Keeper of the Clown
My Life with Ernest

A memoir by writer/director
John Cherry

John Cherry recounts the wild ride of taking the character Ernest from local TV ads to big screen movies, all the while tackling challenges from bankers, the IRS, Disney executives and Zulu war chiefs.

If you think the Ernest movies were fun,
you will laugh out loud at what happened behind the scenes.

Contest Submissions

June 1, 2013: Aww shucks! I’m sorry Vern! We’re not running a contest right now. Like us on facebook to stay up-to-date on all the latest contests and Ernest news!


Contest Rules:

1. Only subscribers to the Official Mailing List will be considered for entries.

2. All photos become the property of John Cherry Syndication, LLC. and may be shared on multiple social media channels.

3. Using the images supplied on our site put the Ernest head anywhere you can think of (Keep it clean!).

4. One winner will be chosen each week to win a prize that includes a piece of original artwork. Winner will be notified via email and will be announced, weekly.


Have you previously won a storyboard through an Ernest contest? Or maybe you’ve purchased one from the internet somewhere? If so, Mr. Cherry has a message for you. Click here to see it!

About Jim Varney

Jim Varney was born James Albert Varney on June 15, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky. From a very young age, he entertained his parents and three older sisters with jokes and skits. When he was in the third grade, Jim’s family encouraged him to audition for a part in the local children’s theater and he won his first acting role. He continued to perform throughout high school, winning “best actor” awards in two statewide drama festivals.

Jim’s first paying role came at the age of 16 when he played Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He performed his first stand-up comedy routine that same year, for free at a local coffeehouse. After high school graduation, he further solidified his credentials as a dramatic actor by winning an apprenticeship with the nationally acclaimed Barter Theater in Virginia.

Jim related that, at age 18, he left for New York City “with $65 in my pocket and a tank full of gas.” The next few years brought moderate success: Jim performed stand-up routines in several comedy clubs and won leading and featured roles in dinner theater productions. Still, his big break did not come, so he would periodically return to Kentucky to lay tile or drive trucks to make ends meet.

In the early 70s, while working in Kentucky, Jim visited Nashville and won the auditions for a commercial character called Sgt. Glory. Carden & Cherry Advertising had invented the character for their client Purity Dairies. The humorous commercials were very popular and aired in middle Tennessee for almost five years.

During that time, Jim pursued fame and fortune in Hollywood, acting in four national network TV series: Operation Petticoat, Fernwood Tonight, America 2Nite, and Pink Lady and Jeff. He also had a featured role as Flo’s boyfriend on the series Alice. Other appearances included specials that starred Johnny Carson, Susan Anton, Alan King and Johnny Cash. Comedy club appearances continued on both coasts at venues such as The Improv, Comedy Store, Catch a Rising Star and Laff Stop.

When an actor’s strike ended opportunities in Los Angeles, Jim returned to Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1981, he visited John Cherry at Carden & Cherry at a time they were looking for the right actor to pull off a new character called Ernest P. Worrell. The story of that fateful meeting is colorfully recalled in Cherry’s book Keeper of the Clown.

As the nationwide popularity of Ernest grew, so did Hollywood’s interest in Jim. In 1983, he co-starred with Chad Everett in the NBC sitcom The Rousters. The series did not succeed, but syndication of Ernest commercials made Jim a star in more than 150 television markets across the country.

That exposure allowed Carden & Cherry to produce a TV special called “Hey, Vern! It’s My Family Album.” Jim portrayed numerous, humorous members of Ernest’s family tree. Meanwhile, Jim had purchased a farm in White House, Tennessee, creating his own home base.

Keeper of the Clown tells the story of how the incredibly high grassroots popularity of Ernest allowed Cherry to make deals with Hollywood and Jim to star in nine Ernest movies.

Jim also won an Emmy for “best performer in a children’s series” for Hey, Vern! It’s Ernest, the Cherry-produced Saturday morning children’s show.

See “Jim’s Film and TV Work” on this site for a listing of most of his on-screen roles.

Jim passed away from lung cancer on February 10, 2000, at the age of 50.

See a list of some of Jim’s Film and TV Work here.

The Book: Keeper of the Clown

John R. Cherry to Release a memoir in Spring of 2013.

In his memoir of the “Ernest years,” director John Cherry reveals how he and the creative staff developed the character of Ernest, put actor Jim Varney in a khaki baseball cap, sold TV commercials to scores of clients, nabbed Barbra Streisand’s manager as his own, and successfully directed Varney’s unpredictable creative genius. He recounts the thrill ride of taking the character Ernest from local TV ads to big-screen movie hits – all the while tackling challenges from bankers, the IRS and Disney executives.

Readers get peeks into Varney’s personality such as this description of Jim cutting his wedding cake without the bride: The sword came down like a guillotine. It was a clean, even slice. The wedding cake stood tall and proud. A thin mark down the side was the only evidence that hinted at its severe wound…“Let’s go shoot my 44 magnum!” Jim called out.

Using the same imaginative story-telling ability that produced Ernest ads and movie scripts, Cherry discloses the business side of the Ernest empire: negotiations with Disney execs, traveling to Canada and South Africa for locations, flirting with bankruptcy, landing clients across the country, and buying a 727 airplane.

Print editions of Keeper of the Clown are laden with photos, production stills, and even a few movie storyboards sketched by Cherry in preproduction. While the paperback edition will also available in bookstores, this site will be the only place to order the hardback version. The eBook (with fewer photos) will also be available by clicking through this website to Amazon.

Author John Cherry

As a partner in the small Nashville agency called Carden & Cherry Advertising in the early 80s, John Cherry stumbled onto Jim Varney, a talented comedian. Together, they fumbled their way to box office hits. Cherry, his co-writer Coke Sams, and the agency creative directors wrote, directed and produced ten movies, a Saturday-morning network show, a TV special, and literally thousands of Ernest commercials sold market-by-market across the country. Cherry confesses: “We had to make commercials to pay for our movie habit.”

The Official History

Jim Varney as his signature character Ernest P. Worrell

The character Ernest P. (for Power Tools) Worrell was invented in 1980 during a creative meeting at Carden & Cherry Advertising in Nashville, Tennessee.

Agency partner and executive vice president John Cherry was searching for a way to promote an aging amusement park in Kentucky that was scheduled for renovation but was not yet presentable. To meet his client’s needs, he had to promote the park without showing it. Thus was born a pushy, know-it-all character who would tell his neighbor Vern all the good things about the park. He had to be intrusive but lovable, since the viewer would be looking at him instead of roller coasters filled with screaming kids.

The amusement park went under faster than the commercials could play out, but the ads were kept on an agency “demo reel.” Executives at Purity Dairies, a long-time Carden & Cherry client, liked the humor of the character and convinced Cherry to make new spots for their middle Tennessee markets and for Pine State Creamery in North Carolina. This was a humorous sequence of events detailed in Cherry’s book Keeper of the Clown.

At first, the visually startling ads – filmed with a wide-angle lens to further distort the actor’s rubber-faced features – caused a negative stir in both markets. But as the public caught on to the humor, people began calling their local TV stations to ask when the next “Hey, Vern!” commercials would be shown.

Humor, usually to the point of slapstick, was used to entertain viewers. The theory was that when people want to watch a commercial, they will remember the product. It worked. As packages of Ernest TV and radio ads were sold market by market across the country over the next several years, advertisers were amazed when surveys revealed extremely high recognition of both their products and the character.

Cherry recounts the story of choosing actor and comedian Jim Varney to play Ernest in his memoir Keeper of the Clown. With Varney’s incredible talent and amazing ability to memorize scripts, Carden & Cherry became a syndication machine, churning out hundreds of commercials each year.

Clients ranged from Sprite (in available markets but not nationally) to car dealerships to convenience stores to TV stations to banks (including a chain in Hawaii).

This success allowed Cherry to produce a TV special called “Hey, Vern! It’s My Family Album” that he would sell independently to stations in hot Ernest markets. It was a showcase for Varney’s talent in becoming other characters and doing impersonations, as he played all the major characters in the special.

That emboldened the Carden & Cherry crew to pursue a dream of long-form filmmaking – making movies. Cherry and Varney decided to make a non-Ernest film first: Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. Financially, that was not really the best decision.

But Varney’s appearance as Ernest in the Indianapolis 500 parade caught the attention of Disney executives. Ernest ads were not yet running in the Los Angeles area, and they were shocked as raceway fans stood to cheer “Hey, Vern!” The story of how these executives lured Cherry to New Orleans to discuss a movie deal is hilarious and told in detail in Cherry’s memoir.

With Cherry making the deals and serving as head writer and Varney portraying Ernest to perfection, they made a total of nine Ernest movies with a Saturday morning children’s show produced along the way. (See “Jim’s Film and TV Work” on this site for a list.)


Jim’s Film and TV Work

(Note: This is not a complete listing of every TV episode or film appearance but rather an overview of Jim’s body of work that shows his versatility and popularity.)

Title (year released or aired) – character

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) – voice of Cookie
Daddy and Them (2001) – Hazel Montgomery
Toy Story 2 (1999) – voice of Slinky Dog
Treehouse Hostage (1999) – Carl Banks
Existo (1999) – Marcel Horowitz
3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (1998) – Lothar Zogg
Ernest in the Army (1998) – Ernest
The Simpsons: Bart Carny (1998) – voice of Cooter
Annabelle’s Wish (1997) – voice of Mr. Gus Holder
Ernest Goes to Africa (1997) – Ernest P. Worrell
100 Proof (1997) – Rae’s Father
Oops! The World’s Funniest Outtakes 5 (1997) – Himself
Blood, Friends and Money (1997) – The Old Mariner
Roseanne: Home Is Where the Afghan Is (1996) – Prince Carlos
Roseanne: Someday My Prince Will Come (1996) – Prince Carlos
Snowboard Academy (1996) – Rudy James
Toy Story (1995) – voice of Slinky Dog
The Expert (1995) – Snake
Slam Dunk Ernest (1995) – Ernest P. Worrell
Ernest Goes to School (1994) – Ernest
Ernest Rides Again (1993) – Ernest
The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) – Jed Clampett
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1993) – Himself
Wilder Napalm (1993) – Rex
Ernest’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 (1992) – Ernest P. Worrell
Ernest Scared Stupid (1991) – Ernest
Comic Relief IV (1991) (TV) – Himself
Ernest Goes to Jail (1990) – Ernest P. Worrell/Felix Nash/Auntie Nelda
Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain (1989) – Ernest
Fast Food (1989) – Wrangler Bob Bundy
Comic Relief III (1989) – Himself
Hey, Vern, It’s Ernest (Sat. morning children’s show) (1988) – Ernest and multiple characters
Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) – Ernest P. Worrell
Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) – Ernest P. Worrell
Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam (1986) – Dr. Otto/Rudd Hardtact/Laughin’ Jack/Guy Dandy/
Auntie Nelda/Ernest P. Worrell The Ernest Film Festival (1986) – Ernest P. Worrell (aka Ernest’s Greatest
Hits Volume 1)
The Rousters (TV series) (1984) – Evan Earp
Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album (1983) – Ernest P. Worrell/Davy Worrell/Ace Worrell/Lloyd Worrell/Billy
Boogie  Worrell/Rhetch Worrell/Pop Worrell
Pop! Goes the Country (1974) – Various Characters
Pink Lady (TV series) (1980) – Various Characters
Operation Petticoat (TV series) (1978 -1979) Seaman ‘Doom & Gloom’ Broom
Alice (TV series) (1978) – Milo Skinner (Flo’s boyfriend)
America 2-Night (TV series) (1978) – Virgil Simms
Fernwood Tonight (TV series) (1977) Virgil Simms
Dinah! (TV series) (1976) – Himself
Johnny Cash and Friends (TV series) (1976)

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The Good Ol’ Days

From the film Ernest Goes to Jail – Jim Varney as Aunti Nelda.


Ernest gets dragged by the floor polisher in Ernest Goes to Jail.


Photo from Ernest Saves Christmas: Ernest rips the lines out of the wall.



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