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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Matt Meese laughs between takes on set of the series "Freelancers" in Provo on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.

PROVO — “Am I going to play teenagers on a sketch comedy show until I’m 60?”

Natalie Madsen said thoughts like this began percolating toward the end of her run on “Studio C.” BYUtv’s sketch comedy show quickly became the network’s crown jewel, and over its first six years turned Madsen and her castmates into some of Utah’s most recognizable entertainers. They appeared on Conan O’Brien’s late night show “Conan,” and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even hosted the cast on a worldwide broadcast for LDS youth. The “Studio C” YouTube channel currently has more than 2 million subscribers.

“Studio C” evolved during those years, transitioning from live-audience tapings to more highly produced pre-recorded sketches. But, as a number of the show’s original cast recently told the Deseret News, “Studio C” didn’t change enough for them to stay with the show or with BYUtv. Last year, all of the original cast left the network to launch JK! Studios, a comedy-focused media company that’s starting to gain real momentum as it launches multiple series.

What is life like after “Studio C”? For Madsen and her castmates, it’s been full of work, growth and, as always, lots of jokes.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Natalie Madsen, far right, producer of JK! Studios' "Freelancers," laughs between takes on set of the series "Freelancers" in Provo on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.

Heavy lifting

“Lift with your lower back,” Madsen jokingly tells a crew member at CrossFit Vitruvius, a gym in north Provo. JK! Studios is there on a recent afternoon filming its new eight-episode sitcom series, “Freelancers,” and the crew moves some workout equipment to make space for the camera people. Madsen is behind the camera for “Freelancers” as one of its producers. This is the norm at JK! Studios: The former “Studio C” folks have taken on multiple jobs beyond writing and acting. These days, they’re also producers, editors and yes, even gym equipment movers.

“We learned a lot from our time at ‘Studio C,’ kind of from osmosis,” Madsen told the Deseret News during a break between filming. “When you’re on set, you learn a lot about what other people are doing. But obviously, you learn more when you’re doing it yourself. There’s something really satisfying about having true ownership of what you’re doing, which is part of our big move.”

“Freelancers” is set in a small town and follows a group of friends struggling to launch their own production company. (“It’s pretty meta,” Madsen admitted.) Cast member Mallory Everton said they wrote the entire series in six weeks — “Even for a super-experienced team, that’s a lot,” she said. “For eight episodes of a sitcom, that’s, like, 150 pages of content.” None of them had written sitcom material before.

" I think when you only see one kind of family over and over again … it maybe looks a little un-relatable to some people. "
Whitney Call, former "Studio C" cast member and current JK! Studios writer/actor, on some of the creative restrictions she and other "Studio C" cast members faced while at BYUtv

Everton has plenty of jokes — she keeps them in a journal dedicated to sketch ideas. That volume has been growing larger and larger in the decade she’s kept it; it has hundreds of unused ideas. She’s trained herself to see the world through the lens of sketch comedy, but sitcoms are a different beast. Learning the difference between a joke and something that’s funnier on a deeper, more subtle level — something that can be tethered to a story or character arc spanning multiple episodes — takes time.

“Now, it’s like I’m on page 2 of my idea journal for sitcoms,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It’s been a very vulnerable place to be. Most of the time I’m grateful for it. Sometimes it just makes me tired.”

A little different, but still on brand

That tiredness, it seems, is a tradeoff for increased creative freedom. Cast member Whitney Call described cutting ties with BYUtv as a double-edged sword.

In the past, Call explained, they could blame the network’s director of content if something they aired caused any controversy — “like, ‘Oh, we’re just recent college grads, and they’re the ones that should know better.’ But now it's us, and we should know better,” she said. “Now if we let something air that ends up, you know, raising a lot of eyebrows, it’s on us.”

Though it should be noted, those interviewed for this story were quick to give certain assurances. Among them: “It’s not like we’re getting edgy, or we’re going to start swearing. That’s just not something that’s ever in our brains” (Madsen); “Our brand is still family friendly, so we’re not like, ‘Hey, let’s portray the lowest dregs of a meth addiction’” (Stacey Harkey). For those familiar with “Studio C,” the JK! Studios content will feel familiar. Their speciality is still upbeat, slightly absurd but ultimately “safe” comedy.

Case in point: “Loving Lyfe,” JK! Studios’ first series.

Launched in late January, “Loving Lyfe” parodies female lifestyle vlogs — tips on fitness, makeup, etc. — and stars Madsen as Nichelle (a “wellness advocate/lifestyle coach/pretty much a model”), Everton as Ashleee (an “event planner/lifestyle coach/boss babe”), and Call as Bentley (a “fashion vlogger/not a lifestyle coach”). Former “Studio C” cast members Stacey Harkey, Jason Gray and James Perry play their husbands — named Chad, Chab and Ciad, respectively.

In many ways, “Loving Lyfe” is an ideal segue from “Studio C.” By spoofing lifestyle vlogs, they get to utilize simple camerawork and play exaggerated characters that would have worked in “Studio C’s” sketch comedy format. It also signals some of the burgeoning creative possibilities for JK! Studios: These aren’t one-off characters, but recurring ones that viewers can follow over multiple episodes. And beneath the series’ silly exterior, there’s real comedic sophistication.

“With different writers I’ve worked with, we always go back to the idea of these lifestyle bloggers because they are so interesting,” Everton said. “And they — or at least our absurd versions of them — can represent a lot of the issues we have with being women: beauty standards and hollow, fake social media presences. These are very interesting things to write about and very fun to make fun of.”

Less red tape

Tonally, “Loving Lyfe” would have fit in on “Studio C.” The folks at JK! Studios are excited, though, to create shows that perhaps wouldn’t fit that mold. Call said there are things they’ve wanted to explore with storytelling that BYUtv wasn’t necessarily comfortable with — things she thinks would still interest family audiences. She mentioned, for example, that BYUtv required her to wear a wedding ring in sketches where she played a pregnant woman.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Alicia Gibb uses crushed Smarties to look like a new protein powder around Matt Meese's mouth before filming a scene in "Freelancers" in Provo on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.

“And logistically, that just doesn’t even make sense,” she said, “because I stop wearing my wedding ring when I’m seven months pregnant, just because it doesn’t fit anymore.

“I think when you only see one kind of family over and over again … it maybe looks a little un-relatable to some people,” she added.

Michael Dunn, BYUtv's managing director, told the Deseret News that BYUtv doesn't have a formal policy regarding wedding rings, but that “when BYUtv depicts married individuals, they would be wearing wedding rings as is the norm in network family television.”

BYUtv’s diversity — or possible lack thereof — has been making headlines in recent weeks, after the station’s higher-ups presented at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California. In an event recap from Variety magazine, its authors wrote, “When challenged with questions of how the network is being inclusive in gender, race, sexual orientation and faith both in front of and behind the camera, specifics were harder to get.”

The cast of "Studio C" is made up of seven men and three women. Stacey Harkey was the only black person on the cast, and he said his race was something BYUtv was uneasy exploring on camera.

“In my situation, to talk about being black on BYUtv was a touchy situation because we never wanted to offend people,” Harkey said. “But it is just my reality, you know?”

In an Instagram post from December, Harkey also came out as gay. In the post, he wrote, “I really didn’t have to come out publicly and I’m sorry if this bothers you, but it is more important to me that people going through the same thing understand that they’re not broken.”

View this post on Instagram

Fun Fact: I’m gay. No this isn’t a joke/prank and yes I am telling the world. You might be wondering why I need to announce this? Why do I need to reveal this to a community that could potentially respond in a hostile or critical way? Why do I need to make something private sooo public? Did you know LGBT youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth? I spent a large portion of my life trying to “fix” myself. I put so much energy into trying to mend what I thought was a “broken me”. Those years were very hard for me and I can’t say I always loved/liked myself during that time. In the recent past, I found myself on my knees praying and begging to know how to move forward... and that beautiful experience helped me realize that I’m not broken. I’m exactly who I need to be. I really didn’t have to come out publicly and I’m sorry if this bothers you, but it is more important to me that people going through the same thing understand that they’re not broken. I know this opens me up to judgment, ridicule and criticism, but if it helps one person avoid suicide or just feel better about themself, then that’s enough for me. Please, feel free to reach out, ask me questions, and share your insights. I’m not ashamed of who I am and I welcome the chance to connect and chat about this. If you want/need to talk to someone, I’m here for you. Call me, text me, DM me and I swear I’ll keep your info private and between us. You’re not alone in this. I’m so sorry if you wanted to hear this from me in person and if that’s the case please call me/message me and let’s chat. Guys, in all honesty, I’m happy. This isn’t a sad thing or something to lament. I’m stoked and excited about what the future holds.

A post shared by Stacey Harkey - JK! Studios (@staceyharkey) on

What if he had remained on “Studio C”? Would he have made his sexual orientation public?

“I definitely wouldn’t have felt as comfortable coming out if I was still working for BYUtv,” Harkey told the Deseret News. “I didn’t … make a political stance — I was just stating this thing (about me) that will never change.”

According to Michael Dunn, Harkey disclosing his sexual identity “wouldn't have changed anything for us. As I said when we announced the cast’s departure, we are immensely proud of all of them and grateful for all we achieved together.”

Making money

The initial response to JK! Studios has been strong. Its YouTube channel has more than 200,000 subscribers, and each of its “Loving Lyfe” episodes have tallied between 100,000 and 200,000 views. That’s a strong start. Still, the principal JK! Studios cast is 10 actors, many of whom have spouses and children. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. How, exactly, is this fledging comedy startup making enough money to support everyone?

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Stephen Meek laughs between takes on the set of "Freelancers" in Provo on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.

The answer, they say, is “brand integration.” Stephen Walter, JK! Studios’ CEO, said each series that they launch has a title sponsor. In “Loving Lyfe,” for example, its sponsor is the popular online clothing boutique Jane. This sponsor fully funds the costs for that particular series. In turn, the sponsor’s products are noticeably integrated into each episode and gets a specific shoutout at the end of each YouTube video.

Madsen said brand integration came on their radar through TV shows like NBC’s “Superstore” and films like “Wreck-It Ralph,” which both use brand integration.

“We say, ‘Well, you can make a two-minute commercial, or you can fund an eight-episode sitcom. It won’t be as in-your-face, but people will know your brand,’” she said.

JK! Studios has also taken meetings with some prominent TV networks. The young company isn’t ready to discuss the specifics of those meetings yet, but it’s safe to say the TV industry is paying attention to what they’re cooking up.

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Everton said that while she’s excited and flattered by the outside interest, she’s learned that a large company’s involvement is never a sure thing, and she and her comedy counterparts aren’t banking on it. The JK! Studios staff members that we interviewed seemed confident in its current business model. As long as title sponsors keep lining up, they can continue doing their own thing, whether or not a TV network gets involved.

“We’re happy with what we’re doing,” Everton said. “We’re not waiting for someone bigger to come and save us.”

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
From left, Whitney Call, Stacey Harkey, Matt Meese, Stephen Meek, Mallory Everton and Brandon Christensen laugh between takes on the set of the series "Freelancers" in Provo on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.