"I guess I would be, if I weren't just that close to being an actual cartoon."
-- Ernest Rides Again
Cartoons live on forever, but after more than 15 years of falling off ladders, slamming his head into heavy objects, and being repeatedly electrocuted and blown up, Jim Varney, best known as the clumsy bumpkin "Ernest" in such films as Ernest Goes to Camp, finally met his match and succumbed to lung cancer on February 10, at the age of 50. He leaves behind him a legacy as one of the most critically reviled characters to ever grace the silver screen -- the announcement of his death on CNN.com has a "related link" to a site called "The Worst Films of the 20th Century" -- and yet he was beloved by millions of fans. A brief survey of Internet postings following the announcement of Varney's death yielded such comments as "He meant a lot to me as a child, and when he died away, my childhood died away," and "As a single parent, I was always confident that, when my children and I sat down as a family to watch one of his movies, we would all be laughing out loud. His sense of humor, clean humor, was absolutely incredible."
Of course, there would also be the occasional post of "What the hell is wrong with you people? This guy was anything but funny. Vern! Vern! You morons, he's the Vern guy!" (a reference to the invisible neighbor Ernest frequently addressed during his tenure as a commercial spokesperson). During Varney's life, most film critics seemed to share that sentiment, targeting him with a venom usually reserved for Pauly Shore (who at least could be said to have gotten his film career through nepotism). Here are some typical reviews Varney received throughout his career: Diane Squires of the website Bad Movie Night described Ernest as "a character who should NEVER be allowed to spend more than two consecutive minutes onscreen anywhere ever"; Salt Lake City critic Chris Hicks noted in one review that "you may have forgotten just how grating and irritating Jim Varney's incessant mugging as Ernest P. Worrell can be"; and ReelViews' James Berardinelli not only referred to the Ernest movies as "an amazing -- and pathetic -- testimonial to American culture," but also went on to say that the Ernest role "demands no acting whatsoever."
Even given the fact that comedians often get less respect than dramatic actors, one has to wonder how closely Berardinelli and others were paying attention. Had he seen, for instance, Ernest Goes to Jail, in which Varney plays a dual role as hero and villain, yet is clearly distinct as each character without the aid of special makeup? Or the TV special, The Ernest P. Worrell Family Album, a show whose standout scene involved Ernest's ancestor, Davey Worrell (also Varney), guarding a fort by himself as hostile Indians prepared to attack? (Davey's response is to impersonate a wide variety of different soldiers preparing for battle, and he constructs such an elaborate aural fantasy that the Indians believe it and turn tail.) Or even the dual-Emmy-winning 1989 TV series, Hey Vern, It's Ernest, on which Varney regularly portrayed multiple characters, each with totally different physicalities, ages, and accents (and sometimes even genders -- the Ernest character would frequently dress up to disguise himself as "Auntie Nelda," an infirm, long-suffering mother-in-law from hell)?
When I returned to this country after 12 years abroad, I had only the vaguest notion of who "Ernest" was, but the idea of this face-sweating redneck saving Christmas somehow seemed irresistible, so I dragged my dad along to see the just-released Ernest Saves Christmas. I remember laughing harder than I had at any movie since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and even my dad was forced to admit that he had enjoyed the film far more than he had anticipated. When the Saturday-morning TV show debuted shortly afterward -- on the same network as Pee-Wee's Playhouse, no less -- I was overjoyed. While Varney was often described as a hillbilly version of Paul Reubens's alter ego, he was never fortunate enough to work with a director of Tim Burton's caliber on the Ernest movies, as they would always be helmed by the character's co-creator, Tennessee adman John Cherry. Cherry assembled quite an ensemble of regulars to work with Varney, only one of whom, Southern character actor Gailard Sartain, ever went on to bigger things (Kathy Bates's husband in Fried Green Tomatoes), although song composer Bruce Arntson eventually spun off his Hey Vern character Existo the Magician into a little-seen cult musical, directed by longtime Ernest producer Coke Sams.
Varney's interest in acting began in high school, when he won several state drama competitions as a student at Lafayette High in Lexington, Kentucky. At 15, he portrayed Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and he was performing Shakespeare by age 16. Following some appearances on country-themed variety shows like Johnny Cash and Friends and Pop! Goes the Country, he moved to Nashville during the actors' strike of 1979 and hooked up with Cherry, who approached him about doing the character of Ernest for some local commercials.
Six years of successful national commercials and one trademarked catch phrase later ("KnoWhutIMean?"), he and Cherry made the very first Ernest movie, Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, in which Varney portrayed a mad German scientist, with a third hand growing out of his head, who, in an attempt to defeat his high school rival, assumes a variety of disguises and identities, including that of Ernest. The script was essentially just an excuse for Varney to perform a wide variety of characters that he would later use on his TV show, but it holds up the best of any of his independent film work and indicates a potentially darker road not taken. A year later, the first of four Disney-distributed Ernest films, Ernest Goes to Camp, was released. When the fourth one, Ernest Scared Stupid, performed disappointingly at the box office (comedic sidekick Sartain had departed the series by then), the contract with Disney ended, but Cherry and Varney continued to churn out films of ever-decreasing quality for the video market.
There were indications toward the later years of his career that Varney was looking to make a transition to more serious work. He played the relative straight man in the big-screen Beverly Hillbillies ("The first time in my life I had to do a screen test . . . I got to play somebody more my own age.") and told an interviewer for Montreal radio station CJAD-AM that he longed to do Shakespeare again, saying that he had tried out for the Laurence Fishburne-Kenneth Branagh Othello, but missed it "by just that much." He won perhaps the first critical acclaim of his movie career in his role as Slinky Dog in the Toy Story films, made his dramatic debut in a little-seen 1997 indie film called 100 Proof, and will appear post-chemotherapy in another dramatic role for his friend Billy Bob Thornton in this summer's Daddy and Them. He recently made notable guest appearances as a European prince on Roseanne and a corrupt carny barker on The Simpsons, a show that had previously depicted Bart enjoying the fictitious movie Ernest Needs a Kidney.
No one's going to argue that the Varney-Cherry collaborations were cinematic masterpieces; Cherry, after all, was an advertiser first and foremost, a producer second, and a director third. Yet even the worst of the films have their moments of out-of-left-field glory: the paratrooping snapping turtles in Camp who suddenly start talking to one another ("I'm scared, Sarge"; "We're all scared, son."); the mysterious cowboy in Ernest Goes to School who comes galloping down the hallway to tell Ernest where his math class is; the evil NBA agent in Slam Dunk Ernest, who turns out to be Satan; the gigantic trash monster sent to eat the hero of Dr. Otto, only to realize that the two of them were once classmates; and the climax of Scared Stupid, in which Ernest realizes that the only way to defeat the Maurice Sendak-inspired slimy troll is to love him like a mother. And it's hard to imagine that some of the critical bile directed at Ernest didn't have something to do with his Southernness (after all, Jim Carrey's shtick isn't that different from Varney's, minus the accent); mention Ernest to any self-professed intellectual, and the look of scorn you get is similar to that when you mention NASCAR racing, country music, or pro wrestling.
In the song "Sure Am Glad It's Raining" in Camp, Ernest laments: "What they wanted was a hero/All I needed was a friend." Well, he may not have been a movie hero, but to a generation of kids raised on his film and TV work, he was always "our ol' buddy Ernest." As one Internet poster put it: "It still feels personal; it feels like I lost an uncle I didn't see that much, but when I did, I loved being around him." The ability of his persona to connect with children and outsiders, on the big screen and off, endeared him to many, and the warmth and good heart of the character always came across, even when the quality of the material faltered.
We'll miss you, Jim. KnoWhutIMean?