Hey Vern, It,s Ernest collaborator Coke Sams!

            Coke Sams is on the left in the 1st and 2nd photo.   

Josh Armstrong: How did your association with Carden & Cherry begin?  Coke Sams my business partner, Jim May, and I had started a film production company. We are still partners today. It was called Studio Productions at the time. It is the same company as Ruckus FILM. We were working in Nashville  not the biggest town in the world, and we were always on the comedy end of things. We did a comedy pilot with a group called Gonzo Theater, and we had a reputation around town as the funny people.

Coke Sams my business partner, Jim May, and I had started a film production company. We are still partners today. It was called Studio Productions at the time; its the same company as Ruckus FILM. We were working in Nashville, not the biggest town in the world, and we were always on the comedy end of things. We did a comedy pilot with a group called Gonzo Theater, and we had a reputation around town as the funny people.

We had worked with Carden & Cherry on some other ad campaigns. When the Ernest stuff came along, Jim May started shooting everything, basically playing the part of Vern. He was a great hand held camera guy. Little by little, I started working my way in with them on the shoots. I was a writer and director; I helped “Buster”, John Cherry. Everybody pitched in. It was a good team already, with the ad guys there. It grew beyond anybody's imagination, so there was plenty of work to do. I came mainly as a producer, as another set of directing eyes, and as a writer when we started expanding to the Family Album television special and the ill-fated Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam – the classics, I think. [laughs] Then I became more pivotal on the writing, where I could pull everything together and work with the other guys to harness all that was spewing. It was great to work with Varney. He had so many characters, so much schtick, and so much improv, it took the group to harness all of it. I was fortunate to be one in the group. It was so much fun and so educational. We were “inmates running the asylum”.

JA:Who exactly created Ernest? CS: I think it was John Cherry and maybe Thom Ferrell, who had been a creative partner of his. Then, of course, Jim Varney took it on. Varney just inhabited the character and put so much into it. I’m sure there are probably a number of answers to that question. One would be legal or in a copyright sense, and the other would be aesthetically. Ultimately, it was a character born out of desperation when Carden & Cherry was shooting in a theme park owned by Ronnie Milsap, a blind country singer. I’ve never been there. I think it was in Kentucky. It was apparently such a bad theme park that you literally couldn’t show it in commercials. They needed a spokesperson to sort of front this park you couldn’t see. So Ernest came along, to just be spewing information. I think that’s where it started. JA: Who came up with the hallmarks of the average Ernest ad – for instance, Ernest speaking to an unseen Vern or the catchphrase “Knowhutimean”? CS: I think a lot of it was out of necessity. Back then, it was cheaper to throw a camera on some guy’s shoulder, and it made the commercials more active. The idea was “Ernest & Vern”: Vern was the unseen neighbor, and Ernest was the all-time worst next-door neighbor, the know-it-all who is a moron. The hand-held camera came as a result of wanting two people in the scene. One of them you see, and the other one is trying to get away or pushing him off a ladder. [laughs]

“Knowhutimean” – I don’t remember. We would just sort of blunder through. “Hey, when Varney said such-and-such, everybody laughed! Let’s have him say it again!” Somebody visited a relative in Oklahoma – Dan Butler, I think – and heard the phrase: “Golly Bob Howdy”. The next thing you know, it’s on TV. It was kind of like that. It was that spirit of – what would you call it? Collecting? Thievery? I don’t know. But definitely, it evolved. There were a number of writers at Carden & Cherry. Glenn Petach was the creative director. Dan Butler, Steve Leasure, Gil Templeton, and, of course, John Cherry were there. Those guys were just spewing stuff. Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t – obviously a lot of it did. And then Varney – you know, Jim just went and went and went and went. He was a hard working guy; he collected and cataloged jokes, one-liners, funny characters, and characteristics. He was as good a case for re-incarnation as anything I’ve ever seen, because there were thousands of people living inside that one guy, and he could access them. He was a rare talent. So the hallmarks came something like that. There was a sense of, “Throw it against the wall. If it works, we’ll do it again; if it doesn’t, we’ll change it.” Certain things got through the filter. JA: Throughout the entire Ernest franchise, was there ever a great temptation to show Vern?

CS:I don’t really think so. It might have been talked about. I know it seems like we were a band of idiots, but I think there was enough common sense for us to say, “We would be crossing a line there.” There was something like 4,000 commercials. The idea was to put the viewer into the position of Vern. So I don’t think it was ever a temptation. JA: If you could name any celebrity, who in your mind might look like Vern? CS:Honestly, I’ve never thought of it that way. I just steer completely away from that. JA:I see what you mean. When I was little, I imagined Vern was an older gentleman. Maybe he looked down on Ernest, because Ernest was a whole lot younger than him. CS: Yeah, ultimately, he’s the guy who is going to push the ladder; he’s throwing darts at Ernest. It’s sort of wish fulfillment for the viewers, almost. We let Vern be a functionary character, and put the funny guy on the screen as much as we could. JA: Right. You said that Ernest starred in over 4,000 TV commercials. How is that even possible? That’s amazing!

CS: It’s miraculous! I think it was timing, hard work, and pure dumb luck. When the commercials started gathering steam in most places, it was right before cable exploded. It was back when most any town had ABC, NBC, CBS, and public television – and that was about it. So it was a big deal to have local spots on the local news, local morning show, or whatever local programming. Of all the markets, basically we were selling to three channels. There was a guy named Roy Lightner, who was the salesman for Carden & Cherry. He wasn’t alone, but he was the guy who went out in a brown station wagon – I imagined, as I have no idea what he really drove – and would talk to the dairy, the radio station, etc. He sold and sold. Once the commercials started attracting - done. We popped off 4,000 spots. That’s a whole lot more; that’s a whole lot better for us. It was better for the agency. It was better for Jim. The syndication allowed it to be a real gold mine in many ways. Of course, if we had done only national brands, it would have been over in two months, and the brand would have moved on to the next monkey.

JA: I remember Ernest doing those Mello Yello commercials. CS: Yeah, that’s right. There were a few nationals. A bunch of them came in and wanted to do this or that. But we pretty much stuck with more local spots. That way, you could sell a whole package in Huntsville, Alabama, and another one in Bristol, Virginia. It was a better entrepreneurial model, as they say. JA: How did the commercials lead to Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album? CS: People would call the television stations and ask when those commercials were going to air. When you get that attention, you can assume there’s a big demand. It’s hard to imagine a kid somewhere going, “When I grow up, I want to shoot commercials!” The commercials opened the door to try a syndicated TV special, movies, and a TV series. We were testing the waters. I don’t think anyone had ever imagined it would keep growing and growing. When it did, we thought, “Gosh, we have all this comedy stuff. Where can we put it?” Family Album came out of the high level of thinking, “That would be fun!” I’m very fond of the special because it was, again, completely unhinged and unhindered by an adult authority figure. It was complete idiocy. You don’t get many chances at that. It was fun, no doubt. JA: Like you mentioned, a few years later, you guys made Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam.

CS: When you look back, you see what sort of contrary impulses there were. We had Ernest, who was rolling like a big wheel. Why pick another character to do? But we all wanted to try something different, so we did. It was the first movie I really got to work on. It turned out to be great preparation because, had we not done that one, I don’t think Disney would have let us do the movies for them. Because we had made one feature, we were able to hold onto the right to make the Disney movies. So it worked out. Everything we did all those years was so much fun. We had come from obscurity to working more than anybody could imagine. JA: In a Sun Sentinel article written during Dr. Otto‘s filming, John Cherry said he was considering a sequel called Dr. Otto and the Song of the Tarantula Women. Was that just a joke? CS: [laughs] No, we stayed busy; we wrote more outlandish crap. We were serious about Song of the Tarantula Women. Disney intervened, mercifully. Some of the stuff we wrote for Disney that was never produced was hilarious. In a way, they never quite got how this whole Ernest thing worked or who these movies were for. All they knew was, they were making lots of money with them. I feel like the “tarantula women” made a comeback in one of the Ernest pitches we made to Disney. If this stirs up old memories, it’s going to be a restless night tonight. Remember Abbot & Costello? Did you ever see them? They were a comedy duo back in the ’40s and ’50s.

JA: Oh yeah, I’m very familiar with them. CS: They would do movies like Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbot & Costello Meet the Mummy. They were always slamming these comic characters into sort of a sci-fi or horror movie spoof. We also thought, “What if we had an idiot and made him the one who needs to save the world?” It could be “tarantula women”, evil dictators, or almost anything outlandish that was kind of a movie convention. We would see if there was a place for Ernest in it. I had forgotten about Song of the Tarantula Women. Brings back a lot of good memories. JA: What was Song of the Tarantula Women going to be about? CS: As I remember, it was about a – I always thought of him as John Cherry [laughs] – but there was a director who was trying to make an exploitation movie, and he comes to a small town. It was kind of like The Music Man. He’s trying to hustle the town, making the movie of the “tarantula women”. I think what we envisioned was women in skimpy spider outfits. We were coming off Dr. Otto, and we had the hench-wenches in it, who were sci-fi women in scanty outfits. But Song of the Tarantula Women – maybe its time has come. We’ll see. JA: Are you suggesting you might still do that film? CS: Well, a lot died with Jim, because he had the spark. There were a number of uncompleted projects. People ask about the pirate movie [Ernest the Pirate / Pirates of the Plain]. That one was really meant for Jim, but it was made without him.

It’s so rare to have a guy like Jim, where you could write and write for him. After a while, you got to know the character. With Ernest Goes to Jail, you could write, “Ernest in the jury box plays with a ballpoint pen. Ink starts to leak out.” Jim could extend it and make the scene go on for hours. Everybody was working hard to not laugh out loud in the scene, in front of the camera and behind the camera. He was sucking the ink out of that thing! Those guys are few and far between. A lot of the projects we had talked about doing with Jim, once he was no longer with us, we just sort of closed the book on them. I think Song of the Tarantula Women is probably best left to legend and myth. JA: When did Disney start showing interest in Ernest? CS: It happened kind of quickly. Jim, as Ernest, had been asked to ride in the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. The Disney characters were there too – you know how they kind of make a spectacle out of a spectacle. Some of the big guys from Disney were there, watching their characters go around the racetrack. Then Ernest came out, standing up in the back of the pace car and goofing. A hundred thousand people went nuts, cheering, standing, and screaming. The Disney guys went, “Who was that?” At that point, they said, “We’d really like to do something with you guys.” We started pitching ideas and working toward a script.

It turned out they were serious. That really opened the door; that established Ernest as a movie character as well as a commercial character. Ultimately, it led to the CBS Saturday morning show. I think it was that moment right there at the Indy 500, when the Disney guys saw someone they’d never heard of essentially “wipe out” Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy. They thought he would be a perfect addition to their stable. JA: Did Disney right up front offer you, say, a four-picture deal? Did you have any idea how many Ernest movies you would be making for Disney? CS: No, we really didn’t. There was some sense of ongoing parameters. We always had the feeling – and I think rightly so – that each picture basically was built on the financial success of the one before it. As long as we made money for Disney, they would keep letting us do the movies. There was a parting of the ways after four movies. The movies still had some legs on them, which is why the independent movies got made. But Disney offered the big stage; they offered this big hope of widespread distribution, with a lot of money behind the promotion. And the budgets were pretty good. It was a rare opportunity. It wasn’t at all like a four-picture deal. Honestly, in the show business world, you don’t usually get a four-picture deal; you get a one-picture deal with three options. It’s like, “Good luck! If this works, we’d love to do it again. If it doesn’t, we don’t know you.” But it was a very productive relationship for a while. JA: How did the idea for Ernest Goes to Camp originate?

CS: I feel like “Buster”, John, had the title. He really wanted to do Camp. It would be this summertime thing with a lot of good gags. We started building on that, and somehow we brought in Indian mythology. It just kind of grew. We took a germ of an idea, and we just started banging on it. Also, Disney had really strong ideas on how they thought it ought to be – some good, some bad, but definitely strong. We found a way to negotiate to some acceptable point. JA: What were some of the bad ideas? CS: Well, I hate to second-guess it. But we wanted to try a style of movie-making like the commercials: you had a main character who, at any time, could turn right to the camera and start talking. But Disney would have none of that. “No, we don’t do that.” It’s hard to say if it could have worked or not. But John and I both felt like the commercials had worked because they were different than anything else. It would have been fun to try some of the anarchy of the commercials in a more classic film setting. But Disney felt they had a better idea. JA: I remember, in Ernest Saves Christmas, the scene in which Ernest and Harmony walk into Vern’s house, talking to the camera. CS: Yeah, that was the only one. It was shot down in Florida, at Disney World. JA: After Ernest Goes to Camp, you guys turned to TV with Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! What made you take that direction instead of directly doing more movies? CS: It was not a question of dropping movies to do TV. We were adding TV while continuing to do movies and commercials. This was not a group that walked away from a chance to work. We just kept adding.

Because there was interest from CBS, we pitched them a TV show. Since we were still under contract to Disney, we couldn’t do narratives. But Disney would let us do themes, so that’s what that TV show became. We were trying to see what pathways opened and how we could exploit them. JA: The Ernest TV series and the Ernest film series had an interesting contrast. The film series received mixed reviews but was very popular. On the other hand, the TV series received great reviews and won Emmys but didn’t get the best ratings. What do you think happened there? CS: When we went into the deal, the CBS folks said, “We understand it takes a while to change children’s viewing habits, and we’re going to stick with you.” Then they bounced us all over the schedule because of their own programming decisions. Then they canceled us. It was unsatisfying. I felt like we had just really figured out what we were doing, and I would have given anything to have at least one more season. It’s so hard to find and break in a new show. We did 13 episodes. They won two Emmys, and they had a really good cult following. But CBS bounced us all over the schedule. The show really didn’t do the kind of numbers anybody wanted, but it was definitely finding its edge. I wish we could have done more of it. We had a terrific bond with a good cast. It was one of my favorite pieces of work we did. The show had a different flavor to it; it kept some of the old and brought in some new stuff, like new characters. Yeah, I wish we could have done more of it. JA: Did you guys consider going the independent route with the show, maybe filming a couple of episodes and then selling them on VHS? CS: At the time, we were still cranking out movies and doing commercials. The fact that it ever was popular was a miracle; the fact that it stayed popular for so long was another miracle. At some point, the star started fading a bit. There had been a lot of Ernest movies, and there had been a lot of Ernest commercials. It was getting harder and harder to keep everything fresh.

Most things have their moment in the sun. Like I said earlier, part of our good fortune was just good timing. By that point, cable had come in; there were a gazillion channels instead of the big three. So it was hard to remain a phenomenon in a commercial way. We did four Disney movies and a bunch of independent Ernest movies. We were up in James Bond territory – and we only had one joke: we slammed a window on a guy’s hands. I think it had a remarkable run. At some point, its run faded. Then Jim got sick and died, which pretty much put a button on all of that. What he really wanted to do was different roles. He was doing great. He was tickled about Toy Story and The Beverly Hillbillies. I think he could have easily lasted for years and years as a character actor or as a leading man in certain roles. It just was not to be. JA: In 1990, Entertainment Weekly did a story on Ernest, and they mentioned a couple of upcoming films. The thing is, these films ended up never happening. I’d like to name each of them, and you tell a little bit about the film, if you don’t mind. CS: If I can remember. [laughs] JA: The first one is Ernest Spaced Out. CS: Ernest Spaced Out – I believe that was kind of a Lost in Space epic. It seems like there were astronauts and maybe a space capsule. About the ones that didn’t get made, usually, we had a pocket full of ideas. When we were working with Disney, we’d go and throw a bunch of ideas at them, and they’d say, “Develop these three.” They would be things like Song of the Tarantula Women. [laughs] We would say, “Okay, let’s do one that’s a horror movie and one that’s a poignant heart-breaker, with Ernest.” They would say, “Lets do some kind of Christmas movie.” Then we would go off and develop those. It was kind of a mutual navigational system where you tried to throw some good ideas together – or what you hoped were good ideas. You developed some as far as treatments, and you developed others as far as screenplays. Ultimately, something would be chosen as the next one.

I think Ernest Spaced Out probably got as far as a treatment. “Buster” had a big book full of treatments and ideas – some good and some bad, but definitely a thick book of possibilities. Ernest Spaced Out was somewhere in there. We had a whole musical thing we wanted to do, but we could never get anyone to pay for it. JA: But that would have been perfect for Disney! [laughs] CS: Well, that’s what we said, Josh! We gave it a shot. But they had so many ideas. Like I said, it’s a miracle we did as much as we did. JA: I’m really confused though. Why would Disney turn down a musical? I mean, it’s Disney. CS: Your making it sound like all of these are rational decisions. And that’s not the way to think of this. Think of it more as a crapshoot. [laughs] It’s all mysterious. What are the other titles? JA: Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

CS: I know Ernest and the Voodoo Curse got as far as a script. We went back to the Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein kind of thing. It had a really bad guy and happened on an island like Hawaii. I think, by that time, we had decided we were going to be smart enough to write movies that take place at beaches. [laughs] “What if we all got to go to Hawaii? Wouldn’t that be fun!” So we had Voodoo and a high priest. It was like the idiot version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We had lines of zombies, Voodoo potions, and Ernest pretending to be a zombie. Ernest and the Voodoo Curse actually was pretty funny. There was a woman in it, who had one blue eye and one brown eye. She was supposed to be the woman of Ernest’s dreams. Of course, she would have nothing to do with him. It was fun to do the script. I remember that one fondly. JA: What about Ernest and the Water Baby? CS: That one was great! I still like that one. Ernest was an alligator feeder at the Gator Jumparoo, an alligator farm. He found this little creature, the water baby. It was an E.T.-like creature he found way back in the swamp. Of course, it became his buddy. Somehow the bad guys found out about it, and they wanted to use it as a tourist attraction. Scientists found out it had some amazing property in its blood, so they wanted it too. Basically, everybody wanted the water baby. But Ernest had it. They were chasing him; then they got it, and he was chasing them. It was a chance for a lot of gags on the water. I liked Water Baby a lot. It had enough heart to make you care about Ernest and enough stupidity to be really funny. We did that with Camp very well, and chunks of Christmas worked. Water Baby was actually a good script. I think it might have proven too expensive, or they just went in another direction. It’s amazing that all this stuff is written down somewhere on the internet. [laughs] JA: Ernest Scared Stupid, but with a haunted house instead of an evil troll.

CS: I think Ernest Scared Stupid actually started with a haunted statue. It’s bizarre to have written all this stuff with John Cherry; I try to remember it now, and it’s like somebody else’s work. The original had a lot of the flavor of Scared Stupid. But there were no trolls; there was one statue that came to life – it was some terrible person who came back from the dead. John and I went to Disney with that script. Both of us felt, “This is the best thing we’ve ever written! It is clean as whistle. We know what they want. This is good.” And they said, “What were you guys smoking when you wrote this?” [laughs] I mean, literally, they said those words. We were so sure – but it was not to be. They said, “We want a haunted tree house.” So we dismembered anything we could salvage from the original Scared Stupid and cranked it into the next one. JA: You were involved with most of the Ernest movies. But your official title changed with each one. Sometimes you were credited as a producer; sometimes you were credited as a screenwriter. How was that decided? CS: Well, it depended on what I was doing besides the Ernest stuff, and it depended on what needed to be done at the time. I started as a writer, so I would have a hand in writing and rewriting everything done. Sometimes I would get credit for it, and sometimes I wouldn’t. Sometimes I was working on other projects. I might have been doing something for another project and could only be there for part of the Ernest film. It just had to do with what was going on at the time and how the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, and all those other guilds determined the credits. I had no control over it. Sometimes they would award it to somebody else, and sometimes I’d get it. JA: There’s only one Ernest film not directed by John Cherry. As you know, it’s Ernest Goes to School. And you were the director. CS: Right. [laughs] JA: How did that happen?

CS: We were doing three movies for ABC, the television network. We figured we could make them if we would shoot one while prepping another one, and then we would shoot another one afterward. John did Ernest Rides Again, while I produced it and prepped Ernest Goes to School. Then I directed School, while we were both prepping Slam Dunk Ernest. JA: You were making those films for ABC? Because that’s owned by Disney… CS: It wasn’t then. We were actually making the movies independently. But the financing secured by ABC had guaranteed the TV movie runs on there. We could get financing based on that. JA: So Disney’s last film was Ernest Scared Stupid. Then you released Ernest Rides Again and Ernest Goes to School independently on VHS. But when Slam Dunk Ernest was released on VHS, it was distributed by Disney. I used to think maybe Disney execs just changed their minds and said, “Hey, we want you back!” What really happened? CS: Well, that story is best shrouded in the mists of time. There were some difficulties with Disney; then they kind of got patched up. I think a lot of those difficulties were just about who wanted it when and who had a hot hand in distributing. Disney is good with distribution. They were a good partner for a while. Like I said, though, at a certain point it became harder and harder to be bright, shiny, and new. But Disney was great. You never think of Mickey Mouse as a strong-armed thug, but you need a guy like that in distribution. [laughs] JA: According to online sources, Ernest Goes To School was your last Ernest feature. That’s not true? CS: It’s close. I would do some consulting. But at that point, I kept writing and doing other stuff. A lot of it became about timing. The later stuff was shot in South Africa, which would have been a long time away from home.

I just started drifting onto other things. There wasn’t a falling out or anything. I had just been doing that for 15 years or more. Some other things came up. Ernest, of course, is a high point because he became this cultural footnote. It tickles me to no end that I still see him on TV and people still talk about him. I love the fact that you are taking an interest in Ernest. I think a lot of it is Jim Varney. He was just a remarkable talent, and he was great at physical comedy. He was a very interesting character. JA: It’s rumored that Varney filmed Ernest the Pirate before his passing. Is there any truth to the rumor? CS: The film was not Ernest the Pirate. Jim was specifically not an Ernest character in it, because he ultimately wanted to have more range. He did not want to be stuck in the ball cap and vest; he was certainly capable of more range. We were always looking for other projects to do with him. I think Pirates of the Plain was really thought of as a non-Ernest venture to give Jim a chance to do something different. And then real life intervened. There’s probably some footage out there, because we would shoot screen tests at the drop of a hat. There’s probably also some footage out there of Jim as Stan Laurel. “Buster” went on to do Pirates of the Plain and the Laurel & Hardy movie. By the time Pirates of the Plain came along, Jim’s health was not good. I don’t think any of us knew it was in the decline it turned out to be. But both of those movies went on without him. I’m sure we shot footage of Jim as the pirate character. There was a pirate character in Dr. Otto that Jim did. I’m sure he must have messed with it sometime. But Pirates of the Plain ultimately was made with Tim Curry, Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. By that point, it felt like the party was over. JA: Jim Varney certainly was a remarkable man who is greatly missed. When did you learn he had cancer?

CS: I don’t remember exactly. We were talking. He said, “I’m going to the doctor. I’m hurting.” It unfolded pretty quickly. Jim was strong, physically. With all of the physical comedy, he was just ripped. He was one of those guys who was incredibly strong for his weight and size. I think a lot of us assumed he was bulletproof. We had all lived as though we were bulletproof. For him to be the first of the bunch to get sick, I could not imagine it. He was good-natured through a terrible, terrible time. Jim was a one-in-a-million guy. We were lucky to have known a guy with that much talent and ability. He was a really good guy and a tremendously talented actor. Acting was all he ever dreamed about doing. He literally got to live his dreams. Jim said, “I never wanted to be a cowboy or a fireman; I wanted to be the actor playing a cowboy or a fireman.” I learned so much from him. We were pals for many years. We got to travel and spread foolishness across borderlines. It was a wonderful experience. For him to get sick and die just seemed like an unnecessary intrusion of real life into a great time. Everybody knew they were lucky to get to work around a guy who wasn’t a prima donna but was pulling his weight and the weight of ten other people. Maybe the good do die young. Jim was definitely a good guy, and he died too young.

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