Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Hey, Vern. You're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever."

A few years ago, while visiting my home town of Starkville, Mississippi, I happened to be in a DVD retail store with my buddy Joe. There I spotted a true gem from my childhood. It was The Essential Ernest Collection, starring Jim Varney as his most famous character Ernest P. Worrell. Now if you're old enough to remember Ernest, it's likely from the Ernest movie series of the 1980s and 90s, such as Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Scared Stupid, etc. And the Essential Ernest collection does contain two of those films, Ernest Goes to Africa and Ernest in the Army. However, Varney had been doing the Ernest character for a long while before it spun off into movies.

Ernest started as a staple of TV advertising, with Varney working for a ad agency out of Nashville, using Ernest to pitch any number of different products around the south and beyond, always using the "Hey, Vern, knowhutImean?" schtick. (His director at the ad agency would eventually go on to direct the Ernest films.) For those unfamiliar--and I don't know whether to pity you or be envious of you--the Ernest P. Worrell character was a good-natured yokel type who was constantly pestering his nearly unseen neighbor Vern. (The commercials were filmed from Vern's silent perspective, so the most you ever saw of him was a hand.) Usually, the set up was that Ernest would pop up at Vern's open kitchen window and yammer on until Vern got sick of him, slammed the window on his hands and closed the blinds. Or sometimes Ernest would pop up to a second story window on a ladder to annoy Vern from a height, that usually ended in Vern pushing the ladder away from the house. There were several other such setups and variations on those setups and they ran for years.

Varney did other acting work as well. He was a regular on the legendary talk show parody Fernwood Tonight and its sequel series America 2 Night. I don't think I saw any of those, but I did see a short lived TV series he was in called The Rousters, which I watched quite a bit, and was particularly taken with Varney's work. And I was aware of his Ernest Character around the same time because his ads would frequently turn up on Dick Clark's TV's Best Commericals specials.

Before making the leap to the big screen in Ernest Goes to Camp, Varney tested the waters with a few shorter, non-advertising pieces to see if Ernest might have legs outside of the 30 second format. I think these were all released direct to video, though they could have been shown on TV for all I know. One of those, which I was delighted to find collected on the Essential Ernest set, was called Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album.

The basic setup of Family Album was a framing sequence in which Ernest pesters his friend Vern, as usual, recycling many of the bits they'd come up with in the ad campaign, minus the product pitch. Instead, Ernest was trying to show Vern his family album, which allowed them to cut away to show five or so 10 minute shorts with Varney playing some of Ernest's relatives from the past.

From junior high through high school, I had to have watched Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album half a dozen times. It probably built slowly, with me and my sister first watching it, then one or two of my friends seeing it separately, then recommending it for group movie night, then re-renting it when other friends who hadn't seen it yet joined for the next movie night, then re-re-re-renting in college it just for shits and giggles, etc. And lines from it became some of the most quoted among our group. ("Ruth, what are we pretendin' we're having for supper tonight?" " "Daddy? You gonna rock me to sleep? Here, daddy, use my rock." And, of course, the immortal "Did you sayum, Luke?")

After purchasing that DVD set, I put it in my Magic bag (where I keep all my Magic: the Gathering cards) and returned home with it unwatched. And because I pretty much only play Magic while hanging out with Joe when I go home to Starkville, I had no cause to open the bag for around another year. So I was happily surprised, a year later, when I found the set again while unpacking my cards in Starkville. Didn't watch it then, either. In fact, I think I probably carried that bag with that DVD set back and forth from year to year for at least three years and the DVD remained unwatched. Eventually, I removed it from the bag and put it with the rest of my DVDs, which also don't get watched.

This year for Thanksgiving, Joe and his family drove up from Mississippi to Borderland. Joe now has two kids, a four year old and a one year old, both wildly intelligent kids that we're mighty proud to have as godchildren. Before they arrived, not yet knowing just how addicted his oldest kid is to Little Big Planet, and how he would spend nearly every waking moment for four days hounding me to play it with him, I went through my DVDs in advance to see if there was anything appropriate for kids to keep them busy if need be. (I went ahead and buried Tideland in the back yard, not only to protect the children but also to protect ME. Don't let me dissuade you from watching it, but just know that when Terry Gilliam comes on screen BEFORE the movie to warn you that what you're about to see is, to the minds of a LOT of people, seriously EFFed up, he's not playing around. I mean, it's not quite Eraserhead EFFed up, but it's somewhere between there and, say, Trainspotting EFFed up. It's also strangely uplifting, from a certain warped perspective.) And there it was, my Ernest DVD set. I told the wife of my plan and she approved, since my father-in-law is a fan of Ernest as well.

The Friday night after Thanksgiving, everyone looking for something to do together, my wife announced we were sitting down to watch Ernest Goes to Africa.

"Oh, no," I said. "We're watching Ernest's Family Album." I'd been jonsing to sit down and show this gem of comic gold to my family and friends. Oh, the laughs we would have. It would be the hit of the holiday season.

"Fine. Whatever," she said.

And so everybody settled back, I popped in the DVD, settled down on the floor in front of the fire and set my eyes to watching a film I probably haven't seen in at least 20 years. And after half an hour, I realized what a horrible mistake this probably was. Yes, thirty minutes in and I'd had maybe MAYBE three laughs. The rest of the time I was tensely sitting there wondering why this damn movie wasn't nearly as funny as I remembered it being, and how most of the punchlines could be seen coming from a goodly distance. My film-lover's perspective began noticing how the framing sequence was kind of redundant in places, and how the pacing of the stories was more than a bit drawn out. How had this been so beloved by me and my friends? Oh, that's right, we were young and stupid.

This is not to say that the film is not without its good points. The first two stories are definitely the best of the lot, though, (which is why I'm including them here via YouTube) . Particularly Ernest's Uncle Lloyd, which is the funnier of the two and contains most of my favorite lines that we used to quote. After these, though, the returns begin to diminish greatly and the squirms begin to set in. Or at least they did in me, being the guy who had insisted on everyone being subjected to it. The last two stories in the film are by far the worst. I think sum total I had probably five or six moderately good laughs and not much else.

I didn't wait for the credits to end before turning it off. I felt stung.

"Wow. That was... great... babe," my wife said dryly. I wanted to throw it in her face that Ernest Goes to Africa wouldn't have been any better, but after what we'd just witnessed I had no real proof of that. No one else said much. No one else left in the room, that is. It seemed my mother-in-law had snuck away to bed at some point during the run and my father-in-law disappeared quickly thereafter.

"Yeah. I think I can wait another 20 years before watching that again," I said.

I don't mean to crap on Jim Varney, who I still think was a very talented man. I have fond memories of at least two of the Ernest movies, as well as his Saturday morning kids show featuring Ernest and a cast of other Varney characters. (Doctor Otto is wonderful and I don't care who hears me say it.) But be warned: Beloved things from your childhood can be dangerous to revisit while wearing contemporary glasses.

This story reminds me of another story, which also involves Ernest P. Worrell and godchildren, er, sort of...

And in telling this tale, I will be staking my proof of concept claim to an idea that I had during college. I'm not going to go so far as to claim it was a good idea, but it was definitely an intriguing concept. It was thus: The Ernest/Godfather Film Festival.

That's right. At some point in one of my junior years, I announced to my friends that what we should do is hold the first annual Ernest/Godfather Film Festival in which we stock up one of our apartments with unwholesome snacks and drinks, put Dominoes on speed dial, then set about to watch Ernest Goes to Camp followed by The Godfather Part I. Then, because there are far more Ernest films than Godfather films, we'd order the pizza and watch Ernest Saves Christmas and Ernest Goes to Jail. Then, after the pizza arrived (our Dominoes was EFFing slow), we'd hit Godfather II, Ernest Scared Stupid, and Ernest Rides Again. Then, if anyone was still non comatose, we'd fire up Godfather III, which would fix that pretty handily. If anyone was alive and present after that, we'd put on Ernest Goes to School, and Slam Dunk Ernest. (This was 1995, mind you, so Ernest Goes to Africa and Ernest in the Army had not been released yet, otherwise we would have worked them in as alternates, should Movie Gallery not have all the others.) Anyone surviving to the end of the 20 plus hour festival would win a prize, which would probably be the choice of either a VHS copy of Godfather III or a beating. Most, I'm certain, would choose the beating.

While I think we considered attempting such a festival, we never actually did. We just threatened to. But it was a funny enough concept that it made the rounds and eventually came back to me from a friend of a friend of a friend, who had by then become my friend. The subject of Ernest had come up somehow and the new friend told Joe and me about the Ernest/Godfather film festival, attributing its authorship to our other friend, the infamous Mark Chow. Link
"Oh, no," I said. "I'm afraid that one's mine."

Now that I think about it, perhaps this would be a good film festival topic for a charity fund-raising event, kind of like a walk-a-thon, but worse. People could pledge donations based on the number of survivors. And with two more Ernest films available now, we're looking at probably a day long event.

You are, of course, welcome to try your own version at home. But you have to kick my cut upstairs.

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