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.”

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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