PROVO — As Matt Meese walked into the pizza place in Santa Monica, California, he caught a glimpse of celebrity comedian Conan O’Brien on the other side of the restaurant.
“Guys, be cool,” whispered Stephen Meek, Meese’s "Studio C" colleague, who’d seen O'Brien, too. They did their best to stay nonchalant, hey no big deal, as they crossed the room.
But O'Brien wasn’t staying nonchalant. He marched right up to the group that, besides Meese and Meek, included Mallory Everton, Whitney Call and Adam Berg.
“Hey!” he said, looking straight at Meese, “Aren’t you guys 'Studio C?'”
The next thing they knew, they were all outside on the sidewalk so the TV talk show host and his kids could get a picture with them.
And so life goes when the sketch comedy show you created has turned into a nationwide phenomenon with a cultlike following that includes a growing-all-the-time national audience on the BYUtv network and 1.5 million and counting YouTube subscribers. Including, as it turned out, O'Brien’s kids, ages 11 and 13, who had spied the "Studio C" crew from inside the restaurant and proceeded to go berserk.
“When my kids saw you, I didn’t know what had happened, I literally thought there was a rat in the restaurant,” is how O'Brien explained the scene a few months later on the set of “Conan” when he invited Meese and Stacey Harkey to return to Los Angeles and talk about "Studio C" on his TBS talk show.
“They don’t react this way to anybody and they started screaming, ‘Studio C,’ ‘Studio C,’ and they ran to you guys.”
• • •
It can all be traced back to when Meese broke his leg.
He was playing intramural soccer during his sophomore year at BYU when it snapped. He had to drop out of school for surgery and then move in with his sister, Lindsay Douglas, and her family in Magna to convalesce.
Immobile, shut off from the world, in the middle of summer, life didn’t look so rosy. He felt himself getting depressed, and as a psychology major he knew the signs.
But with so much time to think, he made an interesting discovery: Whenever he reflected on the times in his life when he was on a stage acting and entertaining, he’d start to smile.
He remembered practicing with Miss Henderson in the music room for his first acting role in first grade: singing “My Blanket and Me” from the Peanuts Gang play. In fifth grade he auditioned and won a spot as a kid DJ for Radio Disney — no small accomplishment in the 1990s. Every Friday afternoon his mom would drive him to radio station KIDR in downtown Phoenix so he could do his show, 3 to 5, reading the weather and making announcements. "Hey kids, there’s a cool talent show coming up."
In his senior year at central Phoenix’s Washington High School, he played the dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors” — Steve Martin’s part in the 1986 movie — and his crowning moment came later that year when he and a friend on the speech team teamed up to win an Arizona state championship in duo-acting.
Acting and performing, though, was never the main attraction. Often, it was the first thing to be cut, because Meese did a lot of other things growing up, conventional things. He studied hard in class, got good grades, played all the sports — soccer, football, and track and field (a pole vaulter no less) in high school — was active in student government (president of his high school class as a freshman, sophomore and junior; then student body president as a senior), became an Eagle Scout.
Still, the appeal of entertaining never quit calling to him.
Sensing time was running out on his opportunities, he’d abandoned his spot as a 125-pound backup tailback on the football team his senior year so he could try out for “Little Shop of Horrors,” an experience that proved so satisfying he joined the speech team and in his first competition won state in duo-acting with a 10-minute comedy bit he and Chris Giglio wrote, produced and directed. Winning was great, but the sound of people laughing, and laughing hard, was even greater.
"Geez," he thought as he lay with his leg in a cast in his sister’s back bedroom. "Why did I ever stop doing that?"
But he had stopped. Stopped cold. Freshman year at BYU, two years on an LDS mission in Chicago, sophomore year at BYU — for four years he hadn’t performed anything, for anybody.
That was about to change. When they cut off the cast and he returned to school in 2007, he kept psychology as his major — the responsible, practical plan for the future — but also auditioned for the BYU extracurricular acting club, Divine Comedy, the self-indulgent, just-for-fun plan for the present.
In Divine Comedy he ran into a whole lot of people just like him. “Hardly anyone was majoring in something acting or film related,” he remembers. “They weren’t doing it because they had to, they were there because they loved it.”
No one any more than Meese. For the next five years, up to and beyond getting his psychology degree, he was a Divine Comedy mainstay, writing, producing and performing comedy sketches that became a campus sensation. The club performed two original shows each semester and a best-of-show at semester’s end. Performed in the 350-seat auditorium in the Tanner Building, the $5 tickets sold out faster than “Hamilton.”
“An hour and a half when students could come and take a break and laugh and let off stress and we had a ball doing it,” is how Matt remembers those shows, before adding:
“Anyway, that’s what laid the foundation for 'Studio C.'”
• • •
So here’s Meese in 2011: He’s still living with roommates in an off-campus apartment; still working at the BYU Bean Life Science Museum — the same place he worked part time as a student; still writing and performing with Divine Comedy; and he’s about to turn 27. All while packing around a psychology degree in his back pocket.
Yes, he got questions.
“Every few months my parents would call, or siblings, ‘So, how are you doing? Just wondering what the plan is …’”
Then, out of the blue, Meese heard that BYUtv was looking for new programming.
He called the station and got an appointment with producer Jared Shores, who listened to Meese’s pitch — such as it was.
“I’d never pitched a show before so I said here’s our numbers on YouTube and here are the crowds we draw when we do a live show, and if it’s working here it could probably work on television, but we would just need a little bit more of a budget.”
From Shores, more or less a blank stare, until Meese pulled out two tickets to the next Divine Comedy performance and said, “Why don’t you come see a show?”
The short story is Shores was wowed, the show was picked up and became the most popular TV series in BYU programming history. The longer story is that it took some time, and there were plenty of growing pains and blips along the way.
But the punchline remains: After the first two years on air, the kinks were mostly worked out and "Studio C" — named after the soundstage in the BYU broadcasting building where the show is filmed — has never looked back.
A significant breakthrough came when Meese was able to talk BYUtv into bringing all the actors he’d worked closely with at Divine Comedy on board. Of that tight group of 10, only four — Meese, Everton, Jason Gray and Call — were initially retained as full-time, paid performers. James Perry, Stephen Meek, Harkey, Natalie Madsen, Jeremy Warner and Berg only made occasional appearances until the third year. Once the complete ensemble — BYU’s version of “Friends” — was assembled, "Studio C" was off to the races.
RELATED LINK: What are the most-watched ‘Studio C’ videos of all time?
The show’s secret? It’s not about him, Meese will tell you. He may be the veteran of the group, he may have pitched the show, he may be listed as head writer, he may be the most recognizable, but he insists he’s a product of the sum being far greater than the parts. He wouldn’t be where he is without the rest of them, and vice versa.
“Matt is incredibly collaborative; he understands, especially in this field where comedy is very subjective, he needs people,” is the assessment of "Studio C" co-star Harkey. “He worked super hard to find people that weren’t divas, that wouldn’t throw tantrums, that weren’t confrontational. He understood that had to be avoided.”
“I like to think the audience can sense how close we all are, how much we feed off each other and how much we let everyone show off their talents,” Meese said. “I think that’s a big part of why they enjoy the show.”
Whatever the "Studio C" sketch, you’re not going to find cleaner comedy anywhere. That’s partly because this is, after all, a production put on by a college that doesn’t allow caffeinated drinks on campus (although there’s a studied effort on the part of "Studio C" to avoid jokes based on BYU/LDS culture), but also because of the collective G-rated family-friendly mindset of the cast.
“We all agreed in the beginning that we’re doing this to bring something good into people’s lives, give them a chance to take a break and laugh, to bring families closer together, give them a shared experience,” said Meese. “I loved watching ‘The Cosby Show’ with my family growing up — we’ll still quote it today. We’d really love to give that to families today.”
Everyone in the cast acts, everyone writes and everyone experiments.
“You’re just constantly trying things, seeing if it’s working, and you have to go in with that mindset,” said Meese, who has had a hand in writing every "Studio C" episode to date (95 of them heading into the 2017 fall season). “Otherwise it would be very discouraging because you do fail more than you succeed. We throw away more than half of what we write. But if you look at batting averages in baseball, if you’re batting .300 you’re doing all right.”
The key is to not beg for laughs; don’t oversell the line. Meese likes a story about a scene in a 'Saturday Night Live'-like TV comedy called “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” where a line about asking for the butter gets good response when it’s delivered offstage, but it falls flat when the pilot is filmed in front of a live audience. In dissecting why, the actor is told: “In the cold read you asked for the butter. In the test show you asked for the laughs.”
“Ask for the butter,” Meese says to his "Studio C" colleagues, and they know exactly what he means.
In an earlier season, "Studio C" used legendary comic writer Gene Perret, a man who was Bob Hope’s top writer for decades, as a consultant. Ever since, Meese is constantly reminding the cast and his interns of a Perret quote: “Only the audience knows if it’s funny. Everyone else is just guessing.”
O’Brien said the same thing when they talked during the taping of “Conan” this past February. Said Meese, “In between interviews, during the commercial break, he leaned over and said, ‘I’ve been doing this for x amount of years and I still get out here and I won’t know if it’s going to be funny or not until I actually try it.”
A case in point — make that THE case in point — is "Studio C’s" signature sketch, “Scott Sterling.”
Meese wrote the sketch about soccer goalie Scott Sterling blocking penalty kicks with his head a full season before it was filmed. “We just tabled it because it was winter and we’re like, 'Well, we’ll do it later.' It was fun but there was never a thought it was going to be particularly special.”
The five-minute segment, starring Meese as Sterling with “spot-on” British-style commentary from Meek and Gray, aired in November 2014. To that point, a handful of "Studio C" sketches were approaching 1 million YouTube views — an impressive milestone the cast planned to celebrate once it happened.
"Scott Sterling" had a million views almost overnight. The world ate it up. ESPN put it on the air, Bleacher Report linked to it, USA Today, Huffington Post and print media all over Europe, including The Telegraph in England, ran stories about it, Glenn Beck gushed about it on his syndicated show. With nearly 55 million views to date, it ranks among the most watched comedy videos in YouTube history.
"Scott Sterling" took Meese and "Studio C" to the next level, elevating their popularity and exposure exponentially. Today, dozens of their sketches have had more than 2 million YouTube views, including a volleyball bit featuring Scott Sterling blocking shots with his head that has hit more than 27 million.
• • •
How has fame, fortune and celebrity changed Meese? Not one iota, in the opinion of family and friends who know him best. The image Lindsay Douglas, his older sister by three years, paints of her brother in his formative years sounds very much like the current description from Harkey.
Growing up, he was “president of every class he ever belonged to” and “good at everything,” said Harkey, “but he was never obnoxious about it. He was a friend to everybody. He’s not very outspoken or outgoing per se. If you’re hanging out with him, he’s super easygoing. And he’s not really looking for the laughs. His humor is very subtle. He’ll just be talking and he’ll say something and you’ll go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really funny.’”
And this from Harkey: “People think he’s crazy, off the wall, when actually he’s just a very chill guy, very chill. He’s not assertive, not aggressive and he’s not the most emotive person you’re going to find. He’s incredibly polite. But he’s very talented and very respected.
“Matt doesn’t want to be a leader, he just is.
“For Matt it was always a case of, ‘I really like doing this stuff’ so he did it; in that sense it’s been line upon line," said his father, Curtis Meese, a financial planner. “He just always had this persistent desire with his heart telling him to do it and his brain telling him this is ridiculous.”
“He’s always loved the stage, but never in a ‘look at me’ way,” said his mother Joni Meese. “He’s always been kinda shy about attention,” which she admits makes it interesting these days when he visits his parents. “We don’t go anywhere with him — Disneyland, the local Walmart, church on Sunday — where someone’s not asking to have their picture taken with him. At church, the kids from other wards come by just to meet him.”
As for Matt Meese, he accepts that acclaim and attention come with the territory and willingly obliges his growing fan base. “Unless it’s a weird situation, like (when people ask to take a picture with him) at funerals, for example, which does happen.”
In many ways, life hasn’t changed that much. He has no aide, no publicist and no agent. He’s still single, despite — or maybe because of — being tagged as BYU’s Most Eligible Bachelor by BYU’s newspaper, the Daily Universe, and by choice he continues to maintain a college-like existence. He lives in a house in south Provo with roommates Harkey and Berg from the show, drives a Toyota Corolla that’s “pretty good on gas,” and “I still eat frozen chimichangas all the time and my T-shirts usually come in packs of four if that gives you an idea of me.”
Although, to be fair, he does own the house — and he’s building another one.
Ask Meese if he’s living the dream and this is what he answers:
“I don’t know if it would be everyone’s dream, but I feel like I’m living mine. I’m enjoying my life and I feel very good about where it’s heading.”