Jim Varney was a genius. If you do not agree with this statement, please turn around and show yourself out our cyber-door. A classically trained actor from Kentucky, Varney did theater and even toiled around Hollywood for some sitcom work in the late ‘70s. It wasn’t until 1980 – when he was back in the South – that his career path was set. Hooking up with director John Cherry III, Varney shot a commercial featuring a character he had come up named Ernest, a sort of quintessential nagging redneck know-it-all. The regional commercial was well received and soon Varney and Cherry were shootings dozens of commercials featuring the character Ernest P. Worrell, who was always talking to his unseen friend Vern. Rumor has it Ernest caught the attention of Disney brass at a car racing event where iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy got outshined by everyman Ernest when he showed up.
Production started in September 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee. Cherry and Varney had worked so much together that by this point Ernest was a well oiled machine. While Cherry had shown some visual flair in the previous two films, JAIL took it to a whole different level. Essentially, the director took the battered-but-impervious Ernest to its logical extreme and made him a live action cartoon. Look no further than this small snippet from the “Ernest gets magnetic” scene to see an example of this:
The visual style and editing there is so off the charts, ending up looking like an Ernest movie directed by Sam Raimi. Cherry also indulged himself in the lighting and costume department, creating a surreal looking jail with guards having exaggerated shoulder pads. Of course, this is only enhanced by the Varney’s comedic skills and JAIL offers him the best showcase throughout the series as he plays Ernest, the villain Mr. Nash, and even dusts off his Auntie Nelda character (take that, Tyler Perry!). He is supported by nice turns by Gailard Sartain (as the insane bank security guard), Bill Byrge (as his silent partner, Bobby), Randall “Tex” Cobb (as a high top sporting convict), and even Charles Napier (as the evil warden).