Last week Lionsgate released the first trailer for Uncle Drew, a basketball movie about an elderly man schooling younger dudes in Rucker Park. NBA Superstar Kyrie Irving is set to reprise his role as the titular character, Uncle Drew. The character was first seen in a series of videos produced by Pepsi in 2012. Since then several other characters have been introduced including other NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, and Nate Robinson, all of which are seen in the trailer too. Comedians Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll are cast as well, which gives us a faint glimmer of hope that this won’t be a complete train wreck of a film. Let’s be honest though, you should probably get your conductor’s cap ready. It’s not often that Hollywood decides make a film or TV show based on a character created by your favorite gas station snack’s marketing department. So in order to honor this momentous occasion we look back at a few times this has happened before.
Earnest P. Worrell (played by national treasure, the late Jim Varney) might be the most successful example and maybe the most confusing. The Earnest character was created by an ad agency based in Nashville, Tennessee in 1980. The character was basically used as a pitch man for several different brands including Coke, Chex mix, and Taco John’s. His first use in a commercial was in an ad promoting an appearance by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders at Beech Bend Park. He was known for saying “KnowwhutIMean, Vern?” Vern being the target consumer on the other side of the TV screen. From 1986 to 1998 Earnest starred in 10 films. 4 of those films had theatrical releases by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures and grossed over $90 million in ticket sales. After Earnest Scared Stupid did not perform well in the box office they dropped the character and the rest of the Earnest films were independently produced. There were rumors of 6 more Earnest movies in various stages of production in the years before Jim Varney’s death but alas, none were filmed. The last we saw of this character in film was 1998’s Earnest in the Army but the character lives on forever through my father’s inability to say “Know what I mean?” without calling me Vern. Every. Time.
The 1980’s and early 90’s were a hotbed for anthropomorphized objects and claymation. What better way to take advantage of both these things than to have some dancing raisins singing Marvin Gaye songs at you and force feeding you faux-healthy cereal. Originally created in 1986 to help promote the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB, who knew they needed promotion?) The California Raisins took the United States by storm. The Raisins released 4 studio albums, promoted Post Raisin Bran Cereal, had primetime specials, a Saturday morning cartoon, video games, and a tons of really really really stupid merchandising. They were everywhere. Eventually, their popularity and production started to wain when the CALRAB realized production costs were higher than their income and could not afford to keep using them. They still won an Emmy for A Claymation Christmas Celebration though and no one can ever take that from their pruney, clay hands.
The Cavemen are a more recent and less successful example, they were originally spokes-Neanderthals for Geico Insurance. The Cavemen shared duties with the Geico Gecko and several other characters as the face of the company. In 2007, someone at ABC thought making TV was so easy a caveman could do it and they greenlit a television series based on the Cavemen. The show only lasted a few weeks before it was pulled from the air and the characters stopped being used for commercials as well. In a strange coincidence with Uncle Drew, comedian Nick Kroll was also involved in the Cavemen TV Show. Nick, if you need help finding better representation I’m sure we could help…
Honorable Mention: The Simpsons
Although the Simpsons were not created in the marketing department they were used as pitchmen before their long-running FOX TV show hit the air. Originally airing as an animated short on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 they were quickly scooped up by Nestle to represent the Butterfinger brand which proved to be a long lasting and successful relationship. The Simpsons have gone on to be one of the most successful cartoon and merchandising franchises of all time but since they started as a short before they were used in commercials we couldn’t add them to our list officially, D’oh!
I guess the moral to the story is that If it works, it works & if it doesn't, it REALLY doesn't. Of course there's one big difference between Uncle Drew and these other examples and that difference is Kyrie Irving. None of these examples started with a base of sports-celebrity before creating the character. The closest example I can think of is former New York Knick/Charlotte Hornet Larry Johnson's Grandmama character from the 90's. The Grandmama character was used to promote Converse shoes on a series of popular commercials much like Uncle Drew and Pepsi. Grandmama even made a few appearances on television outside the commercials. Most notable was a guest appearance on Family Matters as Steve Urkel's teammate in a basketball tournament. Grandmama never had a movie but I think a good lawyer could make the case that this was the basis for Tyler Perry's entire film career. I for one am always a sucker for a good basketball movie so I hope nothing but the best for Uncle Drew. What do you think? Of course we missed a few examples so be sure to remind us how stupid we are for forgetting them in the comments.