Today in Tedium: Recently, I got a chance to meet Ernie and Bert inside of a Muppet exhibit in a museum, an opportunity I took advantage of to take a selfie with Bert … and shade Ernie. I kid, I kid. (Despite the shade, I actually idolized Ernie as a young child.) But my name, being somewhat uncommon, has long led me to find affinity with pop-culture namesakes, of which there are actually a few. In the case of “Ernie Smith,” for example, there is a legendary Jamaican reggae musician named Ernie Smith (birth name Glenroy), along with an equally legendary South African jazz musician named Ernie Smith. But I think my favorite namesake connection is with Ernest P. Worrell—the friendly foulup who, to this day, may be one of the greatest examples of outsourced branding unleashed onto the world. Today’s Tedium celebrates Ernest, and explains why, in a way, we’re all Vern. — Ernie @ Tedium
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Varney, shown in a scene from the failed variety show Pink Lady. (via IMDB)
How Jim Varney’s tough start in the entertainment industry actually put him in a position for success
Jim Varney was not always a dead-ringer to play such a wholesome annoyance. In fact, he was originally a theater kid. Born in 1949 in Kentucky, Varney found his love of the theater as a teenager, and followed it to the entertainment industry.
Like any actor just getting his start, Varney took odd jobs wherever they would lead, working the circuit in Nashville and other places. Early in his career, Varney actually found work as an ad mascot, mostly for the dairy industry, though the demeanor of the character he created was nothing like what he would become better known for.
The character, Sgt. Glory, was a straight-laced military man, a character who was almost a prototype of sorts for the later success of R. Lee Ermey. Varney’s work with that character, however, fostered a relationship with a Nashville ad agency called McDonald, Carden, Cherry, and Ferrell—a company that would become pivotal to his later fame. (The agency would later be known as Carden and Cherry.)
Varney would later move to the acting-world hotspots of New York, where he did standup gigs, and Los Angeles, where he found roles in the TV shows Alice and Operation Petticoat. Varney even briefly appeared on a sketch comedy show, the short-lived Pink Lady. But by the early 1980s, burned by a television strike, he found himself back in Kentucky.
Little did he know that he would find significantly more success in Kentucky and Tennessee than he ever did in Hollywood.
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Milk was only one of the things Varney pitched as Ernest, though it’s probably what he’s best known for.
Why the Ernest P. Worrell advertising model was so brilliant
With a perfect mix of catchphrases and a down-home demeanor that reflected a specific kind of Southerner, perhaps it was only natural that Ernest would become a cultural touchstone of the 1980s.
The concept of Ernest came as a result of a need from a Kentucky theme park. Beech Bend Park, an amusement park and campground located near Bowling Green, needed some ads after the singer Ronnie Milsap bought the park.
John Cherry, the namesake of Carden and Cherry and a key part of the Ernest brand for decades, explained to The Tennessean in 1980 that the theme park actually inspired the creation of the Ernest character.
“We developed Ernest coming back from Beech Bend one day,” Cherry explained. “It was a creative session that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes magic happens when you get on a streak like that.”
Some of the basic elements, including the use of the off-camera Vern, were there from the beginning, but what’s intriguing is that the article actually suggests that Vern would be an actual character in the commercials, played by an actor who was a “tea sipper,” a Frasier Crane type before Frasier Crane existed. Clearly, that never actually happened—and the result is that we, the viewers, play Vern. (The character is the better for it.)
In the article, Cherry expressed interest in syndicating the character along the lines of Sgt. Glory, a role that was popular enough that Varney made personal appearances in that character.
Soon enough, the character was being used to sell everything—and despite using the same general model as Sgt. Glory, Carden and Cherry had significantly more success with Ernest, who was both incredibly funny and highly relatable.
With a character like this, there’s always a risk of oversaturating the market—with some notable examples of this being Steve Urkel, Bart Simpson, and Pee-Wee Herman—and one can argue that this did eventually happen with Ernest P. Worrell.
But at first, the advertising-driven model made him something of a happy surprise for TV viewers, who wouldn’t know when to expect him. By only delivering a little Ernest at a time, the character didn’t saturate the market, and left people who really liked the character looking for a little more. This, ironically, had the effect of getting people to watch local channels, along with other commercials, just because they wanted to see Ernest again.
In fact, this interest actually led to media interest far beyond what the average advertising mascot gets. This is something highlighted by the fact that NBC Nightly News actually did a segment on the Ernest character and the underlying model that made him so inescapable on local television in the mid-1980s.
The clip, notably, leveraged Varney’s theatrical acting skills, introducing him performing Hamlet before donning the cap that made him famous.
That cap encourages a change in demeanor that’s easy to witness.
“Every time I put on this cap my voice changes and my face turns to latex,” Varney told the Austin American-Statesman in 1985.
Obviously, Carden and Cherry branched out and put Ernest in movies and on the Saturday morning kids’ show Hey Vern, It’s Ernest. In many ways, however, the Ernest character was far more valuable as an advertising icon than as a film star—because he showed just how versatile a regional mascot could be.
Ernest sold milk. Ernest sold soda. Ernest sold cars. Ernest sold natural gas. Ernest sold banking services. Ernest sold the local news. Ernest even did PSAs! He could sell it all.
The advertising work of Ernest P. Worrell is important enough that you can find and study it at Duke University—it’s a massive collection, complete with the documents that Carden and Cherry used to pitch companies on the concept, collections of newspaper articles, and a wide array of merchandise. Really the only thing Ernest didn’t have was his own video game.
And at the center of it all was Varney, a professionally trained actor whose versatility and willingness to do lots of advertising arguably turned him into a bigger star than he ever would have been if he stayed in Hollywood or New York waiting for his big break.
The number of films that Jim Varney portrayed the Ernest character in as part of the franchise. Four of them were released direct to video, but at its peak, the film series was a consistent money-maker, with the three best-known titles earning more than $20 million at the box office at a time when that was a decent haul.
Our picks for the most important Ernest films
- Ernest Saves Christmas. Let’s admit it: None of Ernest’s film work is going to end up on a list of historically significant films. But if one was going to, this would be the one, in part because of the way it portrays Santa Claus (played here by frequent film Santa Douglas Seale). By suggesting that Saint Nick is a role handed down to worthy people with already decent amounts of beard hair—and by giving Worrell control of the sleigh—it created something of a bridge for the Christmas movie to fit neatly into the modern day. (Among the best Varney characters in this? A snake farmer.)
- Ernest Goes to Camp. Part of a prominent trend of summer-camp-based films that was later parodied by Wet Hot American Summer, Camp has a few things worth recommending it for, including this scene involving a lunch-making Rube Goldberg machine gone wrong. While never a critical darling, Camp was less hated than most of the other Ernest films. The film, with a standard good-guys-versus-evil-company plot, features Iron Eyes Cody as a Native American voice of reason. Cody’s casting was inspired—not because he was Native American (infamously, he wasn’t, not that it was widely known at the time), but because he was best known to a generation of Americans as an advertising icon, just like Ernest.
- Ernest Scared Stupid. The interesting thing about Ernest movies was that when they stuck to holiday themes, they generally excelled and are better remembered than other films in the series—likely owing to the fact that there was an excuse to air them on television every year. And Ernest Scared Stupid, which features this great example of Varney’s versatility, definitely fits the bill, even if it’s less successful at pulling it off than Ernest Saves Christmas. One funny, but subtle, joke in this: Despite being known as a milk pitchman, when Ernest learns that the trolls in the film are endangered by a substance called “mi-k,” he does not think of milk, but instead finds a substance called “miak.”
- Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. This oddball sci-fi film stars Varney and features Ernest, but it’s really a showcase for both Varney, who takes on numerous roles in the film in the vein of Peter Sellers, and Cherry, who would direct numerous other Ernest films. It’s an outlier in the Ernest catalog, taking a role akin to Pee-Wee Herman’s less kid-friendly early appearances. If you feel like watching it, the film is on the Internet Archive.
- Ernest Rides Again. Eventually, the Ernest gravy train had been fully saturated, and 1993’s Ernest Rides Again exposed the diminishing returns for all to see. Part of the problem might be the fact that, unlike every other widely released Ernest film (see: Ernest Goes to Jail), the concept was not easy to understand from the title. Effectively, Ernest was helping a historian protect a Revolutionary War cannon from those trying to take the valuable jewels inside—not exactly easy to explain! The films went direct to video after this, which makes sense considering this 1993 title made less than a tenth of what Ernest Goes to Camp made at the box office.
The 2000 death of Jim Varney didn’t necessarily mean the character he made famous had to fade away along with him, and there is evidence that Carden and Cherry attempted to revive Ernest P. Worrell at least twice. According to RetroJunk, there were attempts to bring back Ernest in animated form, along the lines of the Empire carpet guy, and with a new actor, John Hudgens, playing Ernest. Technically, Carden and Cherry are within their rights—after all, John Cherry created the character, even if Jim Varney gave it life. But still.
In a lot of ways, when Varney and Cherry worked together on the Ernest character, the result was considered a prime example of “low culture.”
(Case in point: Varney got nominated for a Razzie award for Ernest Goes to Camp—though he won a Daytime Emmy for Hey Vern, It’s Ernest, so it balances out.)
And in a lot of ways, that characterization is totally unfair to the sheer versatility of Jim Varney.
Varney, as is well-known, died in 2000 of smoking-related lung cancer, with a frequently used headline for his obituaries the unfortunate “Ernest Goes to Heaven.”
His passing was quite sad for plenty of reasons, the biggest of which being the fact that, at the time of his death, he was finally starting to get roles that took advantage of his serious acting skills in ways that Worrell, by design, could not.
For example, he was a voice-acting regular in the latter years of his life, with roles in the first two Toy Story films, Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and a voice guest spot on The Simpsons.
But perhaps most tellingly, his final performance was Billy Bob Thornton’s 2001 movie Daddy & Them, a well-regarded if little-seen film which placed Varney in the context of an all-star cast that included Thornton, Andy Griffith, Laura Dern, Ben Affleck, and John Prine. He had appeared in an increasing number of independent films towards the end of his life, productions that reflected his serious-acting roots. Check out this deleted scene from the film which prominently features Varney:
I don’t think Varney was miscast as Ernest—far from it—but he was just at the point in his life where he was starting to get material that took advantage of all the acting muscles he clearly had hiding under that tan baseball cap.
But even in the context of the Ernest franchise, there’s a case that Varney was widely underestimated, given the way he easily slipped into gag characters like the second coming of Peter Sellers and occasionally pulled off serious material. Just look at what he did with this part in Ernest Goes to Camp, after a particularly painful setback:
He sings a tearjerker of a song. He shows legit emotion. And, just to remind you you’re watching an Ernest movie, he serenades a turtle. Somehow, it works far better than it has any right to.
One can only imagine what Varney would have done if he had a few more roles like Daddy & Them under his belt. The “Golden Age of Television” would have loved turning the guy behind Ernest into a prominent character actor on a Netflix series, for example.
We’ll never know where he could have gone in his twilight years. But his legacy is such that it deserves the speculation. We won’t get Jim Varney back—but maybe we’ll someday see that his life’s work was criminally underrated in its time.
P.S.: My wife would like you to know that she was not my girlfriend during the events I described in the prior issue, but my fiancée. The Tedium staff, whose office is currently located inside of a doghouse, greatly regrets the error.