Penn Holderness on Family Life, Parenting, YouTube and Health
Get to know the family behind the videos and podcasts
Spend a few hours with the Holderness family of Raleigh and you’ll learn what we did: What you see is … well, pretty much what you get. Penn, a former sports anchor; wife Kim, a former news and entertainment anchor; and children, Lola and Penn Charles, have achieved international fame via YouTube videos they have created over the last five years that parody parenting and family life. They recently started producing podcasts on marriage as well. It all started with their “Christmas Jammies” YouTube video in 2013. Since then, the family has created hundreds more. And we, their fans, have collectively laughed over their musical ruminations on going back to school, New Year’s resolutions, snow days and more. Watch any of their YouTube videos and you will undeniably conclude one thing: This family has a lot of fun together.
During our interview with Penn we learned — and found refreshing — that he and Kim celebrate the importance of humor within their family. They take pride in their ability to laugh at themselves. When it comes to parenting and health, however, they take that very seriously.
How did you meet Kim?
We met in 2002 … 2003 — somewhere around there — in Orlando. She was a news reporter who had just moved to Orlando. I was a sports reporter for a different TV station in Orlando. When you work in local news you get off at 11:30, and there’s really no one else to hang around with except for other people who work in local news. Everyone else is asleep!
What brought you to Raleigh, and where did you come here from?
Kim and I were actually working for network television in New York (City). We had already gotten married at that point. So, we met in Orlando, got engaged, she moved up to New York and took a job for “Inside Edition,” which is an entertainment TV show, and I took a job at ESPN. But neither of us really liked those jobs as much as we thought we were going to like them. So those both lasted about three years. And then we had a kid, and we lived in Tribeca, which is a great neighborhood in New York, but it was very expensive. We went to a preschool to try to apply, and we got so much anxiety from the pressure it took to try to apply to a preschool in New York that we were like, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” And so we did. My family’s from Durham so we said, “Let’s get closer to home.” And so, yeah, we moved here.”
What inspired the “Christmas Jammies” video that started your family’s YouTube fame, and do you consider that to be the video that “started it all”?
Yeah, that was definitely it. That was kind of a game changer for us. There was a two-fold inspiration. I used to write these Christmas letters to my family and we would mail them out. Instead of a picture and a card it would be like a “here’s what we’ve been doing” thing. I enjoyed doing them. So one year, I made a musical Christmas card. It got several thousand [YouTube] views! We were like, “Wow! What’s this YouTube thing?” People saw it who weren’t even my friends! And so, in another part of our lives we had decided that I was going to get out of the local news business because we wanted to start producing our own videos and our own content and doing it for other people. So I put in my notice that I was going to start doing this. We had real estate clients and that was kind of the brunt of our clientele. We were going to go and help them make videos to promote their companies and try to get them on YouTube and eventually make them work well. So we were like, “Let’s do another family Christmas card. Let’s work a little harder on it. Let’s make it really fun so we can feel comfortable that this is what we’re going to do, but also make it about our family like it normally is.” So that’s exactly what we did and, you know, it just kind of exploded! Not only could we still make videos for other companies, but we kind of accidentally created another brand here, and we sort of learned that after several years of wondering what we were going to do, we thought, “We can make a living doing this!” So we said, “Guess we’re going to make more YouTube videos.” There have been about five years of them now.
How many YouTube videos have you created and, of those, which is your favorite and why?
We’ve made well over 300 videos and, of those, we’ve made around 120 music videos. I think it’s about eight more than Madonna! I’m pretty excited about that. The “Christmas Jammies” video was great because any time you involve the whole family it’s fun, but there’s another one we did at kind of a similar time when the kids got out of school because it was snowing. We did this video called “Snow Day,” and it’s about what it’s like to have a snow day. And the kids really liked making it because we were outside in the snow. We’ve done several of them, but the first one, I guess, was my favorite because it wasn’t a parody, it was an original song. We ended up being interviewed by Fox and it validated that, “Oh, we can make more than one video. It’s not just going to be one video and we’re done.” But it was a true family effort so that was my favorite one.
Do you recall which one of your videos has the highest number of views?
Yeah, it was actually last year — an original spin on Dean Martin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” We wrote a P.C. version of it, put it out in early December and it got over 75 million views. That was our biggest hit that we’ve ever had.
How has this YouTube fame and video-making process affected your kids?
We don’t make them do the videos. Even if we’re working with a brand, we say, “If they don’t want to do this and they’re not feeling it, then look, they’re kids” — so I think because we have it that way, they actually really enjoy making the videos. We minimize the amount of work that they have to do substantially. They don’t do any of the writing, they don’t do any editing. They kind of pop in for a cameo. They are aware of their relative celebrity status, and that’s probably something that a lot of kids don’t have. That’s a different type of normal than you have as a child. We do the best that we can to manage it. There have been times when people have come up to them and asked for pictures when we haven’t been around, but they’ve been very mature about it.
Kim and I always get asked, “Are you worried that you’re going to mess up your kids?” And my answer is, “Yeah!” And my next question is, “Are you?” and they’re like, “Hell,yeah!” I think that’s a healthy emotion to have. I think if you’re not worried about messing up your kids, you’re probably going to mess up your kids! It has been a lot easier to talk to people about this because I think they all feel the same way. Also, they go to a school and they live there in a social environment where the kids and teachers don’t see them as celebrities, they see them as children, and that has been very rewarding and very cool to see. They have a healthy number of friends. Not too many, not too few, and we’re lucky to live in a community that gets it.
Has the video-making process changed as your kids have grown older?
We have to write to our children as they are, and not what they used to be like. My daughter’s a teenager now, so her role in these videos should reflect that of a young woman and not of a baby, or a child, or something that demeans her. My son’s not a toddler anymore. He’s a fully grown, crazy 9-year-old. We need to reflect that. They need to be able to be themselves. And if we have them acting, it needs to be a role that they are challenged by. Most of what we do is kind of reality-based, so that’s not too difficult. The other thing is that they want to make their own videos and have their own channels. And I say, “Do that! Go for it!” That’s where the work comes in. That’s where they’re going to need to learn how to do some of the stuff that I’m doing. I tell them, “Come up anytime you want to, watch me edit. I’ll show you how to work the camera and you can do that.” Lola has started producing TikTok videos and they’re actually really good.
How do you all come up with ideas for the videos?
It varies, but normally we just kind of look at what’s going on in our lives. And a lot of times Kim is the one who says, “You know what? Lola is getting really addicted to slime.” Or, “This Fortnight game is driving a lot of parents crazy,” even though our kids don’t really play it. Or, “Oh my gosh, do we have to do a science project again?” And that’s all it really takes. I just kind of go upstairs and I look for the hook, which sometimes is original music and, you know, I’ve been a songwriter for 20 years now. For a long time I was a bad songwriter, and I’ve had to get a little better at it! But sometimes it’s just a song that’s out there waiting — that’s how parodies work. So, what will fit Lola and her slime obsession, for example? Kim and I will start talking. “My Tupperware’s gone, she stole my saline solution, her bathroom looks like a meth lab …” and I’m like, “Oh, this is great stuff! It’s all true, so let’s just make fun of ourselves about this.” So the next key is finding the song that goes with it … A lot of times I’ll start by looking at songs from the ’80s and ’90s because that’s what Kim and I grew up with. So, I start thinking about something like Cyndi Lauper and, you know, “Time After Time” and “Slime After Slime” — there couldn’t be a better fit. So that’s your hook. An hour later the song is written, a day later the song is shot, and it doesn’t take very much longer after it has been shot because the material is usually pretty good — and we put it out when you wake up in the morning.
What types of workouts do you, Kim and the kids enjoy doing to stay in shape?
When I need an actual workout — and want to throw up afterwards — CrossFit is the majority of what I do. There are days I can’t get out of the house, or the timing’s not great, so I’ll do a CrossFit-similar thing at home — body motions like burpees, squats, and sprinting up and down the street. And it’s funny — a lot of times Penn Charles will join me, when it’s not too difficult. I probably play tennis two or three times a week as well. That’s a sport I picked up about four years ago that I really like. The kids also like it. Lola’s team qualified for the state championship tournament not too long ago. Kim is a crazy a la carte fitness person. She’ll go for a run one day, then she’ll do Orange Theory the next day. She’ll do something called “metabolic” another day. … She doesn’t have full-time memberships to any of these places, she has a la carte memberships to all these places. Penn Charles is constantly moving, so he plays soccer, basketball, tennis. He played flag football, but that’s done. He’s such a little runner. He runs everywhere he goes.
What do you suggest for new dads, or dads who feel stuck in an exercise rut, who want to get back into shape?
I used to be them. I was about 20 pounds heavier when I lived in Orlando. The humidity was awful and why would I ever want to go outside? You want to die after 5 seconds. Over the last 15 or 20 years, I think I just start and don’t stop. It’s two things: It’s making a commitment to some type of exercise every day. The other commitment is diet. You can work out all you want, but if you eat like crap, it’s not going to change anything. Find some discipline in those parts of your life — and it doesn’t have to be all-day discipline — but it has to be enough that you can feel good about yourself when you go to sleep.
What dietary habits do you feel are important for maintaining your family’s good health?
As a family, a lot of it is centered around the meals we cook for them, and finding ways to get away from the beige. Kids can process food better than adults can. Start incorporating some of your dietary decisions in your children’s food, and don’t let them off the hook just because they would rather have a hot dog, or macaroni and cheese. Stay true to that and make a little more of an effort to cook those healthy meals, because they will find something they like. We spend a little extra time cooking — and a lot more time cleaning because it takes all these dishes! But we try to make dinners with zero-processed food, which is challenging, because that’s bread, cheese, sugar, pasta and all that other stuff. So we’ll do rice and fish and greens — and maybe put some ranch dressing on it, which is processed, but those are little things. I give a lot of credit to Kim for this because she cooks without processed foods all the time, and it’s delicious. It takes a little more work, but it puts flavor in things. Kim and I both do intermittent fasting as well. I do it without realizing it — I don’t eat until noon. I wake up and I’m not hungry, so I’ll wait till noon to eat. She does the same thing. So then you just kind of have a six-hour period when you eat all your food, then the rest of the time you don’t. It’s not for everybody, but for us it works really well.
What’s next for the Holderness family?
Kim is working with a doctor on a meal plan that may also have some fitness aspect to it. It’s more of a meal plan than a cookbook — a digital plan that will come out once a week. We’re going to keep making those videos. We’re looking at a proposal that we’ve been working on for about a year now since we started doing the podcasts. We realized that we have this audience of people who enjoy our videos. They also, just like us, want to be good at being married and good at being parents. So we’re working on a book proposal about how to get along as a married couple and navigate careers, all of that, based on what we’ve learned as people who not only live together, but work together and have some tips on that. It’s being co-written with our pastor from Raleigh, who has a license in marriage counseling. That proposal will drop in the next couple of months and the book will come out hopefully sometime in the next year.
There's much more to learn about the Holderness family! Check out their podcasts and videos at theholdernessfamily.com.
Beth Shugg is the editor of Carolina Parent.