Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story

Mill Creek Entertainment
Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

Super Bowl: When Tie-In Novelty Cereals Ruled the 1980s

Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tidal wave of merchandising following the release of Star Wars in 1977 was a fundamental transformation in how pop culture could be monetized. Thousands of items, ranging from clothing to toys, were produced from dozens of licensees. Fans could wake up on Darth Vader bedsheets, brush their teeth with a Yoda toothbrush, and slip on a Chewbacca backpack before catching the school bus.

The lone exception to that escapist morning routine? Breakfast cereal. It wasn’t until 1984—seven years after the original Star Wars hit theaters—that fans could purchase C-3POs, a puffed-wheat breakfast concoction that featured the golden droid on boxes. The delay was the result of changing tastes in the realm of product licensing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the major cereal companies figured out that people wanted to literally consume their entertainment.

 

Cereals have long relied on colorful characters as a way of marketing their wares. Tony the Tiger was introduced by Kellogg’s in 1951 and quickly became the solo mascot for Frosted Flakes after cohorts Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Elmo the Elephant fell by the wayside. Store aisles were soon stocked with boxes bearing Toucan Sam (Fruit Loops); Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Rice Krispies); and the dubiously ranked Cap’n Crunch.

As the decades wore on, the characters became intergenerational, able to appeal to kids and adults who remembered them from their youth. But it was also hard to muscle in on the market with so many of those mascots dominating shelf space. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cereal makers took notice of census reports hinting at a growing population of kids under the age of 9 and began plotting ways to appeal to tiny, outstretched hands at grocery stores. Their solution was existing brand recognition. Why spend time and effort creating a new cereal mascot when they could effectively lease one with a built-in fan base?

General Mills, then and now one of the leading cereal manufacturers, owned toy company Kenner. Kenner, in turn, had a licensing deal with American Greetings, owners of the popular Strawberry Shortcake property. In September 1982, General Mills debuted a Strawberry Shortcake cereal, the first to be based on a licensed fictional character. To the great satisfaction of General Mills executives, it was a major success. Shortcake fans devoured it.

Quickly, General Mills pursued an E.T. cereal, based on the smash 1982 movie. Arriving in 1984, the company believed a sequel—which never materialized—would keep it flying off shelves. A Pac-Man cereal followed. When neither product managed to reach Shortcake-level success, General Mills stopped pursuing licenses in 1985. But that was hardly the end of tie-in corn puffs.

Ralston Purina, a conglomerate that counted both breakfast cereal and dog food among its offerings, was faced with only minimal market share when compared to the “Big Two” titans: General Mills and Kellogg’s. Because launching a brand-new cereal was such an expensive proposition—marketing costs could grow to $40 million during the first year alone—it made more sense for Ralston to capitalize on existing properties, where their expenditure might only be $10 to $12 million. Their first attempt was a sugary riff on Cabbage Patch Kids. Released in 1985—at the point in Cabbage Patch mania where adults were getting into physical altercations over the dolls—it sold well, and Ralston seemed to have found its niche.

 

The next few years would see a number of Ralston products hit stores. Cereals based on Donkey Kong, Spider-Man, Gremlins, Rainbow Brite, Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Batman made what would otherwise be generic cereals palatable to a youth demographic and had novelty beyond the brand associations. The company’s Nintendo Cereal System in 1989 had one box with two different bags of multi-colored cereal. Others, like Batman, came with super-sized prizes like a coin bank that was shrink-wrapped to the box. Never mind that many of the concoctions were almost identical—the Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal had pieces resembling Ralston’s Chex cereal relabeled “spider webs” or “ninja nets.” Fans of the properties ate it up.

Owing to their status as a tie-in product, these cereals had one fatal flaw: They typically sold well for just 14 to 18 months, whereas Tony the Tiger could keep moving flakes for decades. But by the time one cereal began to decline, another was ready to take its place. If Ralston’s Jetsons grew stale on shelves, Bill and Ted's Excellent Cereal was ready to go. The company found its most enduring tie-in with its marshmallow-stuffed Ghostbusters cereal, which remained a bestseller for an incredible five years running. (Propped up by an animated series and a 1989 sequel, it kept the property visible. C-3POs, in contrast, suffered from a lack of any new Star Wars movies after 1983.)

Not everyone could make the premise work. Quaker’s Mr. T cereal bombed. Ralston’s own Prince of Thieves cereal, an attempt to capitalize on 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie, was victimized by contractual limitations. Star Kevin Costner refused to appear on the box, diminishing the association.

 

Ralston continued the tie-ins into the 1990s, with the Family Matters-endorsed Urkel-Os joining cereals based on The Addams Family, Batman Returns, and others, usually paying a 3 to 5 percent royalty on each box sold to the licensors. While it made Ralston profitable, it also made them appealing for a buyout. To cement their status as cereal king, General Mills wound up buying Ralston in 1996 for $570 million. The deal largely put an end to the licensing promotions.

Today, there’s nostalgia for these edible gimmicks. Funko, the company behind the Pop! vinyl figures, maintains a line of themed cereals based on Pac-Man and less obvious properties like The Golden Girls. Unopened boxes of Batman cereal pop up on eBay from time to time. Some cereal loyalists even try to replicate the flavors, mixing Lucky Charms and Crispix to mimic the distinctively chalky taste of Spider-Man cereal. But for the most part, the industry has fallen back on the same standbys that were popular 70 years ago.

As one brand executive put it: Kellogg’s doesn’t need the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they’ve got Corn Flakes.

Overall Charm: Remembering Hasbro's My Buddy Doll

Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If your toy company's boy-oriented doll doesn’t set the world on fire, you might take comfort in the fact it partially inspired a series of slasher movies. That was the case for My Buddy, an oversized doll first introduced by Hasbro in 1985 that failed to make waves on store shelves but informed the creation of the carrot-topped spree killer doll Chucky in writer Don Mancini and director Tom Holland’s 1988 film Child’s Play.

In 1985, toy stores were stocked to the brim with some of the most indelible properties of the decade. Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids were a bona fide phenomenon, ringing up $540 million in sales the year prior. Masters of the Universe was Mattel’s hit, with both the action figures and ancillary products doubling the take of the Cabbage people.

Then there was My Buddy, which seemed to straddle the gender lines the other major toy companies had drawn. The Cabbage Patch dolls were highly desirable among young girls; boys gravitated toward the veiny, sword-wielding characters of the He-Man franchise. In marketing My Buddy, Hasbro hoped to pioneer a new toy category: a doll line for boys.

The idea was not totally alien to the market. As far back as the early 20th century, boys played with dolls regardless of whether the toys were marketed specifically toward them or not. The difference was that the dolls were often depicting adult men and women. As time went on and manufacturers began focusing on dolls resembling infants, interest on the part of young male consumers began to trail off.

Hasbro reversed that trend in 1964 with the introduction of G.I. Joe, a line of 12-inch, fabric-outfit military figures intended to do for boys what Mattel’s Barbie had done for the female demographic. Though Joe would go on to inhabit smaller, molded plastic sculpts in the 1980s, the idea of boys playing with plush toys was still of interest. With My Buddy, Hasbro banked on the doll’s heft—at an imposing 23 inches, it was a fair bit larger than the Cabbage Patch line—to ensnare juvenile consumers.

My Buddy was intended to be a companion for boys perceived as more active than girls, canvassing neighborhoods on Big Wheels, clutching My Buddy as they climbed into tree houses, and possibly making him an inadvertent object in a game of touch football. Clad in durable overalls, My Buddy seemed designed for extended trips through dirty terrain.

“My Buddy is positioned as macho,” Hasbro's senior vice president of marketing Stephen Schwartz told The Boston Globe in 1985. “It’s soft macho, but it’s still macho. We show them climbing up trees, riding their bikes. We didn’t position it like a girl doll, soft and sweet.”

Excited by the potential, Hasbro backed My Buddy with an effective ad campaign led by an infectious song:

Unlike other toys with complex personal narratives, My Buddy possessed no agency. He was simply there to accompany his human on adventures. Hasbro’s intent was easily discerned through ad copy: “A little boy’s special friend! Rough and tough, yet soft and cuddly.”

Amid a competitive toy year, the $25 My Buddy fared well in 1985. While Cabbage Patch Kids remained a goliath, Hasbro had four of the top 10 bestselling toys on the market: Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and My Buddy, which ranked eighth on the list.

That success would not last. If boys did not find fault with playing with dolls, some adults did, expressing puzzlement that My Buddy would hold appeal for the blood-and-guts dominion of the boys toys market. Los Angeles Times columnist Bevis Hillier called My Buddy “an unprepossessing creature who also has overalls and freckles but has managed to get his cap on the right way round. With his big, goggling eyes, he is half winsome, half bruiser.” Hillier went on to express doubt that a boy would find the prospect of dressing the doll in his own retired baby clothes enticing.

My Buddy and his various offshoots—there was a Kid Sister—hung on for a few years before disappearing from shelves. The doll market for boys was mostly relegated to Wrestling Buddies, a line of WWE-themed stuffed companions that encouraged boys to drop elbows and grapple them to the floor. My Buddy, with his largely pacifistic persona, invited no such confrontations. Despite Hasbro’s hopes, My Buddy failed to signal a breakdown in gender-specific toys. Mattel’s She-Ra line, an action figure spin-off of He-Man targeted toward girls, failed to take off. My Pet Monster, a plush toy for boys, came and went.

Hasbro subsidiary Playskool continued manufacturing My Buddy into the 1990s. Today, the overall-clad figure is mostly remembered as a model for the murderous Chucky, the doll villain at the center of the Child's Play franchise.

While it never gained iconic status beyond being a horror movie influence, My Buddy did offer a bit of foreshadowing in how toy companies market to consumers based on gender. In 2017, the first male American Girl doll, Logan, was released. Not long after, Mattel ran ads depicting boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with Hot Wheels. My Buddy may not have been a raging success, but its attempts to deconstruct some of the persistent stereotypes in the toy world were ahead of their time.

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