About a week ago, all I knew about the Ernest movies was that the guy who played Ernest also voiced Slinky Dog in Toy Story. Jim Varney was the actor’s name, and I knew that he had died only because Slink’s voice had changed in Toy Story 3 (to the similarly gravel-voiced Blake Clark). I also knew Ernest was big when I was a kid, but to me, he was just a weird guy grinning on the cover of VHS tapes that I never rented from Blockbuster.
So when I had the bright idea of doing an Ernest marathon today, as a 34-year-old man who had never watched a single Ernest film before, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. First of all, I thought there were like four Ernest movies, but only after getting started, did I realize there were actually nine fucking movies, as well as several specials and a goddamn television series.
Still, I’m hardly one to bail on a challenge, especially a self-imposed one. Thus, even with more than 23 hours of Ernest to watch, I dove deep into the lore of Ernest P. Worrell, “The Great Redneck Hope” as he’d come to be known…
Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album (1983)
I wanted to watch everything chronologically — as if that might somehow matter — so I began with Varney’s 1983 comedy special, Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album, which was a series of shorts loosely strung together by the lead character Ernest P. Worrell, a charming and clueless redneck who is always talking to a character named “Vern.” Vern is never seen or heard, but you get the idea that Ernest isn’t welcome.
The premise of the special is that Ernest is showing Vern his family album, which then ties into a sketch featuring one of Varney’s other characters, each of whom is more annoying than the last. Twenty-six minutes into my venture, I almost quit when Varney played Captain Billy, a carnival ride operator who sang to disco music.
I soldiered on, however. At no point did I laugh or enjoy myself, but I could see that Varney was a gifted impressionist and physical comedian, so it wasn’t impossible to understand how he rose from an obscure stand-up comic to movie star. Still, I was hardly looking forward to the remaining 23 hours I had left.
Ernest Film Festival (1986)
Next up was the Ernest Film Festival. Little did I know that I should have watched this first, as it featured Varney’s earliest work as the character. Ernest began as a pitchman in the Nashville area in the early 1980s. He was conceived by Varney and a Nashville ad agency to do commercials for local businesses as well as the occasional national product like Sprite.
Honestly, I found the Ernest commercials to be rather good. The setup for each is similar, in that Ernest is in his buddy Vern’s face, telling him about one product or another. The 30-second format seemed to suit the character much better, as he’s way snappier and more palatable, even when nearly 100 of these ads are put back-to-back. He also throws in the occasional “Golly bob howdy!,” which made me smile because Slinky Dog says that in Toy Story. Ernest’s much more famous catchphrase was “KnoWhutImean?,” and admittedly, despite hearing it over and over again, I didn’t really tire of it either.
Twenty minutes into this video, I let out my first actual laugh as Ernest danced over ice cream. It’s fucking great:
Two minutes later, it happened again, when Ernest pops his head out of Vern’s chimney and offers him dairy products. I’m not ashamed to admit that I began to cry from laughing at this. I also had a bit of a catharsis regarding Ernest, realizing that we — the audience — are Vern and that Ernest is an obsessive psychopath with no respect for his neighbor’s/our privacy. Ernest is supposed to be annoying.
Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam (1986)
The fun, however, didn’t last long. Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam is a sci-fi comedy starring Varney as Dr. Otto, a mad scientist who is taking over the world by some convoluted means. The only reason I watched it was because it was Ernest’s first appearance on film. The entire movie was kind of like the in-between segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000, minus any charm and humor. Ernest has only a passing cameo that bookends the film. I really should have just found those clips online because watching this entire film literally gave me a headache.
Hey Vern, Win $10,000… Or Just Count On Having Fun! (1987)
This was another collection of commercials starring Ernest where he advertises everything from beer to the Boy Scouts of America. It originally aired as a VHS special where you could win $10,000 if you counted the correct number of times Ernest says “Hey Vern!” and “KnoWhutImean?” After Dr. Otto, this was a welcome return to the Ernest I had actually grown to like.
Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! (1988)
Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! was a half-hour children’s program that lasted only 13 episodes on CBS and, let me tell you, it’s fucking brutal. The series is a nonsensical kid’s show with a bunch of wacky characters — and by “wacky” I mean they’re like nails on a fucking chalkboard and I hate every last one of them. The worst of these characters was when Varney played a baby, which is absolute nightmare fuel:
After nearly five hours of this noise I was more than ready to move onto Ernest’s cinematic adventures.
Ernest Goes to Camp (1987)
Ernest’s first film isn’t available anywhere digitally. Trust me, I checked. And so, I had to buy it on DVD from Amazon. Either way, I entered into it more than a little worried. Was I going to get the psycho pitchman that I’d sincerely grown to like, or was I going to get the incessant kid’s show host?
The movie is about a handyman turned camp counselor, and a few minutes into the movie, it’s clear that I had a whole new Ernest on my hands — and this one was, well, more earnest. He’s sweet and lovable and good with kids. Sure, he’s a klutz, but he always sees the best in people and always tries really hard. He even sings a sweet little song in the movie, which I sincerely enjoyed. It even maybe caused me to fight back a single manly tear (shut up, you weren’t there).
While I didn’t find him all that hilarious in the movie, I did still like this version of Ernest and I came to understand why Varney worked well on film. He had a physicality on par with the likes of Jim Carrey and his outsized facial features made his mugging register well on the big screen. There are even some sincerely funny parts, like a scene where Ernest employs paratrooper turtles to stop the bad guys from tearing down the camp. Sure, the movie is dated and a bit slowly paced, but it’s not bad at all.
Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)
I’m a sucker for Christmas movies, so I was already primed to enjoy Ernest Saves Christmas, but I had no idea how much I’d love this movie. To start, it features the return of Ernest the clueless psycho, as he’s a reckless cab driver who continuously puts his passengers — including Santa Claus — in mortal danger.
The movie even features the return of Vern, who we haven’t “seen” since the commercials. This would be the only time Vern would appear in an Ernest movie, but it’s a doozy of an appearance, as Ernest destroys Vern’s house when he delivers him a surprise Christms tree.
The plot is typical Christmas fare — as an aging Santa is looking to find his replacement — but that simple premise paired with the dangerous-yet-lovable weirdo that is Ernest P. Worrell makes for some pretty magical comedy moments.
Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain (1989)
This was a Disney TV special celebrating the opening of Splash Mountain in Disneyland with Ernest being the first “splashtronaut” to ride. It’s about as entertaining as a half-hour commercial for a theme park ride can be (which is to say, not at all). The only interesting thing to me is that Splash Mountain, which was based on the banned Disney movie Song of the South, was only built 31 years ago. People have been saying that movie was racist since it debuted in 1946, so why the fuck did Disney open a ride of it in 1989? Thank God they’re finally overhauling it.
Ernest Goes to Jail (1990)
This one was rough. Ernest gets switched with a prisoner who looks exactly like him, and must escape from jail. Oh, Ernest also becomes magnetized, which makes him impervious to electrocution, including the electric chair. He flies, too, and has lightning powers like the Emperor from Star Wars. Needless to say, I didn’t see any of this coming. Unfortunately, none of it is entertaining.
It’s yet another new Ernest as well, who is kind of like the sincere camp counselor Ernest, but minus the charm. He’s also not quite crazy enough to be funny psycho Ernest either. Instead, he’s now a living, breathing cartoon character in need of far better writers for his gags.
Your World As I See It (1994)
Order be damned, I decided to put this on next so that I could watch it while doing other stuff. But even while distracted, Your World As I See It is annoying as fuck. It’s another VHS special, a series of 40 shorts featuring Varney as an obnoxious rich guy, explaining to the audience how he sees the world. The rich guy then cuts to a single gag done by another character — sometimes it’s Ernest, sometimes it’s not. The thing is, when Varney plays anyone but Ernest (save for Slinky Dog), it’s nothing but annoying.
Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)
Ernest Scared Stupid isn’t awful like the TV show or Ernest Goes to Jail, but it’s still pretty bad. I chuckled at a handful of jokes, like when Ernest anoints himself as “The Great Redneck Hope” after embracing his fate as a troll hunter. Oh, and there are trolls in it. But it’s kind of exhausting to talk about so let’s move on.
Ernest Rides Again (1993)
This was easily the worst Ernest movie so far. In fairness, it’s not as bad as the show — nothing is as bad as the show — but it’s still very, very bad, a convoluted slog featuring Ernest and a professor searching for lost British jewels. The movie was the first in a series of Ernest films where he plays a low-rent Indiana Jones, none of which worked and would ultimately lead to Ernest’s downfall.
I got so bored during it I decided to occupy myself with an arts-and-crafts project. In keeping with the spirit of things, I made Ernest out of Perler Beads. Frankly, I think it turned out pretty great:
Ernest Goes to School (1994)
Ernest completes his transition into full-fledged supernatural being as he’s flattened like Wile E. Coyote in the opening of the film.
This one is terrible and sees Ernest return to school to get his diploma. Halfway through, he is turned into a genius, which, of course, robs Ernest of the only redeeming thing about him — his stupidity. He eventually gets his degree, but who gives a fuck?
Slam Dunk Ernest (1995)
Okay, my standards had been pretty worn down by this point, but I didn’t hate Slam Dunk Ernest, the character’s first fully direct-to-video venture. In it, Ernest joins a basketball team with his buddies, but he sucks, so the “Archangel of Basketball” (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) gives him magical shoes, turning Ernest into a dunking machine. I’m not saying the movie is good, because it most certainly isn’t, I’m just saying that it doesn’t try to be anything more than a shitty direct-to-video adventure, which is to its benefit.
Ernest Goes to Africa (1997)
Yeah, this, um, doesn’t age well. It’s yet another Ernest-as-Indiana-Jones story as Ernest is sent to Africa because he has some African jewels that he unwittingly bought at a flea market. The movie is chock-full of offensive accents and stereotypes — including, of course, blackface — as it bumbles through a really confusing story that kids were somehow supposed to follow.
Ernest in the Army (1998)
After so many bad movies, I held out a little hope that there might be some level of redemption for Ernest P. Worrell. Unfortunately, the final Ernest film was total trash. There was only a single good part — when Ernest tries to reinsert an IV into his friend, nearly murdering him.
What’s upsetting about Ernest in the Army is that, from the title alone, it might have been good. Varney always excelled at physical comedy, but the movie inexplicably skips over the basic-training part when Ernest enlists. Frankly, the entire movie could have been Ernest in basic training, but instead, we’re given another shitty Indiana Jones imitation, with another set of offensive accents tied to the film’s Middle Eastern setting. Frankly, it’s a sad end for a character who deserved better (maybe not a lot better, but better than this).
Two years later, Varney died of lung cancer at age 50. Supposedly, several other Ernest ideas were floating around back then, but Ernest in the Army would be the last time Varney wore that iconic denim vest. And yes, while most of this marathon was a chore, I did gain an appreciation for Varney as a genuinely funny man, even if some very, very bad and problematic choices were made in many of his films. At the very least, I do have a new holiday film on my Christmas rotation. For that alone, this wasn’t a total loss. KnoWhutImean?