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.''

Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

iStock
iStock

When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
iStock

Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
iStock

Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

When WWF Wrestling Figures Ruled the '80s

Zorro Mendez, YouTube
Zorro Mendez, YouTube

When the action figure market heated up in the 1980s, a number of companies were delivering very positive earnings reports to shareholders. Mattel made $350 million marketing its He-Man line in 1984 alone; Hasbro's G.I. Joe regularly topped holiday wish lists curated by newspapers. So did their Transformers, which earned $300 million in 1985.

Many of the more successful figures were either based on or supported by animated shows that effectively acted as advertising for their licensed merchandise. With this template established, it's not difficult to see why toymaker LJN saw opportunity in partnering with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), a larger-than-life parade of grapplers that clashed in weekly televised matches. The end result—a large variety of 8-inch, heavy-duty rubber figures that could withstand aggressive imaginary play—became one of the most successful toys lines of the 1980s.

A screen capture of a Hillbilly Jim LJN wrestling action figure
John Wild, YouTube

Founded in 1970 by Jack Friedman, LJN had experienced some dizzying highs and lows in the mercurial world of toymaking. In 1982, the company acquired the license to produce items based on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. With other potential licensees dubious about the film's potential, LJN was able to get the rights for a relatively paltry $35,000. The movie, of course, was a massive hit and the products reaped millions of dollars in revenue. Friedman took to driving around New York with a vanity license plate that read, "Thanx ET."

Two years later, LJN was less successful when the company launched a toy line based on 1984's Dune, David Lynch's big-budget, widely ignored feature film adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel. LJN paid $2 million for the rights and watched as kids passed up Kyle MacLachlan and sand worm toys in favor of more Star Wars items.

"We all went to Mexico City to meet with [Dune producer] Dino De Laurentiis and got food poisoning," Karyn Weiss, who worked at LJN in product development at the time, tells Mental Floss. "The president of Toys 'R' Us was there. He got sick, too."

Fortunately, LJN had other prospects. As Dune was sinking, the WWF was making a rapid move into popular culture. When MTV began airing their matches, the WWF benefited from the mainstream appeal of guest stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. The wrestling league and its best-known performer, Hulk Hogan, were something like a touring superhero troupe. Vince McMahon, who ran the organization, had successfully taken the sport from its roots as a regional attraction into something that had national recognition. In addition to a weekly television series, McMahon would eventually profit from tie-in products like shirts and ice cream bars. VHS cassettes of the inaugural WrestleMania and its 1986 sequel would sell more than 1 million units each. Action figures seemed like an obvious next step.

"Wrestling was getting hot and people were talking about it," Weiss says. A meeting between LJN executives and McMahon went well, and the two companies began working on a line of figures and accessories.

According to the Fully Poseable Wrestling Figure Podcast interview with an LJN sculptor, what became the familiar 8-inch, rubber-molded aesthetic of the WWF line happened by accident. LJN planned on making the figures closer in size to the 3.75-inch height typical of most action figures of the era. They sent McMahon the larger prototypes for approval. When he saw their proportions, he figured it was more in line with his mammoth wrestlers and insisted the toys remain that size.

A photo of a Hulk Hogan LJN wrestling action figure
Grant Baciocco, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While Hogan was the clear star of McMahon's roster and was likely going to remain on top for the foreseeable future, LJN relied on the WWF to tell them which wrestlers could be expected to maintain their popularity over the time it would take to get the figures into production. "We met with McMahon every six months and he'd tell us which wrestlers he was going to make popular," Weiss says. "Those are the ones we'd go into production with each year. He'd say, 'Hogan's going to keep the belt, Roddy Piper's going to be big.'"

The first wave of nine figures released in spring 1984 featured Hogan wearing his WWF world title belt, Piper, André the Giant, Big John Studd, Hillbilly Jim, The Iron Sheik, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Junkyard Dog, and Nikolai Volkoff. (Notably absent was Sergeant Slaughter, an anvil-chinned military recruit who allegedly upset McMahon when he signed his own separate toy deal with Hasbro to appear in their G.I. Joe line.)

Once or twice a year, Weiss and other LJN employees would congregate at a production studio in New Rochelle, New York, to shoot commercials with the wrestlers. “André was bigger than life,” Weiss says. “They were all very lovely. We talked mostly about how they got into the wrestling business.” LJN also made sure the wrestlers made appearances at the annual Toy Fair in New York.

Unlike He-Man and G.I. Joe, who could bend at the joints and were made of lightweight plastic, the WWF figures were solid molded rubber. As a projectile launched at a sibling’s head, they hurt. But they were also tough enough to sustain themselves through cage matches, battle royales, and other clashes. Some figures based on massive wrestlers like King Kong Bundy were essentially blobs of heavy rubber that would have increased shipping costs. “They came in on boats from Hong Kong,” Weiss says.

By December 1985, LJN had sold 4 to 5 million of the figures, which retailed for $6 to $10 apiece. Second-quarter earnings for the company ballooned from $8.3 million in 1985 to $55.7 million in 1986, erasing the bad taste left over from the Dune deal and helping make LJN a major player in the action figure aisles, with some additional help from their Thundercats line.

Kid-sized wrestling belts, exercise kits, tag team sets, thumb wrestlers, and other products followed. Roughly 1.4 million wrestling rings—which were later recalled in 1991 due to having pointed posts that could impale children—were sold. Bendies were smaller, posable versions of the larger figures; LJN also made a 16-inch Hogan doll that had a rip-away shirt. And it wasn’t just McMahon who enjoyed the profits. In a 1986 interview with United Press International, “Macho Man” Randy Savage estimated a third of his income came from merchandising revenue.

The line continued through 1989, at which point LJN decided to make a move into the burgeoning video game industry and passed on renewing their license with the WWF. It would eventually go through a succession of licensees including Hasbro, JAKKS Pacific (which was owned by Jack Friedman), and Mattel, where it currently resides. Though the newer toys have multiple points of articulation for better simulated grappling, kids who grew up with the rubber toys prize the unopened products that can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Wrestling hasn't left Weiss’s attention, either. Now a licensing and marketing executive for Accessory Innovations, she handles licensing deals for backpacks. “We have 40 different licenses, and wrestling is one of them,” she says. “So I’m still doing it.”

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