"Know What I Mean?: A Love Affair with Ernest P. Worrell" By Samm Deighan

    Illustration by Kaelin Richardson

In 1980, the character of Ernest P. Worrell was born, ushered into the world in the unlikely offices of Nashville’s Carden and Cherry advertising agency. Primarily a collaboration between John Cherry III—soon to be a producer, writer, and director in the Ernest film series—and actor and comic Jim Varney, Ernest started out as the star of a series of commercials in Tennessee and throughout the South before spreading around the country to advertise a wide range of products. He soon graduated to a Saturday morning sketch TV show, Hey, Vern! It’s Ernest, and ultimately an entire series of films that lasted from the mid ’80s to the late ‘90s and came to include other regular collaborators like Coke Sams and Bill Byrge.

            It’s strange to think of a character from TV commercials becoming such a cultural icon in multiple formats—sort of like if the Geico Gecko went to to star in films for Disney or Pixar—but in my mind Ernest belongs with a handful of beloved if fundamentally weird personalities developed around the same time, like Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman or Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira. Like Pee-wee and Elvira, Ernest is fueled by a sort of surreal, absurdist sense of comedy. Though he’s generally remembered as a beloved kids’ movie star, Ernest also has a decidedly darker, psychotronic side. Though the character is presented as a working class redneck who can’t seem to get a break—either because he creates various catastrophes or because he is dismissed and looked down upon by those around him—Jim Varney gave the character an unexpected depth and an undeniably lovable streak. Varney’s photographic memory and extensive theatrical training, which began early in childhood, spun the simple Ernest character into multitudes, enhanced by a series of unhinged spin off personalities that seemingly emerge from within Ernest himself.

            The first film Ernest appeared in, however briefly, captures this sense of deranged, even horror-tinged comedy, and it’s odd that Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam (1985) didn’t go on to become a cult classic in the same vein as The Forbidden Zone (1980). Though the majority of Ernest films are essentially kids’ movies, this first entry is an absurdist sci-fi-horror-comedy about a super villain, Dr. Otto, who is planning to use the titular gloom beam to take over the world by disrupting the global financial system. He uses his “changing coffin” machine to take on various disguises, ultimately including Ernest.

My personal introduction to Ernest is somewhat similar in tone to Dr. Otto and the Gloom Beam: Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), the fourth official film in the series and the last released under Disney’s Touchstone label. It will probably always remain my favorite of the bunch. As a kid obsessed with cartoons like Disney’s Halloween Treat (1982), The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (1985), and Count Duckula (1988), it was impossible to resist the cover of the VHS tape, with Ernest inside a giant jack o’lantern looking—as the title suggests—scared absolutely stupid. But the film is not actually about Ernest being scared so severely that it lowers his I.Q.; his family was cursed by a troll in the 1800s when one of his descendents captured and imprisoned an evil troll within a massive tree. The curse ensured that each generation of Worrells would get “dumber and dumber,” leading to Ernest, who serves as the town garbage man and is regarded by most of the local adults with disdain. His only friends are some middle school children and, reluctantly, eccentric “Old Lady” Hackmore (the wonderful Eartha Kitt), who is regarded by most of the townsfolk as either insane or a witch of the woods. Unaware of the danger, Ernest accidentally frees the troll on the night before Halloween and it begins capturing the town’s children and transforming them into wooden dolls to drain their energy.

            The formula used here is shared by the first five films of the series: Ernest is somewhat of a lonely outcast figure, looked down upon by most of the adults around him because he’s seen as a stupid, naive, and somewhat chaotic redneck who always finds a way to mess things up. But ultimately he is the only one able to overcome each movie’s primary obstacle because of his generous, good-hearted, and fundamentally optimistic nature. It is suggested in Ernest Scared Stupid and throughout many of these films that Ernest’s childlike qualities—a creative imagination and genuine sense of wonder, combined with a lack of selfishness and the absence of any manipulative tendencies—cause him to “fail” in the everyday adult world, but allow him to become a hero in the face of more fantastical situations.

            And though Ernest Scared Stupid is the only Halloween film in the series and the only one after Dr. Otto and the Gloom Beam to explore horror movie tropes, it does so with aplomb and takes its genre trappings seriously. From the opening credits with clips of numerous classic horror movies, including Nosferatu (1922) and White Zombie (1932), as well as a host of campier ‘50s low budget classics, to the set packed with Halloween decorations, it is a love letter to the spookiest season of the year. The troll creature design and special effects from Bart Mixon and Scott Oshita reflects their considerable experience: Mixon and Oshita both worked on a number of horror and genre film franchises, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, RoboCop, Fright Night, It, Puppet Master, and Bill & Ted, among others.

Ernest Scared Stupid successfully evokes similar seasonal vibes as films like The Worst Witch (1986), The Monster Squad (1987), and the later Hocus Pocus (1993), but with a notable difference. While those films focus on a child protagonist, Ernest is portrayed as sort of a child trapped in an adult’s body. His primary companions are children in the first few, seasonally focused films of the series, namely Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), and Ernest Scared Stupid. This is not presented as unusual, partly because he is repeatedly shunned and demeaned by the adults around him. Both Ernest Saves Christmas and Ernest Scared Stupid have a prominent child or young teenager character who helps Ernest save the day (Austin Nagler as Kenny in Scared Stupid and Noelle Parker as Pamela in Saves Christmas).

Generally, the plots of these early films focus on misfits; not only Ernest’s misunderstood character, but also the children around him. In Ernest Goes to Camp, the delightful, first official film in the series, Ernest works as a maintenance man and general support staff figure at Kamp Kikakee, located on land owned by Chief St. Cloud (Iron Eyes Cody) but highly sought after by greedy developers. Ernest is the only white camp employee who can communicate with the elderly Chief, because he has somehow learned Plains Indian sign language, and he is reluctantly promoted to camp counselor—his dream—because no one else wants to be saddled with a group of delinquent boys from a nearby children’s home. Though Ernest causes plenty of comedic blunders throughout the film, he is the primary intervening force between the malicious developers and the Chief, and between the camp bullies and the misunderstood group of kids.

Ernest Saves Christmas follows a similar formula, transplanting events from summer camp to the days before Christmas in Florida. Ernest is working as a cab driver and encounters the real Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) on the brink of retirement, who has arrived to appoint a replacement, a beloved local children’s program host named Joe (Oliver Clark). Ernest also befriends a jaded teen runaway, Pamela. Ernest is the only one who unquestioningly believes that Santa is who he says he is and helps him out of a number of scrapes. The unlikely pair must convince Joe—whose agent is pushing him to further his career by acting in a Christmas horror film—to accept the role of Santa, while also keeping Pamela safe and convincing her to reconcile with her family. Like Ernest Goes to Camp and Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Saved Christmas revolves around a supernatural or fantastical conceit and shows how Ernest’s faith in those around him—especially children and other misunderstood characters—allows him to save an entire community.

The financial and popular success of the early Ernest films allowed Jim Varney to lean into his theatrical roots and I think Ernest Scared Stupid and Ernest Saves Christmas are my favorites of the series because of how deeply weird they are. Varney embraces an absurdist humor that he channels into a series of characters all played by Varney, many of whom were first brought to life in the various TV commercials and sketch series. This includes a sophisticated professor, an Appalachian snake handler, and various elderly Worrell family members, the best of whom is undoubtedly Auntie Nelda. As Nelda, Varney wears a neck brace, heavy makeup, and transforms into a sarcastic older woman who complains about her dead husband or dead son and is usually involved in rescuing Ernest and his companions from various tough spots, however disdainfully.

These wildly exaggerated spin off characters would have less screen time in the ‘90s Ernest films, which represent a different direction that Cherry and Varney began to take the series. Ernest Goes to Jail (1990) and Ernest Rides Again (1993) both put Ernest in much more adult scenarios, surround him with characters his own age, and heavily reference other classic films. Ernest Goes to Jail—one of the best in the series despite its departure from the seasonal, kid-focused formula—pits Ernest against himself. Ernest works as an overnight janitor in a bank, but longs to become a bank clerk. When he accidentally electrocutes himself with a homemade cleaning contraption, he develops a magnetic super power that activates spontaneously. Meanwhile, a hardened criminal scheduled for execution happens to look exactly like a hotter, scarier version of Ernest, learns of his identity during a prison tour, and conspires to switch places. Like Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Goes to Jail leans into its genre roots and makes comedic use of a number of crime and prison movie tropes, but also treats Ernest much more like an adult. It introduces the somewhat awkward side plot of a romantic interest for Ernest, which would continue throughout the Ernest films of the ‘90s.

But more than anything, what makes Ernest Goes to Jail so enjoyable is the way it leans into slapstick comedy and Ernest’s inherently cartoonish qualities. By Ernest Rides Again, the dialogue reflects that Varney has basically become a live action Looney Tunes character. He repeatedly encounters danger and even fatal accidents, only to shake it off and launch into the next cockamamie adventure. While this is a significant component of Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Rides Again centers on this concept as Ernest helps a beleaguered history professor (Ron James) uncover a valuable Revolutionary War cannon—which the long lost crown jewels of England are hidden inside—an iron behemoth which Ernest accidentally sends barreling through the countryside with him astride it as secret agents and an evil professor are on his trail. It’s not quite as endearing as the earlier films, but it’s still a lot of fun in the ways that it borrows from classic comedy, including some direct Buster Keaton homages, and is an increasingly surreal live action take on cartoon mayhem.

The final four Ernest films—Ernest Goes to School (1994), Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Ernest Goes to Africa (1997), and Ernest in the Army (1998)—are more of a departure from the early films of the series. They’re less about Ernest bringing together a band of misfits to overcome some fantastical obstacles and more about Ernest’s attempts to have a career, be accomplished in a particular field, or have a love life. All four films present Ernest in a fish out of water scenario, in which he is challenged to complete high school (Ernest Goes to School), play on a competitive basket team attempting to go pro (Slam Dunk Ernest), escape from diamond poachers in Africa (Ernest Goes to Africa), and survive a warfront (Ernest in the Army). Though much of the comedy in these films hinges on Ernest in increasingly absurd and unlikely scenarios, he remains pure of heart and thoroughly loveable in his ability to relate to and communicate with seemingly anyone free of judgement. Though these latter, direct-to-video Ernest films have not aged particularly well and lack the infectious zaniness of the first few films, they are endearing reminders of Varney’s incredible talent, gone too soon when he died of cancer in 2000. It’s tragic that Varney never had a chance to shine in other roles and demonstrate his talent as a theatrical performer, but he will forever live on through Ernest… knowwhatimean?

Samm Deighan is a writer and critic based in New York. Her published books include The Legacy of World War II in European Arthouse Cinema, Fritz's Lang's M, and Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin. She is a constant contributor to books, Blu-ray commentaries, and podcasts. A list of her work can be found on her Patreon here.