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Remember Ernest P. Worrell? Played by the late, great Jim Varney, Ernest movies (Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Goes to Africa, etc), were everywhere back in the late '80s and throughout the '90s. They were these really silly, really fun broad comedies, and it’s a shame that we didn’t have anything like them in the 2000s. Or did we? Today, I’m going to make the argument that we did in fact have something akin to Ernest in the 2000s, and it was in the form of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies.
Okay, so of course I know that there are several differences between the two series. Like for example, the character of Madea Simmons started off in stage plays on what is often referred to as the “Chitlin’ Circuit” (though, Ebony magazine referred to it as the “urban theater circuit”), so in that way, they were primarily made for black audiences, while Ernest began with TV ads, with the character eventually making his way to the big screen. Ernest movies were made for general audiences, and usually aimed at children.
And with Madea’s black audiences came black casts and story lines, so the stories sometimes focused on inner city issues. In addition, the Madea movies usually had some kind spiritual element to them, so they sometimes dealt with topics like infidelity and succumbing to the streets, only to find salvation in Jesus. That said, there are still a lot of similarities between the two series, and that’s what I aim to talk about today.
Both Were the Voice of Reason in Their Respective Universes
Let me explain. In the universes that both Ernest and Madea inhabited, they were the end all, be all final voices of "reason" in their stories. For Ernest, he always had Vern, which was pretty much the audience, and whatever Ernest said, went. He could be talking about something ridiculous (in fact, whatever Ernest said was always ridiculous), but in the end, he was always the final say since Vern couldn't talk back. The best Vern could do was shake his head or close the door in Ernest's face. With Madea, she was always the final word, too. Even if what she said seemed wrong, or even slightly vulgar, as the grandmotherly figure, what Madea said, went. That's just how it was.
This created a sort of gravitational pull toward both characters. In a lot of ways, Ernest was pretty much a living cartoon who could get electrocuted or blown up. But he still was the final voice of reason in his stories. Madea could pull a gun out of her purse, go to jail, whatever. But she still always had the final say. So both characters had that in common. They were both the voice of reason in their respective worlds.
They Both Had Holiday-Themed Movies
Both Ernest and Madea had Christmas AND Halloween movies. In fact, Madea had two Halloween movies in Boo! A Madea Halloween, and Boo! 2: A Madea Halloween. Whereas Ernest had the classic, Ernest Scared Stupid. When it came to Christmas, Madea had A Madea Christmas, while Ernest had Ernest Saves Christmas.
Now, while neither Madea nor Ernest were in movies I would call high art, I’m going to go to bat for Madea and say that Boo! A Madea Halloween is Madea’s best movie, and Ernest Scared Stupid is far and away the best Ernest movie. So they have that in common, too. Their Halloween movies are their respective characters’ best movies.
Both Actors Played Multiple Characters
Tyler Perry didn’t just play Madea. He also played some other characters like Heathrow, Joseph Baker, and Madea’s nephew, Brian Simmons, who was really just Tyler Perry without the make-up. And Jim Varney played A LOT of characters, ranging everywhere from Auntie Nelda to even a baby.
And this just added to the comedy. To see both actors populate so many of their movies in so many different roles let you know just how talented both could truly be. Especially Tyler Perry since he actually directed the movies he starred in as well.
The Sheer Number of Films
Both Madea and Ernest have been in a ton of movies. Ernest had nine films (10, if you count Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam where his character made an appearance), and Madea had 8. Madea also made cameo appearances in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Meet the Browns, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself, bringing her tally to 11, if you count those, too.
This is important because you never really forgot either character throughout their respective decades. Yes, some of the Madea movies—Like I Can Do Bad All By Myself—were a lot more melodramatic than comedic, but you could always depend on Madea to bring some kind of comic relief, and you knew what you were getting yourself into when you saw her movies—the ornery grandma-type—just as you did with Ernest—the goofball idiot.
They Were Both Cultural Phenomenons
This goes back to the ubiquitous nature of both characters, but both Madea and Ernest appeared on the big screen all the time. Ernest first really made his presence known in hilarious television commercials, and then on the kid’s show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! So you always saw him. And there was rarely a time when you didn't see Madea on a movie poster or on a DVD cover for one of her many plays.
In that way, you really couldn't escape either character in their respective height of fame. Any movie with Madea, even if she wasn't the star of it, instantly became a Madea movie. In fact, funny story, but my wife, who is Filipino, actually invited ME to see Tyler Perry's first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I had never even heard of Madea before that and thought my wife was referring to the Greek play, Madea, by Euripides. My wife was shocked because she knew all about Tyler Perry's plays. But after that, I definitely knew who Madea Simmons was, because she was everywhere in the 2000s. Same with Ernest in the '90s. If he wasn't on the big screen, he went straight to home video. Either way, he never seemed to go away. He was that big.
So while yes, the intent of the characters was very different, as well as the audiences they were geared toward, but I still stand by my argument that Madea took the place of Ernest in the 2000s. Whether you love Tyler Perry’s portrayal of Madea or you loathe her, even you have to admit that you saw her pretty much everywhere for a time, just as you saw Ernest everywhere back in the '80s and '90s. And I think when people look back upon the 2000s, they’ll remember Madea and go, oh, yeah. That was actually a thing, just like a lot of '80s and '90s babies like myself say about Ernest when we look back on our childhoods. But what do you think? Is Madea the Ernest of the 2000s?