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.''

When Y2K Sent Us Into a Digital Depression

iStock.com/Laspi
iStock.com/Laspi

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the paranoia first began to creep in. Sometime during the late 1990s, consumers noticed that their credit cards with expiration dates in the year 2000 were being declined by merchants. Shortly thereafter, people began stocking up on shelf-stable food and water, potentially condemning themselves to months of all-SPAM diets. A number of concerned citizens outside of Toronto, Canada, flocked to the Ark Two Survival Community, a nuclear fallout shelter-turned-bunker comprised of dozens of decommissioned school buses buried several feet below the Earth and protected by a layer of reinforced concrete.

In the months leading into New Year's Day 2000, millions of people steeled themselves for a worst-case scenario of computers succumbing to a programming glitch that would render them useless. Banking institutions might collapse; power grids could shut down. Anarchy would take over. The media had the perfect shorthand for the potential catastrophe: Y2K, for Year 2000. The term was used exhaustively in their coverage of a situation some believed had the potential to become one of the worst man-made disasters in history—if not the collapse of modern civilization as we knew it.

In the end, it was neither. But that doesn't mean it didn't have some far-reaching consequences.

John Koskinen of the President's Council on Y2K Conversion makes a public address
Michael Smith, Getty Images

The anticipatory anxiety of Y2K was rooted in the programs that had been written for the ginormous computers of the late 1960s. In an effort to conserve memory and speed up software, programmers truncated the date system to use two digits for the year instead of four. When the calendar was set to roll over to the year 2000, the belief was that "00" would be a proverbial wrench in the system, with computers unable to decipher 2000 from 1900. Their calculations would be thrown. Using "98" for 1998 was a positive value; using "00" would result in negative equations. How computers would react was based mostly on theories.

That ambiguity was quickly seized upon by two factions: third-party software consultants and doomsday preppers. For the former, rewriting code became a cottage industry, with corporations large and small racing to revise antiquated systems and spending significant amounts of money and manpower in doing so. General Motors estimated the cost of upgrading their systems would be about $626 million. The federal government, which began preparing for possible doom in 1995, ended up with an $8.4 billion bill.

Some of that cost was eaten up by soliciting analyses of the potential problems. The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a study looking at the potential for problems with the nation's energy supply if computers went haywire. The North American Electric Reliability Council thought the risks were manageable, but cautioned that a single outage could have a domino effect on connected power grids.

As a result, many newspaper stories were a mixture of practical thinking with a disclaimer: More than likely nothing will happen … but if something does happen, we're all screwed.

"Figuring out how seriously to take the Y2K problem is a problem in itself," wrote Leslie Nicholson in the January 17, 1999 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "There is simply no precedent."

Pending economic and societal collapse fueled the second pop-up industry: survivalist suppliers. As people stocked up on canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, and generators, miniature societies like Ark Two began to spring up.

While the panic surrounding Y2K was dismissed by some as unwarranted, there was always fuel to add to the fire. The United States and Russia convened to monitor ballistic missile activity in the event a glitch inadvertently launched a devastating weapon. People were warned checks might bounce and banking institutions could freeze. The Federal Reserve printed $70 billion in cash in case people began hoarding currency. Even the Red Cross chimed in, advising Americans to stock up on supplies. Y2K was being treated like a moderate-category storm.

Adding to the concern was the fact that credible sources were sounding alarms. Edward E. Yardeni, then-chief economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell/C.J. Lawrence, predicted that there was a 60 percent chance of a major worldwide recession.

As New Year's Eve 2000 approached, it became clear that Y2K had evolved beyond a software hiccup. Outside of war and natural disasters, it represented one of the few times society seemed poised for a dystopian future. People watched their televisions as clocks hovered close to midnight, waiting to see if their lights would flicker or their landline phones would continue to ring.

A software program is represented by a series of ones and zeroes
iStock.com/alengo

Of course, nothing happened. So many resources had been extended toward the problem that the majority of software-reliant businesses and infrastructures were prepared. There were no power outages, no looting, and no hazards. The only notable event of January 1, 2000 was the reporting of the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and the arrival of Vladimir Putin as Russia's new president.

With the benefit of hindsight, pundits would later observe that much of the Y2K concern was an expression of a more deeply rooted fear of technology. Subconsciously, we may have been primed to recoil at the thought of computers dominating our society to the extent that their failure could have catastrophic consequences.

All told, it's estimated that approximately $100 billion was spent making upgrades to offset any potential issues. To put that into context: South Florida spent $15.5 billion rebuilding after the mass destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Was it all worth it? Experts seem to think so, citing the expedited upgrades of old software and hardware in federal and corporate environments.

That may be some small comfort to Japan, which could be facing its own version of Y2K in April 2019. That's when Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate the throne to his son, Naruhito, the first such transition since the dawn of the information age. (Akihito has been in power since January 1989, following the death of his father.) That's significant because the Japanese calendar counts up from the coronation of a new emperor and uses the name of each emperor's era. Akihito's is known as the Heisei era. Naruhito's is not yet named, which means that things could get tricky as the change in leadership—and the need for a calendar update—comes closer.

It's hard to predict what the extent of the country's problems will be as Akihito steps down. If history is any guide, though, it's likely to mean a lot of software upgrades, and possibly some SPAM.

When Mr. Rogers Taught Kids About Mutually Assured Nuclear Destruction

Focus Features
Focus Features

After months of hype, the ABC television network premiered a made-for-TV film titled The Day After on November 20, 1983. Presented with minimal commercial interruption, the two-hour feature illustrated a world in which both the United States and Russia made the cataclysmic decision to launch nuclear missiles. The blasts wiped a small town off the face of the Earth; the few who did survive writhed in pain, with their skin hanging off in clumps.

The imagery was graphic and unsettling, and it was supposed to be. Director Nicholas Meyer wanted to portray the fallout in sober detail. The Day After drew a sizable viewership and was hailed as a responsible use of television in order to educate audiences about the reality of the tension between the world’s superpowers.

In the weeks before the film premiered, though, another prominent broadcast was exploring the same themes. It was intended for young audiences and explored—via the use of puppets—the consequences of international aggression. For five episodes across one week, the threat of nuclear annihilation was looming in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

A nuclear explosion creates a mushroom cloud
iStock.com/RomoloTava-ni

Since its inception on Pittsburgh's WQED in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had informed its young audience about topical issues in subversive and disarming ways. When civil rights were discussed, host Fred Rogers didn’t deliver a lecture about tolerance. Instead, he invited a black friend, Officer Clemmons, to cool off in his inflatable pool, a subtle nod to desegregation. In 1981, Rogers—the subject of this year's critically-acclaimed documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?explored the topic of divorce with puppet Patty Barcadi, whose parents had separated. Rogers comforts Prince Tuesday, who frets his own parents might split. Famously, Rogers also explored the subject of individuals with disabilities with the introduction of Jeff Erlanger, who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. (Decades later, the two were reunited when Erlanger made a surprise appearance as Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.)

Despite Rogers's history tackling tough topics, there was perhaps no greater a hot-button issue for the children’s show to tackle than nuclear war. Rogers wanted to address what he felt was a growing concern among schoolchildren who processed Cold War headlines and interpreted tensions between Russia and the U.S. as potentially disastrous. (In one survey of classrooms across several major cities, students labeled the possibility of nuclear war “likely.”)

Rogers conceived and taped a five-episode storyline on the subject in the summer of 1983, which wound up being prescient. In November 1983, president Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada to topple a Marxist regime.

“Little did I know we would be involved in a worldwide conflict now,” Rogers told the Associated Press. “But that’s all the better because our shows give families an opportunity for communication. If children should hear the news of war, at least they have a handle here, to assist in family communications.”

In the five-part series titled “Conflict,” Rogers again turned to the puppets that populated his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Provincial ruler King Friday (voiced by Rogers) is handed a “computer read-out” that tips him off to some counterintelligence: Cornflake S. Pecially, ruler of the neighboring land of Southwood, is allegedly making bombs. In a panic, King Friday orders his underlings to do the same, mobilizing efforts to make certain they can match Southwood’s fiery super weapons—even if it means not having the financial resources to care for his people in other ways.

Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Lady Aberlin aren’t quite convinced. Rather than succumb to paranoia, they decide to travel to Southwood to see for themselves. They find its citizens building a bridge, not a bomb. A misunderstanding had almost led to unnecessary violence.

Of course, no mushroom clouds envelop the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and none of the puppets suffer the devastating effects of radiation poisoning. Rogers wasn’t even claiming the story was necessarily about war, but the prevention of it.

“This show gives us a chance to talk about war, and about how it’s essential that people learn to deal with their feelings and to talk about things and resolve conflicts,” he said.

A publicity photo of Fred Rogers for 'Mr Rogers' Neighborhood'
Getty Images

The episodes sparked conversation in classrooms, where some teachers used the footage to broach the subject. At an elementary school in Venetia, Pennsylvania, students in a third-grade social studies class discussed the consequences of war. “No water” was one response. “Injuries” was another.

Unlike The Day After, which one psychiatrist declared as inappropriate for children under 12, Rogers proved it was possible to provoke conversation without rattling any nerves.

Following their initial run in 1983, the five-part “Conflict” episodes have never been repeated. The close of the 1980s saw a reduction in concerns over nuclear attacks, and it’s possible producers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood regarded the shows as dated.

They resurfaced briefly on YouTube in 2017 before vanishing. The series was subsequently uploaded to a Dailymotion video account in 2018. Like The Day After, the shows are an interesting time capsule of an era when the fear of devastating conflict was palpable. For a number of kids who experienced that concern, Mr. Rogers helped frame it in a way they could understand.

“I don’t want this to be a frightening thing,” Rogers said. “I want children to know that war is something we can talk about. Whatever is mentionable is manageable.”

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