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THE MORNING BUZZ: Saluting A Humor Hero

4 Jun, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

It's time to start thinking about Halloween product and, as with most holidays, I find myself asking the same, burning question: Where's the love for Ernest P. Worrell?

This may not seem like a weighty concern for many folks. It's not like there's a shortage of scare fare or even children's Halloween titles, or family titles for any holiday. Like the greeting card companies, the studios know a good theme when they see it.

Perhaps that's why there are two Ernest titles for holidays – Ernest: Scared Stupid and Ernest Saves Christmas – as well as the summer-themed Ernest Goes To Camp. And, while they seem to escape my colleagues' notice, those titles will surface on DVD for the first time in September (from Buena Vista Home Entertainment). There are several other Ernest titles as well as films in which the character appeared in smaller roles.

I doubt we can expect any extras. Ernest – actor Jim Varney – died of lung cancer in February 2000 after a 30-year TV and film career that started with ads and the Johnny Cash show in the 1970s and continued with movies and finally voice-acting roles in animated features, at least one of which – Atlantis: The Lost Empire – was released after his death.

What is it about guys named Jim? Like Jim Nabors, who has an amazing singing voice, the comic talent who was Jim Varney had the kind of funny looks that relegated him to goofy roles in everything from TV commercials to the theatrical remake of The Beverly Hillbillies.

The wacky parts make Varney's work an enduring, if guilty, pleasure for me. I still think it's funny to see him not only as Ernest, but playing all of Ernest's relatives as well. In any given film he might have more costume changes than a Madonna concert.

If you look at it that way, Varney was a marketing genius. He created a character, developed the character first into a family, then into an entire franchise. Even now it's doubly foolish to ask if Ernest has lost his relevance over time, because Ernest's great claim to fame was always irrelevance.

I like his silly lines, rubber-faced expressions and childlike innocence. I like the sight gags and nutty puns. There is nothing plausible about Ernest movies, they're all ridiculous from beginning to end.

But that's the appeal. In a time when everything around us is serious, contentious business, when the fate of the world may hang in the balance, Ernest movies still give us a chance to laugh and forget those cares.

So at every holiday – and believe me, in my family you need a laugh most around holidays – I'll keep asking for Ernest. I'll keep renting Ernest and sharing him with the family's youngsters. I'll keep the Ernest flame burning because we all need something to laugh about and for me, Ernest P. Worrell nearly always works.

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