Jim Varney brought us the beloved character of Ernest P. Worrell. He would often appear on the big screen but made the jump to TV with a show that should have been more successful than it was.
Hey Vern, It’s Ernest was a kid sketch-comedy show that debuted in 1988. It featured the character of Ernest and many other characters in an educational and entertaining way, but would only last one season.
Growing up in the 80s, there were several things that had a profound influence on me. I liked the usual video games and comic books, but specific things like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and The Far Side comics really appealed to my sensibilities.
And right up there on this list was the work of Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell. It was one of those situations where I felt like the character was made just for me, and appealed to everything I found amusing – especially his trademark “ewwwwwwwwwwwwww…”
Turns out, a lot of other people felt the same way as the work of Jim Varney spread over the decades.
This will be a look back at what I think is one of the most underrated kids shows – and straight-up comedies – of the 80s; Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! A show that was truly underappreciated in its time and should have lasted a lot longer than it did.
The Early Days Before Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!
Jim Varney was a life long performer including some stand-up work. His act reminds me a little of a combination of Jeff Foxworthy and Tim Allen. Things weren’t working out with his performance and he ended up moving away from Los Angeles back to his hometown.
The year was 1980 and he would end up getting a call from a man that would be instrumental in his work over the coming decades: John Cherry.
Cherry had worked in advertising and they had used Varney in a local commercial in the 70s. They now had an idea for a new character and thought Varney would be perfect. The commercial was going to be for a new amusement park. The problem was, the park was still rundown and they were in the process of restoring it. But they wanted to create some buzz without showing the dilapidated park.
The idea for the commercial was to have this guy who was super excited about the park talking to his neighbor about how great it was. This way, they could create awareness and excitement about the park without having to show it. They had the basic idea for the character, but Jim Varney brought his own uniqueness and interpretation of it into what we know as Ernest P. Worrell.
The Rise Of Ernest P. Worrell & Vern
That simple ad was seen by another client called Purity Dairy and they thought the character of Ernest would be the perfect way to advertise their products. They specifically wanted to go after the kid market and the character of Ernest seemed to have some great kid appeal.
I barely remember these, but I do recall back when Jim Varney started out doing commercial work. He was this goofy looking guy with the thick southern accent and seemed like a cartoon character come to life.
Now the ball really gets rolling. Advertisers were clamoring to get Jim Varney – and more specifically, Ernest – into their commercials. He would end up appearing in every type of commercial you could imagine including some big-name brands such as Sprite, Toyota, Hoover, Mountain Dew, and Coca-Cola.
Over the course of his career, Varney would do upwards of 3,000 commercials. Yowza.
Since these were big brands, the commercials were now airing all over the country giving some massive exposure to Ernest. Along the way, we got introduced to his fictitious neighbor ‘Vern’ who he had been selling all the products too.
We also got his now trademark catchphrase: “know what-I-mean?”
Another big part of the appeal was that all the ads had a very local feel as they were all filmed in Cherry’s own home – and they often would film up to 25 different commercials a day.
. This made the character of Ernest feel like a genuine neighbor and some you knew. Varney also said how the idea of the character was the person everyone knew. It was the guy who always had found the better deal, or was more in the know about something new – but not coming across like a jerk; just excited to share.
Ernest Gets “Discovered”
People – and kids – would be thrown off at first due to the fishbowl lens which distorted Ernest’s bizarre appearance, but that would fade to humor and then – “strong sponsor identification.” They dubbed his appeal “red-neck selling power.”
Since this was the 80s, and with pretty much only three networks, there was a good chance that most of the country would see the same commercials.
This led the character of Ernest to have a huge popularity and he started to make appearances all over the country.
One event he would appear at was the Indy 500 in 1986 along with what was thought to be the main attraction: Mickey Mouse.
An article from the LA Times shares how both Ernest and Micky rode around in the pace car, but Micky was seemingly ignored while the crowds went crazy for Ernest P. Worrell. Since the event featured a Disney character, some of the Disney brass was also on hand including Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
He, of course, couldn’t ignore how the crowds were going nuts for this person instead of the world-famous mouse. Disney, who of course only sees dollar signs, wanted to get on board with Jim Varney, and Ernest P. Worrell. But before Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! Would hit the small screens, they had to get him even more exposure.
Ernest Goes To Camp
I loved this movie. We watched it on what seemed like a weekly basis and I couldn’t believe that there was this real-life character who totally appealed to my sense of humor. Ernest Goes To Camp was made on a really small budget so there was no way for it to really be a financial failure.
The plot is really simple and is about Ernest as a camp counselor, trying to save their camp from being torn down. The movie featured a lot of gags that they had used in the commercials and also allowed Varney to do some deeper acting. I remember the scene of him getting the crap kicked out of him by the late Lyle Alzado as pretty upsetting.
The movie came out on May 22nd, 1987, and was generally well-received. The movie was geared towards kids and families and critics were aware that they weren’t reviewing Citizen Kane.
Ernest Goes To Camp made $23.5 million on a budget of only $3 million so ended up being a surprise moneymaker – and a bigger hit than anyone was expecting. The movie also showed producers that Ernest was a valuable property so taking him to the small screen should have been a hit.
How Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! Came Together
John Cherry was once again the man behind getting Hey Vern, It’s Ernest on to tv. His production company – The Emshell Producers Group – joined forces with CBS to bring Ernest P. Worrell to the small screen.
The idea behind the show was to use a sketch-based approach but make it kid-friendly. It would give Varney the opportunity to be as creative as possible which he was often held back from doing. Varney was kind of limited with only performing the character of Ernest, and Hey Vern, It’s Ernest would give him the opportunity to show off his wider range of performance.
The show would be live-action and really give everyone involved the chance to be as creative and imaginative as possible. It would air on Saturday mornings which meant competing against our beloved cartoons. Since they would be live-action, they took the approach of being like a live-action cartoon with quick-moving sketches and multiple characters.
They would also focus on having one theme per week such as outer space, magic, pets, and sports. Everyone involved with the show was intent on making it wacky, but still responsible and beneficial for the kids watching it.
This is one of the things I remember from the show, I felt that it had a touch of educational aspect to it, but not in a boring way like the crap they forced us to watch in school. My focus was on getting this expanded Ernest Universe with a character I loved. But don’t get me wrong, there was still a great amount of gross-out humor including Ernests Tongue where his actual tongue would talk about tongue related issues and end up getting sprayed with different foods.
Getting This Show Put Together
Ernest mania is running wild so getting the show out relatively quickly was paramount. That’s not to say they shortchanged anything and cut corners – quite the opposite actually. A great collection of actors and characters were developed to be able to give a lot of variation to the show.
Besides Ernest, Jim Varney would also play:
- Auntie Nelda
- Dr. Otto – His great catch phrase would be “viola!” or “Eureka, California!”
- Sergeant Glory – Kind of a throwback to one of his first commercials in the 70s, Sergeant Glory would help share the message about the subject of the day
- Baby Ernest – this always killed me, it was Varney dressed as a baby talking about his parents
- Astor Clement – The rich uppity snob who was the complete opposite to the character of Ernest.
I’ve started to see some parallels between Jim Varney and the great Jackie Gleason. There have been a ton of great sketch comedians over the decades, but Varney and Gleason do have some similarities. They both had a wide range of acting talents and these were reflecting in the characters they had. They could do high brow characters like Reginald Van Gleason/Astor Clement, dimwitted characters, but both specialized in physical comedy.
Verney could recite Shakespeare off the top of his head, but he knew what his audience really wanted.
Hey Vern, It’s Ernest also brought along Bill Byrge as Bobby and Gailard Sartain as Chuck who were featured in many of the movies and goes back to the early commercial work.
The show would still be filmed in the familiar fishbowl lens style from the Ernest commercials which was used to heighten the humorous appearance.
The Release of Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!
Hey Vern, It’s Ernest would debut on September 17th, 1988 for 13 episodes ending on Christmas Eve, 1988.
And that would be it.
I went nuts for these shows as it was everything I loved about Ernest taken to another level. There was so much variety and absurd humor that I was in heaven. It also had this wacky intro reminiscent of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse that I always loved too.
But not as many people felt the same way.
It’s hard to tell what went wrong as it was seen as one of the most original and unique shows to come to TV in years. Some compared it to the great Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from the 60s. And the focus on making the shows have an educational component didn’t go unnoticed as Hey Vern, It’s Ernest won Jim Varney a daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Series.
Despite this, CBS took Hey Vern, It’s Ernest off the schedule for the new fall season.
It’s hard to tell what the problem was, but it may have been the issue of a live-action show going up against cartoons. That was always a tough go, especially this being the time of “When Saturday Rocks on CBS!” There were so many great cartoons that could only be seen on Saturday mornings so maybe that’s why live-action slipped by the wayside at first?
But Ernest fans wouldn’t take this lying down. An article in the Chicago Tribune on July 8, 1989, tells the story of a massive letter-writing campaign to save the show.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one that loved it.
The Ernst Fan Club had 30,000 members and they, along with Varney, used the Emmy win, and the writing campaign to make the network reconsider.
But it didn’t work.
Jim Varney & Ernest P. Worrell Return To The Movies
It’s funny because, despite the failure of the show, the character of Ernest was still a hot property. Maybe this was because people preferred seeing Ernest along in an adventure? Or that a lot of his audience was a bit older and didn’t want to watch a kids show on Saturday morning?
Either way, Ernst was still a pretty decent movie draw and Varney and Cherry would continue to put out Ernest properties over the coming years. There was one of my favorite Christmas movies; Ernest Saves Christmas, and then I didn’t realize the amount of Ernest movies that came out over the years:
- Ernest Goes To Jail
- Ernest Scared Stupid
- Ernest Rides Again
- Ernest Goes To School
- Slam Dunk Ernest
- The Importance Of Being Earnest – wait, no
- Ernest Goes To Africa
- Ernest In The Army
Again, they had the formula down pretty well which meant they could make these movies for next to nothing so they usually turned a little profit – even if they went straight to video.
I had stopped watching Ernest movies awhile back but in 1995 he would voice the character of Slinky Dog in a new CGI movie called Toy Story. I remember hearing the voice of Varney as Slinky Dog and taking it a minute to register. I knew that I definitely knew what this voice was, but couldn’t put my finger on it.
I remember the sense of joy when realizing it was one of my beloved childhood favorites, and even though there was a whole new generation that didn’t know him, he still made an impact on them.
Wrapping It Up
Jim Varney would, unfortunately, pass away in 2000 at the very young age of 50. As tragic as this was, he was able to leave an indelible mark on a whole generation of kids and had fans all over the world. Even at this stage, he still had a few movies coming down the pipeline: one called Ernest Goes To Space, and another called Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.
I’m clearly a big fan of Jim Varney and it’s just really unfortunate that Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! Didn’t last longer. I think it could have made an even bigger impact on the world of kids shows if it was just given some more time. A guy as creative as Jim Vaney would only continue to create, and I think we missed out on what could have been one of the best kids shows ever made.
Regardless of this, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest was a dream come true to a kid like me. It took the character I already loved and put him into every circumstance you could think of. It was off the rails – which I loved – but still had some character and warmth to it.
Know what I mean?