Remember Jim Varney, who played Ernest — the pop-eyed, rubbery-faced guy with the big smile? His adventures in movies, including Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Saves Christmas, and Ernest Scared Stupid, made people laugh.
Twin filmmakers/lifelong Varney fans — and Memphians — Eyan and Ivon Wuchina, 29, made a short documentary, Ernest Day, about the actor and his alter ego. It's named after the annual event in Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee.
"Ernest was an empire," Ivon says, adding: "He's out there with the Three Stooges. His skill, his determination, his energy."
- Eyan and Ivon Wuchina
"He was a likeable guy," Eyan says. "Anything he did, no matter how he messed it up, it was always out of the goodness of his heart."
Eyan brought his Ernest doll, which talks when a string on its back is pulled, to Ernest Day. "I had so much respect for Jim Varney, I had to strap the doll to my body. Wore it," he says. "It was in like a Christ-like pose on my chest."
The twins' fascination with Ernest began when they were children living in rural Williamson County in Tennessee. Their grandmother loved the Ernest TV commercials. "Commercials were always Ernest talking to his neighbor, Vern, who you'd never see," Ivon says.
Varney, born in Lexington, Kentucky, was a classically trained actor who began working with John Cherry, who owned an ad agency in Nashville, Eyan says.
Cherry developed Varney's Ernest character, Ivon says. "He based Ernest off of a guy whose name was Ernest, who worked with his father.
"Ernest is somebody we all know," he says. "Somebody who thinks they know everything but actually knows nothing."
For the TV commercials, Varney adopted the "traditional Ernest look" — the denim vest, khaki hat, and jeans, Eyan says.
In real life — except for his sense of humor and friendliness — Varney wasn't Ernest, Ivon says. He "always dressed really fresh. He had his ears pierced. He wore jewelry — like rings, gold chains, stuff like that."
Ernest Goes to Camp, released in 1987, was the first Ernest feature film Cherry directed for theatrical release. Varney went on to make eight more Ernest movies.
During his career, Varney got away from the Ernest character. He played Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies, the villain Lothar Zogg in 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain, and Uncle Hazel in Daddy and Them with Billy Bob Thornton.
Varney was the voice of Slinky Dog in his last movie, Toy Story 2. In 2000, he died from lung cancer at the age of 50.
Ivon and Eyan, who began watching Ernest movies on TV when they were toddlers, says Varney influenced them to become filmmakers. "Growing up in Tennessee, people talk about, 'Hey, the Ernest movies were filmed here,'" Eyan says. "So, growing up as people obsessed with movies and wanting to do films ourselves, it gave us the energy and gumption."
They took footage at Ernest Day in 2017 with the idea to document the event for a future movie. They interviewed everybody from Cherry to a guy named Victor, "who had a tattoo of Ernest on his calf," Eyan says.
"I was dressed as Ernest both years," Ivon says.
The idea behind the Varney documentary was "to remind people how big he was," Ivon adds.
The biggest compliment about the documentary showed up on Twitter. "Judd Apatow, the director, retweeted [the YouTube link to] our Ernest movie," says Ivon."The biggest comedy director of our time, basically, retweets an Ernest movie. He loves Ernest, too."