I remember watching every single Ernest movie as a kid. And I’m pretty sure I watched them all at the same friend’s house. Looking back now, Jim Varney did a whole lot of stuff in his lifetime, before playing Slinky Dog in Toy Story 1 and 2.
Most Ernest movies used the same formula for their titles: “Ernest goes to _______” or some kind of version of that. It’s as if whatever movie studio was behind these films knew that the country was obsessed with this character and we’d watch him do pretty much anything. I say country because I don’t think the appeal of the Ernest P. Worrell made it past America (but I could be wrong).
Cut to 20 years later, and Tyler Perry is basically using the same formula for his famous, beloved character, Madea. I’m not saying these characters are one and the same, but there are a few similarities in their stories. Madea and Ernest have even visited a few of the same locations in their on-screen lives.
Ernest and Madea both embarked on different journeys to the big screen, but they were both not intentionally created for film.
Ernest started out in these “Hey Vern” commercials before getting his own TV series. The character was created by Jim Varney and an ad agency for some local commercials. Ernest was so well-received that he was featured in ads for everything (some national), before finally becoming part of a huge movie franchise (the ECU, or Ernest Cinematic Universe).
Madea began as a stage character, loosely based on Tyler Perry’s mother and aunt. She was a way for him to pay homage to these two important women from his life. Tyler Perry played Madea in many stage plays, and the character became a huge hit. The next step was obviously to adapt the character for the screen, but Perry probably didn’t expect Madea to become the star of a huge blockbuster movie franchise.
John Cherry III was the ad exec who created the Ernest character (with the help of Jim Varney). Cherry also took Ernest to Hollywood, writing and directing the Ernest films. Madea was created entirely by Tyler Perry though, who not only played the character on stage and on the big screen, but also wrote, produced and directed many of the films himself.
Stuck in Character:
Jim Varney had become interested in theater from a young age. He even had some big on-stage roles as a teen. Varney was actually a classically-trained actor who performed in many Shakespearean plays. He had some other roles, but was mainly remembered for his portrayal of Ernest P. Worrell.
Along with the Madea franchise, Tyler Perry has written, directed and produced many film and television projects. He’s even built his own empire, Tyler Perry Studios, a 330-acre lot located in Atlanta. Here, he’s not only able to create his own projects but also help others with their creative visions. He also was the lead in the 2012 movie, Alex Cross and he played a lawyer in Gone Girl (2014).
A Tale of Two Travelers:
Ernest and Madea both went to jail. Madea had a few spooky movies, while Ernest was “Scared Stupid.” Ernest attended school and Madea went to her class reunion. Madea had a Christmas while Ernest saved it. Madea went into Witness Protection and Ernest served in the military.
It’s sad that Jim Varney passed away right around the time Madea was created. If Jim Varney was still around today, I’m sure we would see a crossover Madea X Ernest movie: Madea & Ernest Save the Internet, Ernest & Madea Save America, Madea Saves Ernest or Ernest Saves Madea? Maybe Madea vs Ernest (in the style of Freddy vs Jason or the Alien Vs Predator movies).
The main similarity between these two characters is that they inspired giant movie franchises (like James Bond-style). Whether you love or hate Ernest and/or Madea there is something special about each of these characters that kept people wanting to experience more of them.
Madea is no carbon copy of Ernest, I think Madea was the Ernest for the next generation. But who will be the next Ernest or Madea? Probably Ninja, Blippi or some Twitch or Youtube star-kid who gets a huge movie deal.
Borat just released his second movie film, so he’s sort of on track to becoming the next Ernest/Madea. Who knows?
Now enjoy Jim Varney reading some Toy Story Slinky Dog lines…
RIP Jim Varney (aka Ernest P Worrell)