Hey, brother! How these siblings from Roanoke, Virginia became the oh-so popular ‘Super Carlin Brothers’

From a year-long YouTube conversation to ‘The Pixar Theory,’ here is the story of Ben and Jonathan Carlin

From left, Ben Carlin and Jonathan Carlin. (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

You have to meet Jonathan and Ben Carlin, if you’re not familiar with them already.

The brothers, from Roanoke, Virginia -- Jonathan is older, by the way -- have exploded in popularity in recent years, and they’re now living out their dream as content creators. They’re super fun to talk to, humble and engaging, and if you haven’t seen their videos, you’re in for a treat. (They start out with a signature, “Hey, brother!” greeting, hence, the headline).

At first glance, the Carlins are just normal guys walking around the same grocery stores as the rest of us. But they’ve worked incredibly hard to get where they are, and they’ve amassed a huge following -- massive even. What they’ve grown, from the ground up, is seriously impressive.

We got a chance to chat with them about how they got started, some of their greatest moments, and what advice they have for young creators. Read on for an inside look at the Super Carlin Brothers.

This is an ongoing series highlighting ordinary folks who went from an average number of followers online to thousands -- or tens of thousands or even millions. Is there an influencer you love, who we should chat with next? Email us your suggestions for this series!

What made you want to start your YouTube page?

Jonathan: “Back in 2009, when I was in college, I attended Virginia Tech, I was majoring in mass communication, and kind of going down the journalism side of things. I realized of all the stuff I was watching, I was watching a lot more YouTube than I was TV. After a while, I realized, ‘All these people I’m watching are in their bedroom,’ and they’re so entertaining – I was like, ‘I’m going to school for similar things. I bet I could do it. I’m going to try it! It seems fun.’”

So with that, he launched a YouTube channel.

“It was just like, sketch comedy, not-great videos, just sort of daily observational humor sort of things, but people started watching, and I started getting some subscribers,” Jonathan said. “I think the channel eventually got to 900 (or so followers), which, at the time, felt like a big accomplishment; a really big deal. It was really fun.”

But then he graduated, got a “real” job, as he put it, and Jonathan’s YouTube channel wasn’t enough to live off.

He eventually put YouTube on the back burner.

In the meantime, Jonathan was still watching a lot of YouTube, and he came across a channel called the Vlogbrothers. They did a challenge in which they went back and forth for a full year, only communicating with each other via video blog.

Jonathan loved the concept.

“I was like, ‘That’s such a fun idea!’ And I’d done some YouTube, and I had a brother, and I was like, ‘Ben, we should do this thing. We could be like Super Carlin Brothers! And we’ll just have a year-long conversation. It’ll catch on. It’s going to be great.’”

Ben eventually agreed.

As the story goes, Ben was about to graduate from college, and he didn’t want to move in with their mom and dad, but he couldn’t afford rent solo, so he asked Jonathan to be his roommate.

“And I said, ‘I’ll do it, but you have to do the YouTube channel with me,’” Jonathan said.

With that, the project was born.

Ben agreed, so that kicked off the year-long conversation conducted completely on YouTube. Jonathan would upload a video Monday, Ben would respond Tuesday, and so on -- and the goal was to do that every weekday for a year.

The brothers didn’t miss a single day.

But it was all-consuming, at times. Ben and Jonathan both had full-time jobs on top of the project, so they’d go to work all day and then come home -- “and if it was your night to make a video, you just went right down to the basement, wrote a script, shot and edited it, exported it and uploaded it and picked a thumbnail and PHEW – you did all the things,” Jonathan said.

This was about 10 years ago, in 2012. It was a lot, but it was a different world back then. These days, creating content for YouTube is Ben and Jonathan’s full-time job.

One of the things they really prioritized, was turning their YouTube channel into a proper business model, Ben said.

“We work a 9 to 5,” Ben said. “We are at our office, which is a really cool space that has light sabers on the walls and toys everywhere -- it’s a really fun, creative environment, but we’ve made it an emphasis to hire employees we can have here in the office with us, who love the brand themselves, who love the content we cover, and we try to provide them with solid employment. That’s the other piece of it. We offer health benefits and 401(k) and all that type of stuff. I think that’s helped us build strong infrastructure underneath our feet, so that we’re able to continue to trek forward, and be successful in the long run.”

They are on Instagram and TikTok, but YouTube remains their primary space.

Was there a goal you had in mind when you started out, or was this just for fun?

Jonathan: “It was a bit of a pipe dream, like, ‘Oh, maybe this could be a full-time thing someday, or I could quit my job and do this.’ (But) because this was back in 2012, very few (people were doing it). Full-time influencers just weren’t a thing. So much has changed in the last 10 years. And even then, when I thought about it, it wasn’t like, ‘I’ll have an office with staff and employees!’ It was more like, ‘I’d have to quit my job, probably take a pay cut, and I’d just make one or two videos a week. That would be great!’ But then it obviously turned out way differently. We got bigger than I even imagined.”

Ben: “There was sort of a funny gag very early on, where we kind of invented a channel mascot that we called the grizzly-eagle-shark, and it was this medley of these three creatures blended together. Somebody sent us this amazing artwork once upon a time, and it was like, ‘Gosh, this is so cool.’ And in one of the videos, I was saying, you know, facetiously, ‘If we get a million subscribers, I’ll get this tattooed on my back.’ ... I was saying it like, ‘If I ever go to the moon,’ you know? This is NOT a thing that will happen. And then fast forward like, a year later, and it happened right before our eyes. The idea of one million seemed utterly impossible. I never thought it would happen.”

Jonathan added, even after that whole year of the ongoing YouTube conversation, the brothers were only at about 2,000 subscribers (which felt like a ton at the time!)

At last check, the Super Carlin Brothers had 2.16 million subscribers on their primary YouTube channel.

Was there a moment when you felt like, ‘Wow, this account has really taken off?’ Or ‘We’ve made it?’

Definitely, Jonathan said.

“So, there were a couple things that happened,” Jonathan told us. “One, we posted this video called ‘The Pixar Theory,’ which was the one that ‘caught fire’ and went viral and really started bringing people in. And from there, it was like, people definitely wanted that content from us. … But any time we saw an opportunity, like, ‘Oh, here’s a fun theory to cover,’ we’d put it up and it would get views. At the time, I was also, just in an effort to get eyes on videos, I was contributing articles to a website called Movie Pilot, which no longer exists. But their whole thing was that they didn’t have staff writers. They just had contributors, so everyone else provided the content for them, and they would share it out. And they had like, 16 Facebook pages, all of which had (millions) of followers, so I would take our video, write a blog or article format for it, and post it, with a link to the video, to their website, and cross my fingers they would share it. It turned out to be pretty effective.”

They were seeing spikes in their views through that method, and “that was exciting, because (our content) was getting lots of eyes on it all the time,” Jonathan added.

Jonathan: “The real MOMENT, I think, was when I got an email from Movie Pilot one day. They had been invited to Pixar Studios to cover ‘The Good Dinosaur,’ which was coming out in 2016, but because they didn’t have staff writers, they didn’t really have anyone to send to cover the event. But they were a big enough website that Pixar was inviting them. So they asked me if I’d go represent them and write an article for the website for them, and I thought like, this is it. This is the moment. We’re going to Pixar. Oh my God. This is happening. That for me was that moment like, this is real. We’re here. We’re making an impact.”

What are some of the best parts, since you guys grew your following?

Ben said they’ve had the chance to work with some big brands, fairly directly.

First came a partnership that Lenovo had with Star Wars. They were developing a virtual reality or augmented reality type of headset, and the brand asked for the Carlins to come in and serve as the faces of the project.

Jonathan and Ben were flown out to Los Angeles, they worked on a set for an entire day’s shoot, and it was a surreal experience, overall.

“There with people there from Lucas Films,” Ben said. “It was an odd room to be in all of a sudden.”

The brothers were picked up from the airport by an Uber driver, who was explaining to them that he was an aspiring actor. The man asked Jonathan and Ben where they were from.

“And we were like, ‘Roanoke, Virginia,’ and it was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And we said, ‘Going to a film set,’” the pair said with a laugh. “That was pretty cool – that feeling of being discovered, a little bit, from Southwest Virginia, and we’re getting to do something in LA,” Jonathan added.

They also worked on a cool project with Disney World. Disney paid them for a series of videos, brought them down to Orlando, and Jonathan and Ben loved going behind-the scenes with Disney Parks.

Finally, Google Arts and Culture initiated a project all about the history of magic, related to Harry Potter, and the brothers got asked to host. Google flew them to London, and about a month later, they logged onto a Harry Potter website and found themselves on the front page.

“It was like, what?! This is unbelievable,” Jonathan said.

“That was like a childhood dream come true,” Ben added.

Are there ever moments when you feel pressured to post more and more content?

The Carlins said they almost post something every day of the week at this point.

Ever since that first year of around-the-clock content creation, they made a decision: That wasn’t sustainable. It would burn them out, and they didn’t want that.

So they switched to a Tuesday-Thursday schedule for Super Carlin Brothers, and they stick with that. They also have a podcast called “Popcorn Culture” that goes live on Fridays, they do a gamer channel and their own family vlogs, as well. So they’re producing something every day. They definitely work 40 or so hours a week, Ben said.

Are you guys ever recognized around town?

It happens sometimes, Ben said.

Here’s a funny story: Starting with the fact that their dad is John Carlin, a news anchor on WSLS, the NBC station in Roanoke.

“We would go to dinner with him every Friday night ... and I don’t know that we ever went to dinner with him and he wasn’t recognized,” Ben said. “It was always like, ‘Are you John Carlin?’, our whole lives. This one day in particular, we were having lunch with him, and this little boy walks over to us, and he was like, ‘Are you the Super Carlin Brothers?’ And it was like, ‘No way!’ The tables have turned!”

Both brothers laughed, remembering the moment things shifted, so to speak. But they said if they’re in Roanoke, they don’t get recognized a lot.

“If we do go to Disney World or (somewhere) like that, we’ll probably take 15 pictures in a day with fans.”

Where do you see this account going in the next five years or so?

Ben: “We say it all the time, but there’s nobody alive who has made a lifelong career out of this. It would probably be our goal to be among the first to do that. So ... if we continued exactly as we are today, for the next 20 years of our lives, we would be completely happy with that. That would be considered a massive, massive success. I think one of the big goals we would have is to eventually be involved directly with some of the stories that we talk so much about. Harry Potter in particular is one of the ones. At this point in time, we probably have like, a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s degree, in Harry Potter.

“We have dissected the books, the stories, the characters, the underlying meanings … to such an aggressive extent. And it’s probably the one thing we cover that has the least amount of growth, as far as content is concerned, from the studio. So, we’ve always said, if we could ever direct or write for like, a Hogwarts founder series or something, and get to be like, on the inside of it, that would be huge.”

What do you love about Roanoke?

Jonathan: “We grew up here (and have lived in Roanoke) our whole lives. As far as being a content creator, the cost of living – it’s really affordable. It doesn’t matter where you create the content, because YouTube is going to pay you the same. They don’t care about pricing in Virginia vs. California. But we’re both married, we both have kids, and our spouses’ families both live here, as well. We have another brother, and he lives in town, so it’s like, our ENTIRE family – and our extended family, too.”

Parenthood is important to them right now, as they both have young kids.

As for favorite hangouts around town, they said “any of the breweries.”

Jonathan also mentioned Local Roots, and Ben said River and Rail Restaurant.

“(Roanoke is) a cool place to live,” Ben added. “We’re outdoorsy people, and there are bike trails and mountains and hiking. It’s great.”

What do your friends and family think about your internet popularity?

“It’s so weird to me, because the audience we have is so wide,” Jonathan said. “It’s nationwide, if not international at times. It always surprises me when people we know, watch or consume our content in any capacity. It always feels like such a faceless crowd out there. But for the most part, people seem to think it’s pretty cool. My wife’s been with me since long before we were doing anything like this, so she thinks it’s (neat), but it’s not like, ‘Oh my God, you’re famous.’”

Their loved ones have been really supportive.

Some people have been watching from Jonathan’s time at Virginia Tech to the year-long brothers conversation, and now the Carlins’ popularity is on a whole new level. Ben’s wife has nieces and nephews, “And they’re kind of adorable because they’ll go hang out with their friends and be like, ‘Our Uncle Ben is a YouTuber!’” Ben said with a laugh. He can’t even believe it, at times.

Ben: “You get ragged on by the family a little bit, but they definitely think it’s awesome.”

If someone follows your account and loves it, who else they should follow?

One important note here: Ben and Jonathan don’t watch any other “theory” creators, specifically out of fear of wanting to cover their theories.

“And then that way, if someone’s ever like, ‘So-and-so already did this theory!’ It’s like, we must have done the same thing then. Because we don’t watch it,” they said.

But they did recommend:

Do you have any advice for young creators?

“We grew up with all these topics that we like to talk about, and we were super into them. We would watch the movies over and over again, read the books over and over again, and we would quote (them), and it would just be something for us. But it never occurred to us that we were like, experts on these things. When we made the Pixar Theory, it was like, ‘I don’t know if we can make more of this stuff. Why would we be the authorities?’ And what we ultimately discovered was like, we were more leaned in, relative to others, than we knew,” Ben said. “And, chances are, if you are deeply interested in a topic, hobby, interest, whatever that is – then I think that is absolutely the place to start.”

Jonathan: “Finding your niche is really what I think a lot of people struggle with when they start out. It’s like, ‘I just want to be on there, but what am I going to talk about?’ So finding that thing you’re going to talk about is something to be on the lookout for. And chances are, you’re more of an expert in something than you realize.”

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