Alumnus sparks superstardom with popular YouTube channel
John Jennings '12 was preparing for the day ahead when he was stopped in his tracks. The voices off in the distance sounded all too familiar.
He walked into the living room where his daughter was focused on a Harry Potter theory video. She recently discovered the magic of the series that Jennings enjoyed all those years earlier with his best friends — the same best friends whose voices now were emanating from his living room.
“I walk into the living room to see Jonathan and Ben staring back at me on the screen,” Jennings said. “That was one moment that really solidified what I already know — they’ve truly made it.”
Jonathan and Ben Carlin are the brotherly talent behind the Super Carlin Brothers, a YouTube channel based out of Roanoke. They’ve garnered over 2 million subscribers in a 10-year span behind some humble beginnings, extreme dedication, and a little luck along the way.
Jonathan Carlin, a 2010 communication graduate from what is now the School of Communication, recalls the early days of YouTube when he started his own channel, Jonkerlin, and posted funny skits to an unknown audience.
“I started posting the videos once a week while I was in college,” he said. “I remember being afraid to post them like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be so embarrassing.’ I put them out there, and much to my surprise, people seemed to enjoy them and find them funny.”
Jennings, who practically grew up with the Carlins at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke and later with Jonathan Carlin at Virginia Tech, often spent long hours in Cowgill Hall as an architecture student. That was when Jonathan Carlin’s original Jonkerlin channel became a hit for Jennings and his classmates while they worked late at night.
“He would come hang out with our friends in the studio as he started doing his vlogs with a very small audience,” Jennings said. “Everyone in the studio started watching Jon Carlin’s videos that he was just creating in his apartment. It was incredible. He probably had planned it, but for us, it seemed like he just created this out of nowhere.”
It developed into a hobby. After graduation, Jonathan Carlin started a full-time job in marketing at the Roanoke Civic Center, now the Berglund Center. But he wanted to continue making YouTube videos.
Enter Ben Carlin.
The brothers decided to launch the Super Carlin Brothers channel and entered into a yearlong conversation back and forth, with one brother uploading a short video one day and the other brother uploading a response back the next day. The videos covered trivial topics ranging from discussions on the most random number, Bigfoot, and everything in between.
Sometime in that year, Carlin, affectionately known as “J” by his fanbase, posted a video about the Pixar Theory, which is a theory written by Jon Negroni explaining how every Pixar universe existed in the same world, spanning a huge timeline. Jonathan Carlin never expected what happened next.
“We posted the video about the Pixar Theory, and it went super viral,” he said. “To this day, it’s our most viewed video. People started pouring in subscriber wise, and we thought, ‘Oh my, God. This is amazing! So many people are subscribing.’”
Still, the Carlin brothers were left in a precarious spot. The subscribers were pouring in, but viewership on daily videos wasn’t increasing. However, as soon as they posted another theory video, the viewership would explode. It all led to the decision that changed the future of the Super Carlin Brothers.
“At some point, we decided we’re going to take a hard left turn and do nothing but fandoms,” Jonathan Carlin said. “As soon as we did that, everything took off and exploded. We went from 10,000 subscribers to 60,000 to 300,000 month after month after month. It was like, ‘What is happening? This is amazing!’”
All the while, the brothers were still working full-time jobs and managing their YouTube enterprise on the side. Eventually, Jonathan Carlin needed to make a decision to leave YouTube behind or embrace it fully.
In the midst of the channel’s rising popularity and Jonathan Carlin’s expertise on all things Pixar, Harry Potter, Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, and other types of fandom, he was invited to Pixar Studios to preview “The Good Dinosaur” and talk with Pete Docter, the director of “Inside Out,” for its DVD release.
“I think the act of being invited to Pixar and going and doing it was like, ‘OK, this is real. A real thing has happened in your life — a huge trip because you made this YouTube channel.’ That felt like the stars aligning,” Jonathan Carlin said. “It gave me all the confidence I needed.”
From there, Carlin went full time in 2015 and Ben followed in his footsteps the next year. The thoughts of wondering if this route would provide for their families or if it would all just crash and burn in a few months were quickly extinguished.
Once the brothers jumped in full force, the channel rose to new levels. They established a number of revenue streams through ads on YouTube, paid subscriber content on Patreon, additional podcast and gaming channels, and even Super Carlin Brothers coffee. Plus, the quality of the videos took off.
“What’s exciting is that it’s still Jonathan,” Jennings said. “The Jonathan you see on videos is him. That charisma, that excitement, and positivity — that’s who he is as a person. It’s not a pushed thing for the videos.”
With the shift to a full-fledged media venture, more hours were dedicated to finding all the Easter eggs in the Pixar movies, watching and reading the Harry Potter series over and over again, and exploring fan-submitted questions.
“It’s a lot of looking for tiny details,” Jonathan Carlin said. “We don’t believe in plot holes. There’s never any bad writing, there’s just unexplained writing.”
And now the channel has more than 680 million views since its inception in 2012. The brothers record their videos from a studio in downtown Roanoke with a staff of five.
Jonathan Carlin’s still using the skills that he first learned as a communications student at Virginia Tech. He developed the level of attention needed to put a script together and find the story in Roland Lazenby’s media writing course.
“Jonathan was always fully engaged and open to pursuing the active learning that media offered,” said Lazeby, a sportswriter and former Virginia Tech faculty member. “I am truly excited for him. I never saw a single thing about him that wasn't deserving.”
Additionally, Jonathan Carlin first learned the Photoshop and video shooting and editing skills he uses every day at Virginia Tech. Plus, he tailored all of his classes to a self-proclaimed “YouTube minor” to set himself up for this career.
“Virginia Tech was definitely the avenue that gave me all the skills in the early days to help me develop that first YouTube channel,” he said.
In an age where content is king and careers in content creation are only expanding, he has some advice for students who want to enter the field.
“The No. 1 thing is to be consistent about your upload schedule,” he said. “The big thing I wish I had done earlier was finding a niche about something specific I could talk about with a lot of insight or expertise, which ended up being the fandom. … You’re going to have to be engaging on camera and a little bit of a performer. You need some graphic design or marketing skills. No one tells you how many skills you’re going to need.”
The brothers are extremely grateful for the journey and where it has taken them. Their iconic “Hey, brother!” intro won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
“I never imagined getting to where it is today,” Jonathan Carlin said. “I think when I started in college, the idea that there was such a thing as a full-time content creator — it didn’t exist. It never occurred to me that I would be making more money, that I would have an office that wasn’t my house, that we would have staff working for us, that we would be traveling around the country. Every step of the way it’s blown my mind.”
Written by Cory Van Dyke