't even imagine SNL with the same core cast for seven years."
That's actually what Meese imagined after he gave BYUtv execs tickets to a Divine Comedy show and pitched it as a TV show.
"From day one my hope was 'Studio C' would not die with the original cast," he said. "My hope was that it would transform into a 'Saturday Night Live' model with new cast members arriving constantly. As seasons passed and the cast stayed the same, I thought, it's going to get harder and harder. I never thought we'd leave all together."
The original cast will be watching the new cast next year.
"I deeply care whether it succeeds or fails," Meese said.
As for fans, he hopes they will continue to watch the show and whatever the original cast will be called when it launches its new path.
"I hope they continue to watch 'Studio C,'" Meese said, "and I hope they continue to watch the people they loved on 'Studio C.'"
Pence is ready. One sketch on Friday night included her, Johnson and Aaron Fielding, another recent addition who might stay with the show.
"Even 'Studio C' fans don't recognize us," Pence cracked during the bit. That's not true, but it was a smart inside gag on the upcoming transition.
"There's a bit of, ooh (I can't believe they're leaving)," Pence said, "but there's also an, ohh, I get to do something new here."
There's little time to waste. Usually the cast starts writing in September for the next season, finishes in February and films from March to August. "It takes a solid year," she said.
She said filming may be a little delayed for season 10, since Dunn said the cast may not be solidified until year's end.
"I think it'll be a bit of an adjustment period," Meese said, "but I'm confident they'll make really fun stuff and some of it will be different."
Dunn is confident, too. It didn't hurt that nearly 3,000 people bought tickets to the tapings on Friday night, including the Martells, a family of three that drove 10 hours from Belleville, Michigan, on Thursday.
"I burst into tears when my mom told me we had tickets," said Amelia Martell, 13, who found "Studio C" when they collaborated with some of her favorite YouTubers, Brooklyn and Bailey. Only later did she learn the family had BYUtv on its cable system.
"I'm so grateful for the way (the original cast) raised the bar so high in sketch comedy," Dunn said. "They've put a marker in the ground and we now own that. Our next task is to elevate that and leverage that with the next cast."
For now, it's a mystery where the 10 who are leaving will get their paychecks come January, after their contracts end.
"It's like when I became a father for the first time," said Warner, who is known for his bush mustache. "I was super scared. Then you hold the kid and think, 'I can figure this out.' I'm pretty even-keel. I'm a cool 73 degrees.
"We'll probably have some fun singing karaoke. Probably a lot of Abba and Toad the Wet Sprocket. You like Toad the Wet Sprocket, don't you?"