Tuesday, August 15, 2017

VHS Review: 'KnoWhutImean? Hey Vern! It's My Family Album' (1984)

Revisiting one of the more obscure straight-to-tape Ernest outings of the 1980s. Sure, it ain't no The Ernest Film Festival, but it has its moments (and by moments, I mean like, two, possibly three of 'em.)

By: Jimbo X

As a kid, I loved the Ernest movies, even the ones that were straight up dogshit like Slam Dunk Ernest and Ernest Goes to Africa. As terrible as some of films may have been, though, there's no denying Jim Varney brought his A-game to every single one of them. People talk about "irreplaceable" performances all the time, but there's NO WAY any other actor could have made Ernest P. Worrell work. The same way no other wrestler - despite being more talented - could have portrayed Hulk Hogan as well as Terry "If we're gonna' fuck with niggers, let's get a rich one" Bollea, I'm convinced Sir Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando couldn't have played the Ernest role as well as Senor Varney. Factor in all the charity work he did in his lifetime (especially for children's hospitals), and you have the makings of what appears to be one of the more decent human beings to have ever made a career out of the film industry - and, trust me, that's a rarity

By now, we all know the Ernest backstory. He started off as an advertising pitchman in the Appalachia market, pitching just about every kind of product and service you can imagine, from Mello Yello to reruns of Hogan's Heroes. After he got a roaring ovation from the audience at the 1986 Indy 500, Michael Eisner immediately knew he had a Tyler Perry/Larry the Cable Guy-esque middle America money printer on his hands and quickly signed Varney up for a multi-picture deal. The end results were the first wave of Ernest flicks - Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Scared Stupid, etc., plus the short-lived Hey Vern, It's Ernest! kids' show, which we're all going to pretend we haven't binge watched online despite being 30 and probably high at the time. Before all that fame and fortune, however, Varney also starred in a couple of straight-to-video Ernest specials, the most notable, perhaps, being 1984's KnoWhutImean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album

While most of the straight-to-video Ernest tapes of the 1980s were basically just glorified commercial comps (yep, even the one that promised you $10,000 if you watched it and counted up all the times the name "Vern" was uttered), KnoWhutImean actually attempts to expand the Ernest mythos and features something that somewhat partially resembles an actual story. Granted, it's still just a bunch of random sketches thrown together, but it does give Varney an opportunity to show off his acting chops and give us slightly more versatile comedy than we're used to from an Ernest flick. Not everything works - well, if we're being honest, it's more like 80 percent of the thing doesn't work - but it certainly has a few moments that'll have you laughing despite yourself. Hmm - maybe "laughing" is too strong a word; let's say "have you kinda' somewhat amused despite yourself" instead. Yeah, that's way more appropriate, for sure. 

The video begins with Ernest rummaging through his attic, playing with string cans and pretending like he's being bombarded by Viet Cong fire. Then he gets stuck in a spider web and starts speaking in a British accent, for no discernible reason whatsoever. Throughout all this tomfoolery he stumbles upon the Worrell family photo album, which he immediately takes to Vern's house (oh, and for you people who have no preexisting knowledge of the Ernest mythos, "Vern" is a never-seen, never-heard character that effectively represents the camera, i.e., the viewer him or herself.) Naturally, Vern slams the window shut on Ernest's hands, but like a bad case of gonorrhea, Ernie pops right back up and tries to show him his family album while he's tinkering with his TV antenna atop his roof. The first photo Ernest shows is a picture of a Mr. Potato Head doll, which he claims to be an Irish immigrant (huh ... isn't that kind of racially insensitive? I mean, didn't more than a million innocent women and children starve to death during the Great Potato Famine? Hell, if that's just fine and dandy, he might as well make a couple of jokes about slavery and the Holocaust while he's at it.) Then Ernest starts talking about one of his "Indian fighter" progenitors and that's the cue for our first familial flashback.

If you don't think this is funny ... well, for once, I think you're actually right about something. 

This entails Ernest (now in a Davy Crockett hat) running from a bunch of Injuns (who are presented via Evil Dead cam) and taking refuge in a military fort. Eventually, Chief Running Vern of the Beige Foot tribe shows up and Ernest's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandpa pretends like he's commanding a huge (although, in reality, nonexistent) cavalry. The Indian offers him a free gift, and Ernest does an imitation of about half a dozen European-dialects to make it sound like there are other people at the base camp with him. Naturally, Ernest starts doing crude imitations of John Wayne and stereotypical black slave cooks, too, because back then nobody really gave a shit like they do nowadays. This eventually leads to Ernest putting on different costumes and running around the camp talking to himself, which is pretty much the same shtick we saw in every full-length Ernest movie, only this shit goes on for ten straight minutes

Next up we've got a vignette about the exploits of hot shot fighter pilot Ace Worrell, who tells a buncha new recruits about a mission to shoot down a giant monkey off the Empire State Building ... you know, just like in that one movie, Schindler's List. He even has a giant visual aide (marked, well, "visual aide"), which is a sock monkey tied to a cardboard cutout with little windows drawn on it in Magic Marker. Boy, and if you think this is awful as fuck, just wait until he pretends a banana is a war plane! After that's over, Vern gets sick of Ernest's shit and throws him off his ladder, only instead of being arrested for attempted murder, Mr. Worrell apparently refused to press charges if it meant he could lecture him about his great uncle Lloyd. 

Naturally, that's a segue to yet another vignette, in which Ernest plays a mean sumbitch who lives in a dilapidated old house and kicks the shit out of helpless pooches for fun. Anyhoo, the hook here is that and his brood are so poor they have to pretend to eat supper every night, but inexplicably his son (who is literally named Mistake) is a lumbering lardass because he imagines eating a bucket of "sketti" every evening, complete with Varney shoveling imaginary chunks of Parmesan cheese on his plate. Then Ernest (I mean, Lloyd) reads his overweight, 30-year-old son a bedtime story out of a giant phone book, which basically prophesies he's going to get mumps and measles and mash his fingers a lot before he turns 12. Yeah, it sounds stupid as your read it, but Varney's delivery is just so good you can't help but laugh your ass off. I don't know where he learned to do funny facial expressions, but whichever school he attended is probably worth the tuition costs.

Remember kids: acting is 10 percent talent and 90 percent goofy shit you can do with your face.

The next vignette is about Boogie Woogie Worrell, who works at a fairgrounds and dresses like a homosexual (seriously, he looks so much like Razor Ramon Hard Gay, it's kinda' spooky.) Anyhoo, the entire segment is basically Varney doing a proto-rap song over quick cuts of various amusement park rides, complete with him gyrating his junk in front of high school girls and elderly couples with heart conditions. Canonically, I'm not sure if he kills everybody on the Scrambler, but it can certainly be read that way; not that you'll really notice all that much, since you'll probably spend the entire segment trying to read all the "Easter egg" buttons on Ernest's costume (the "Stop ABM" one is definitely my favorite, and if you're wondering - the shirt says "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida, The Long Version.") It's not as funny as the last segment, but that song is preposterously catchy, and who doesn't enjoy watching Ernest making weird lip puckering gestures while fat people try to hold in their barf in the background? An aside, but if so, you'd probably really like Fast Food, that one movie Varney starred in alongside Traci freakin Lords and the chick who played Angela in the second and third Sleepaway Camp movies.

Up next, there's a brief scene where Ernest is electrocuted while working on Vern's TV set (hmm, foreshadowing, perhaps?) and a sequence where the two play Chess (which Ernest, naturally, considers one boring ass pastime.) That's our cue to revisit the life and times of Ernest's great granddaddy Rhetch Worrell, a cigar smoking card player extraordinaire (the whole thing is a pastiche of Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind, in case you couldn't figger it out.) In sharp contrast to the Ernest we all know and love, this guy seems to have his wits about him, with a cool, calm, gentlemanly delivery that's about as far removed from Varney's trademark character as you can get without putting him in blackface. Anyhoo, he wins some fat dude's wife in a poker game, and then his adversary demands they do one more hand with the fat dude's saloon and all his whores on the line. Granted, they don't actually say the word "whores," but that's technically what he's talking about, and boy, is that something I don't think any of us expected heading into an Ernest movie. Alas, Rhetch gets a shitty hand and loses his small fortune, and afterwards bemoans not being able to remember if a royal flush beat four of a kind. So yeah - it looks like this Worrell ancestor was kind of a retard, too, after allHe also keeps poking his "bride" Verna (get it?) in the face with his cigar, which considering Varney died from smoking, is more than just a wee bit uncomfortable in hindsight.

The final vignette features a young Ernest beseeching his grandpa (played by Varney) to go fishing. Unfortunately, the elder Worrell is hard of hearing and apparently suffers from some form of dementia and just keeps yammering on and on about Laverne and Shirley and those little paddles with a ball on a string on 'em. Don't ask me how, but some black dude who lives in a junkyard, looks like Isaac Hayes and wears post-apocalyptic Road Warrior regalia gets dragged into the mix and the whole thing ends with young Ernest getting a hook in his thumb and grandpa Worrell getting dragged into the water (offscreen, because fuck spending too much money finding a stream) by an errant harpoon chuck. Man, that was about as funny as ... well, something that isn't very funny, I guess. 

And the whole thing ends with Ernest taking a picture of Vern with a Polaroid camera, with some facial feature of the subject apparently being so funny to Ernest that he has to run out the front door and ask "Edna" to come and look at the picture. And no, we never learn what it is that Ernest thought was so funny, thus making it an eternal mystery of comedy on par with the identity of the guy who screamed "shut up, bitch!" during that one Eddie Murphy stand-up special. As the credits roll, Grandpa Worrell goes off on a tangent about how he got a strange disease from the First Bank of Montana, which he somehow took to London in exchange for a '36 Chrysler, and that's all she wrote, kiddos.

An IIIA Exclusive: Rare footage from the long-running series' incomplete final installment, Ernest Starts Acting Supremely Gay

Alright, so the tape is certainly more miss than hit. Actually, it's probably more genuine to say the tape is more shit than hit, too, but dabnabbit, I just can't force myself to criticize Jim Varney that much. I mean, his iconic character was such a central part of my childhood that saying something he starred in was horse shit feels like spitting on Old Glory, or taking a whiz on my grandfather's grave - my good grandfather, the one who always had a buncha' free candy laying around and still resented the Tojos for Pearl Harbor, even during the Clinton Administration. 

It's been years since I saw this one, and of course, it doesn't hold up too well. My local mom and pop video store had a TON of old Ernest VHS cassettes, and even as youngster this one was far from my favorite. Hell, I would prolly put The Misadventures of Bubba ahead of this 'un, and that's not even a canonical Ernest movie. Still, the segment about the fat kid pretending to eat invisible spaghetti is pretty funny, and fuck, is that one disco song astonishingly catchy. Everything outside of that, though, ranges from totally mediocre to head-shakingly awful, so keep in mind you're definitely taking your chances if you plan on watching the full VHS offering.

Oh, and as for the rest of the cast and crew? Eh, it's a buncha' nobodies, save perhaps writer/director John R. Cherry III, who directed ALL EIGHT FEATURE-LENGTH Ernest flicks, plus Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Moonbeam, plus a couple of hundred or so Ernest TV commercials. But now he's stuck doing Denton Rose mini-movies and probably hating his own existence, so the less said about his contemporary exploits, the better

So, at the end of the day, is KnoWhutImean worth the 40-minute investment? Eh, unless you are a HARDCORE Ernest aficionado, I'd have to say no. It's fun to watch Varney play different characters and a few of the jokes come off as gloriously incompatible with today's P.C. speech zeitgeist, but there's just not enough decent material to make it worth going out of your way to experience. All but two or three of the scenes fall totally flat, and what good stuff is here you can already find isolated on the YouTubes (don't worry about missing out on any context, neither - the segments are perfectly digestible as a'la carte clips.) 

It's momentarily fun to take the trip back in time, but the complete package here isn't anything to write home about. If you've got a hankerin' for Mr. Worrell, there are far, Far, FAR, FAR better ways of getting your Ernest fix - that is, unless you really want to see Jim Varney doing his best Mandingo impression. In that case, yeah, I guess this is something potentially going out of your way to pick up ... maybe.


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