Back in 1980, an ad executive in Nashville, Tennessee named John Cherry III had an idea for a commercial character. The character would be a good ole boy who was just a little too up in your face about everything. He was that neighbor you could never get to shut up about news, new machines, new tools, etc. He cast a local actor for the job and named that character Ernest P. Worrell. The actor was Jim Varney, a talented stand-up comedian and actor who had just moved back to town after an actors strike in LA had put him out of work. Varney, along with Robin Williams, had been part of the original group of comedians who opened and popularized The Comedy Store in LA. He did stand-up sets for Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson and counted Williams as one of his close, dear friends. Varney was an incredibly talented actor, and becoming Ernest would be both the best and worst decision of his career.
From 1980 to 1984, Cherry and Varney filmed nearly 900 commercials that aired in every market across the country. The key to so much output was that none of the commercials were national spots. They did shoots for small markets or big cities, never national, for a wide spectrum of products; that way they never had to compete with national saturation. It was genius, and from those spots, executives at Disney saw potential and signed Varney to play Ernest for TV and major motion pictures. Next thing Varney and Cherry knew, they were making the first Ernest movie in 1987, Ernest Goes to Camp, which was filmed on a $3 million budget and did $23.5 million at the box office. It was a sensation and would seal Varney’s fate along with Ernest’s.
Ernest was a human cartoon, an indestructible man who could take a fall, get up, and keep going. He was also written as an imbecile who other adults regarded with a head shake and an arm’s-length tolerance. At their best, the movies were centered toward kids and around kids. As fan Aaron Steinmetz says on the comments for the How Did This Get Made? episode on Ernest Goes to Jail: “The thing was, Ernest, bumbling and failing left and right, worked when he had children to play off of, especially when the children provide the solution to the problems. The child became the adult, and the adult became the child. Remove children from the equation, and you’ve got an adult behaving like a child around other adults, and it doesn’t work.”
Varney was essentially a starving actor taking a commercial job to pay the bills. Being an actor myself, I’ve been there. You just take the gig hoping it moves you to something bigger. However, that buffoon in the commercials would be a character that Varney would become synonymous with and play for nearly 20 years. Varney and Cherry turned Ernest into five major motion pictures, four direct-to-video movies, and a 13-episode TV series. It’s something no one has done before or since, and Varney went from improvising with Robin Williams, guest starring on Fernwood Tonight, and hosting a New Year’s Eve special with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, to getting hit in the face with hammers and falling off ladders.
Should we feel bad for Varney? I do in a way. Like I said, looking at Varney’s career from my own perspective as a working actor, it is fairly depressing — to get pigeonholed into one dumb role for so long would be a nightmare. Sure, Varney made a pretty penny off the Ernest movies, but at what personal cost? He was talented. You can look at his work in The Beverly Hillbillies, or even his other characters in the Ernest universe, to see that. I think the biggest thing is he never got his redemption story. Near the end of his career, he was working on major movies and was a voice in the biggest cartoon franchise in history with Toy Story. However, at age 50, he passed away of lung cancer.
Could he have been one of those actors “rediscovered” as it were by someone like Paul Thomas Anderson? Could he have been the next Chris Cooper? We’ll never know. He didn’t get his rediscovery or his Hollywood drugs and danger ending. All we have are these nine movies. These nine movies that are by no means Criterion collection-worthy films. Some are great in their own innocent way, but some are dreadful. But they all have Varney in common: a hardworking, journeyman actor caught up in a phenomenon, a money-making machine that he couldn’t escape. His nephew, Justin Lloyd, wrote a biography on Varney called, The Importance of Being Ernest, and he told me:
Now that we can look at the Ernest character in a bit of historical context, I don’t know that Jim would have traded many of his years playing that character in exchange for any Academy or Tony Awards (he always wanted to star on Broadway). I have heard from so many people that grew up watching Ernest as a child that talk about how much their families enjoyed watching Ernest through the years. They now want to introduce their own children to Ernest and re-live some of those special moments. As we now live in an age where families all watch shows on their own devices in different parts of the home, Ernest represented a time when TV and movies were more of a family event. I think he would be quite proud of the legacy of that character if he were still with us today.
Proud indeed, and that’s all that really matters. Peel the cynicism away of what we think Ernest is and was and will forever be. Varney was a great actor who just wanted to act. With that, here are all the Ernest movies, worst to best, and more, knowwhutImean?
9. Ernest Goes to Africa
Year Released: 1997
Box Office: direct-to-video
How Long in Occupation: Long enough to crush a woman’s car, so 10 minutes maybe.
Just from the title alone you realize this is more than likely not going to be a worthwhile film. The idea is so played out that they have to send Ernest to Africa somehow? That’s a bad sign. Also, you may be asking yourself, “Oh dear god … did they have Varney in black face?” The answer is no, BUT he is in brown face as a stereotypical pre-Independence Indian man at an English country club in Africa. (Bad, but not nearly as racially uncomfortable as number seven on this list.) The storyline is Ernest buying jewels at a flea market that were stolen from an African tribe by a rich and dangerous jewel thief. The thief finds out Ernest has them (though Ernest has made them into a yo-yo) and thinks he’s some super spy agent. He kidnaps him and takes him to Africa, Ernest escapes … yadda yadda yadda Ernest defeats the bad guy and is the hero of the tribe. Basically. God, this one is rough. The coolest part is they filmed it entirely in Johannesburg, South Africa. So there’s that. Also, the bad guy is played by Jamie Bartlett, a famous South African actor who did great work in Tom Hooper’s Red Dust and the Idris Elba-starring Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
8. Ernest Goes to School
Year Released: 1994
Box Office: direct-to-video
Occupation: High school janitor
How Long in Occupation: Enough to wreck an industrial vacuum, and that’s it.
The biggest downfall of the Ernest series was when the writers started making overly fantastical plots for Ernest. The beginning of that end is Ernest Goes to School. Putting Ernest in his familiar role as janitor, the plot then becomes a Billy Madison-esque romp where in order for Ernest to keep his job and stop the school from closing, he must go back to high school and finish his degree. This is due to a new rule where all employees must have at least a high school diploma … for whatever reason. A group of kids who have befriended Ernest promise to help him study so he can pass all the tests. Also, two science teachers develop a “brain accelerator” and test it on Ernest making him genius-level smart. Ernest does well in all the classes, helps save the school by replacing the marching band with the football team in the big game (yeah, I have no idea either), and all ends well. It’s a weird mess of a storyline, and also the only film in the series not directed by creator John Cherry, which could be a reason why. Also, it is the first film role for popular MadTV performer and actor Will Sasso.
7. Slam Dunk Ernest
Year Released: 1995
Box Office: direct-to-video
Occupation: Mall janitor
How Long in Occupation: Entire movie
Upon reviewing all the titles in the Ernest canon, I became preemptively uncomfortable, as I said, with Ernest Goes to Africa. However, upon watching all of these movies, it turns out that Slam Dunk Ernest was the most racially uncomfortable to watch. The basic plot is that Ernest works as a janitor for a company cleaning a mall, and his co-workers — five black men — also play on a team in the city-wide basketball league. They play against other janitors, plumbers, etc. Ernest loves basketball, but is terrible (obviously), so his co-workers won’t let him play. Then Ernest prays to the basketball gods, who send him Kareem Abdul-Jabar — a basketball angel — to bring him magic shoes. The shoes make Ernest super fast and defy the laws of gravity. He helps the company team win the city championship and earn a chance to play the Charlotte Hornets in an exhibition game. Ernest realizes the team hates him for being a ball hog, sits the bench, and allows the team to play for real. The players impress NBA scouts and get drafted in the NBA. See what I mean by overly fantastical plots? The racial discomfort comes in with lines the co-workers say — written by the very white John Cherry — that are filled with stereotypical, white-perceived black slang. There is lots of “yeah brotha” and “right on, my man!” throughout, and it is … weird. The captain of the company team is Cylk Cozart who’s been in everything. Look him up. You’ll recognize him.
6. Ernest in the Army
Year Released: 1998
Box Office: direct-to-video
Occupation: Driving range ball retriever
How Long in Occupation: Roughly 15 minutes before joining the Army Reserves.
At least the final Ernst film released wasn’t Ernest Goes to Africa. For all the talent and intelligence that Jim Varney had, ending his most famous character on that dung heap would’ve been even more heartbreaking. Instead we got Ernest in the Army, which is another middle-of-the-road movie, but one that starts out slow and gets better as you get deeper into it. A big reason for that is because it starts adult-centric and ends kid-centric. Ernest works at a driving range, and his best friend convinces him to join the Army Reserves. Ernest agrees mostly so he can drive the big Army trucks, but also — in an odd meta-callback never seen in any of the other movies — because his friend tells him it’s like summer camp, and Ernest says, “That’s great! I was a summer camp counselor once!” The Reserves get called up to help attack a rogue Middle Eastern dictator, and Ernest goes to a fictitious country to fight. He befriends an Arab boy after stopping some men from beating him up, and he and the boy and a news correspondent stop the dictator and his UN spy and save the war. It’s incredibly absurd, but Ernest’s interactions with his boy sidekick are touching and sweet, which saves it from total despair. Also, writer, director, and Ernest creator John Cherry makes a cameo as Sarge in the movie — to put a face to the name.
5. Ernest Rides Again
Year Released: 1993
Box Office: $1.4 million
Occupation: College janitor
How Long in Occupation: At the most, 20 minutes.
Ernest Rides Again, while not the worst movie in the series, was the nail in the box office coffin. It was the final movie to be released in theaters, and, in all reality, should have been the final movie period. The plot involves Ernest and a college professor he meets while working as a janitor at the college searching for a long-lost Revolutionary War cannon they believe holds the actual Crown Jewels of England. Another professor finds out, and he attempts to foil their plans. Zaniness ensues, they find the jewels, and Ernest saves the day. There is nothing great or amazing about Rides Again. It kind of rides the middle of the road. Varney has some great slapstick moments, and the meta moment of calling himself a cartoon is definitely weird and smart, but all in all it’s easy to see why it caused the downfall of Ernest at the movies. By the way, his professor companion was played by popular Canadian comedic mainstay Ron James from SCTV and Strange Brew.
4. Ernest Scared Stupid
Year Released: 1991
Box Office: $14.1 million
Occupation: Sanitation Worker
How Long in Occupation: Ostensibly the first 20 minutes as he never returns to the trash truck.
When it comes to special effects, these movies aren’t a prime example of fantastic work. However, when it comes to Ernest Scared Stupid, the special effects are, actually, pretty great, making for a really fun kids horror comedy. The movie starts with backstory of Ernest’s distant relative banishing an evil troll to a deep grave, who, in turn, puts a curse on his family making all his descendants become dumber and dumber — thus, why Ernest is Ernest throughout all the movies and TV. Ernest befriends a few middle school kids and helps them build a tree house in a spooky tree under which the troll is buried (why the parents allow the kids to hang out with Ernest … I don’t know). Ernest summons the troll inadvertently, the troll attacks the kids in town turning them into wooden dolls, and then Ernest defeats the trolls with his friends’ help. Scared Stupid, aside from fun special effects, is nothing particularly amazing, but it is a simple, entertaining movie. Varney performs a variety of different personalities in the Ernest family, and it shows his comedic versatility. He’s like a modern-day Red Skelton: many characters, but all well thought out and realized. His costar, playing an eccentric witch-like lady in town, is the amazing Eartha Kitt. Due to low box office numbers, this was the final theatrical release backed by Touchstone Pictures.
3. Ernest Saves Christmas
Year Released: 1988
Box Office: $28.2 million (highest grossing)
Occupation: Taxi driver
How Long in Occupation: Approx. the first 20 minutes
It’s important to remember that the Ernest movies, at least at the start, were meant to be family-friendly kids movies. I know that seems obvious, but as you look at the later direct-to-video movies where they put Ernest in a more adult-centered world, it is easy to forget that. The best of the more obviously kid-centric films is easily Ernest Saves Christmas. The movie begins with Ernest picking up Santa Clause at the airport because Santa is looking for his replacement, and that replacement – no, it’s not Ernest – is a local children’s show host in Florida. Santa is a job in this world that gets replaced every so often, so Ernest helps the current Santa convince the host to take over; eventually he succeeds with the help of a runaway kid he meets in town. It’s heartwarming, has great Ernest silliness, and a great moral. It’s worth a holiday watch. Also, the actor who played Santa, Douglas Seale, is the same who voiced the Sultan in Disney’s Aladdin.
2. Ernest Goes to Jail
Year Released: 1990
Box Office: $25 million
Occupation: Bank janitor
How Long in Occupation: Except for a bit of time spent in jail, the entire movie
If Saves Christmas is the best kid-centric film, then Goes to Jail is the best adult-centric film. With a clever take on the mistaken identity trope, Ernest starts out as an overnight janitor at a bank, then ends up with jury duty on a major crime case where the defendant notices his cell mate, Felix Nash, looks exactly like Ernest – Varney, of course, plays both roles. The defense attorney also notices the likeness and convinces the judge to let him take the jury to the jail. Ernest gets knocked out and switched with Nash. Nash takes over for Ernest at the bank, which he attempts to rob, while Ernest goes to death row. Ernest manages to escape and stops Nash’s robbery, thus saving the day. There is also the weird subplot of Ernest being able to harness the power of electromagnetism somehow and an awkward semi-rape scene with Ernest’s prison love interest, but, ignoring that, it’s an entertaining movie. Varney as Nash is the most impressive part. He plays a completely different character: an incredibly convincing and menacing villain. It shows the serious talent later seen in The Beverly Hillbillies and Daddy and Them. I know that’s a big statement, but go back and watch Hillbillies. Varney is excellent. Also, Ernest’s love interest in the movie is played by Barbara Tyson who played Dawn Rollo on Another World – the first HIV-positive character on daytime TV in the US.
1. Ernest Goes to Camp
Year Released: 1987
Box Office: $23.5 million
Occupation: Maintenance man and camp counselor
How Long in Occupation: Entire movie
The crown jewel in the Ernest oeuvre is undoubtedly Ernest Goes to Camp. The story line is like the rest, but it ends up being the tightest underdog story of them all. Ernest takes a group of juvenile delinquents at a summer camp, wins them over to his side through his bumbling antics and caring heart, and, with the kids, a Native American chief, and crazy camp chefs, saves the camp from an evil mining corporation hell bent on turning the land into a strip mine. Varney has some truly heartbreaking moments in Camp that, to this day, still make me tear up. The montage scene where Varney sings “Gee, I’m Glad It’s Raining” is number one on that list. Just watching that scene on its own is enough to get the water works flowing. It’s also worth stating that the villain is none other than Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon.