More than a few popular film franchises were released out of chronological order — the best examples are the four Indiana Jones movies (introduced in 1981 and nearly ruined in 2008) and The Godfather trilogy (starting in 1972 and ruined in 1990). Both examples are well-known and, for the most part, well-loved.
Less well-known, and certainly less beloved, is the Ernest series, featuring the country-bumpkin’ character of Ernest P. Worrell (played by the Shakespearean actor Jim Varney, who has since passed away). Originally the character was used to pitch various TV commercial products in the south, but soon blossomed into a character known around the world — okay, maybe just North America.
Ernest was part Pee-Wee Herman, part Larry the Cable Guy, and somewhat mysterious: throughout the entire series, it’s never clear exactly how old Ernest is (he seems to be stuck somewhere between his 30s and 50s), or why he has kept the same job in different locales even though he’s a horrible work, or why he keeps running into confusing objects and falling down for no apparent reason beyond the laugh factor. Actually, the last one isn’t so mysterious. He wanted us to laugh.
So, after extensive research and guess-timating, I've saved readers the time they never would have put in themselves to try to make sense of it all — if that’s even possible. Here is the entire Ernest film oeuvre in its “proper” order.
Ernest Goes To School
Was released: 6th
Should be: 1st
Plot: High school janitor Ernest is forced to re-enroll in twelfth grade in order to keep his job. Fortunately, two science teachers use him as human guinea pig for their newly-invented “brain accelerator,” thereby making Ernest the smartest man in town.
Reason: Although Ernest is relatively the same age in all of his movies, going to school seems like the most appropriate place to kick-off our re-imagined order. The Harry Potter series doesn’t really kick into gear until Harry gets to Hogwarts. And the Ernest movies don’t achieve liftoff until Ernest is given super-human intelligence and left in charge of leading the marching band with his head in the tuba.
Ernest Saves Christmas
Was released: 2nd
Should be: 2nd
Plot: Ernest drives a cab while helping a stranger who claims to be Santa Claus find a jolly replacement in the greater Orlando area and in time for the holidays. Anyone would do that, right?
Reason: Ah, childhood. It is where a hero’s journey always starts. Much like Sicilian immigrant Don Corleone in The Godfather: Part 2, Ernest soon finds the harsh realities of life at too young an age. For example, one should never carry a large Christmas tree through a house that’s filled from floor to ceiling with fragile ceramic figurines. Just don’t do it.
Ernest Goes To Camp
Was released: 1st
Should be: 3rd
Plot: Ernest is a maintenance man at a summer camp wackily named Kamp Kikakee. His life-long dream of working his way up to the prestigious counselor position is at last achieved when he is put in charge of a group of juvenile delinquents. Ernest leads his new charges to defeat a greedy land developer who wants to turn the camp into a mining site.
Reason: Ernest’s enters adulthood and starts a serious relationship (albeit a platonic one) with the pretty Native American camp nurse, Nurse St. Cloud. He also helps the rough-around-the-edges delinquents build an awesome catapult/war machine to help defeat the evil businessman (played with customary scene-stealing relish by Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon). One highlight is when a snapping turtle lodges itself on Ernest’s nose.
Slam Dunk Ernest
Was released: 7th
Should be: 4th
Plot: Ernest is the new janitor (always a janitor) with a company called “Clean Sweeps.” After he is asked to join the company basketball team, he quickly becomes a star with a little help from an angel played by a stunned-looking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Reason: Ernest is in constant contact with the magical realm. But, really, is there anything more magical than finding a higher purpose in life through hard work and developing confidence? In Ernest’s case, yes. He receives invaluable help from a pair of magic sneakers that enables him to fly — at least as high as a basketball hoop.
Ernest Goes To Africa
Was released: 8th
Should be: 5th
Plot: Ernest unknowingly buys several rare jewels at a flea market and gives them to Rene, a woman he desperately wants to date. But when both Rene and the jewels are kidnapped, Ernest must go to Africa to rescue them all. This can only turn out well.
Reason: Travel is always a true adventure. Right now, we are at the mid-point of Ernest’s narrative journey. As in Indiana Jones, Ernest here travels across the globe to find treasure and the love of a good woman. Bonus: Ernest fashions a yo-yo from one of the irreplaceable jewels, so he can practice his “around the world” technique and destroy a large fish tank.
Ernest In The Army
Was released: 9th
Should be: 6th
Plot: Ernest drives the golf-ball collection cart at a driving range. But he also dreams of one day driving big rigs. In order to accomplish this, Ernest skips the “taking lessons” part and enlists in the Army, where he ends up defending a fictional Middle Eastern country, named Karifistan, from an evil dictator.
Reason: Heading into middle age is no easy task. If you are already seven movies into a large plot arc, it’s about time your character grows a pair. Ernest signs up for the Army (which worked for Bill Murray and, to a much lesser extent, Pauly Shore) thinking he will only be driving tanks and never finding himself in real battle. Instead, he helps save the world through terrible puns and awful wordplay.
Ernest Goes To Jail
Was released: 3rd
Should be: 7th
Plot: Ernest is now a janitor again, but in a bank. Mistaken for a bank robber and sent to prison, Ernest is electrocuted and inexplicably turned into a super-human being. Using his newfound strength, he escapes from jail to reclaim his identity.
Reason: If the Godfather trilogy taught us anything, it is that we must repent for our sins. Although Ernest’s only sin is being terrible at buffing bank floors, he still must atone for something or other. Harry Potter had to leave Hogwarts. Here, Ernest has to go to jail, get nearly killed, and then spend time with boxer-turned-actor Randall “Tex” Cobb before becoming the same old Ernest again.
Ernest Rides Again
Was released: 5th
Should be: 8th
Plot: Ernest and his history professor friend, Abner, must keep England’s Crown Jewels from falling into the mob’s hands.
Reason: One more adventure before the final chapter. Time for Ernest to reinvent himself before it is too late. The series here turns away from putting Ernest in classic fish-out-of-water “institution” stories and instead lets him loose to do his own thang, which involves, at one point, riding a cannon down a huge hill, running over a Fourth of July picnic. Isn’t that what freedom is all about? He’s Ernest. Deal. With. It.
Ernest Scared Stupid
Was released: 4th
Should be: 9th
Plot: Ernest plays a — wait for it — sanitation engineer and accidentally lets loose an evil troll (it makes less sense in the movie). Our hero must then save all the town’s children from being turned into small, wooden dolls (makes more sense here).
Reason: We love to be scared. It gives us the delicious, musky whiff of death without the horrible dying part. We end our story with Stupid, the last Ernest film released by a major studio (Disney’s Touchstone division). Here we find Ernest battling the evil trolls. He does so with milk. What an epic ride, Ernest! Now, viewer, please go forth and enjoy the movies in the order thus described. There is no other option! YouknowwhutImean?
You can now watch all the full-length Ernest movies on YouTube.
Thanks to Mike Sacks for the initial edits on this piece.
Joe Schiappa writes for television and is a performer/teacher at The People's Improv Theatre. He still has his talking Ernest doll.