Respect for Jim Varney

You can be punished by success, and that was most certainly the case with the late Jim Varney (1949-2000), although he was slowly beginning to remedy his peculiar predicament at the time of his death.

Varney, I’m sure remains widely known, though I’m just as certain the scope of his career and his abilities are not and never have been. His comedy character “Ernest” (full name Ernest P. Worrell), was widely castigated in the 1980s for setting a new low bar for low brow, although any fan of silent comedy can tell you there is nothing new under the sun in that department. And yes, Varney was 100% cracker, proudly so, but he had greater range than you might think, and the skills to back it up.

Originally from Lexington, Kentucky, Varney started out in amateur theatre as a child, won drama medals in high school, and began performing comedy in clubs when still a teenager. Though he studied Shakespeare at the Barter Theatre in Virginia, a lot of his early professional work came from immersive performance in amusement parks, such as the Opryland folk show, and the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville Kentucky, an outdoor theatre which was connected to a 19th century “Main Street village” museum.

Without realizing it, many of us saw Varney’s work prior to the advent of Ernest. He broke into TV in 1976 as a regular cast member in sketches on the variety show Johnny Cash and Friends. In 1977 he was in an unsold pilot written by Larry Gelbart for a show called Riding High, a comedy set in the B movie western industry of the 1930s. In 1977 and ’78 he played a semi-regular character named Virgil Simms on the Mary Hartman spinoffs Fernwood Tonight and America 2-Night. During the same years (1977-79) he was a regular cast member on the sitcom Operation Petticoat with John Astin, Jamie Lee Curtis et al. (his character was an Eeyoresque fellow named “Doom and Gloom”). In 1980 he was a regular on Pink Lady and Jeff. And from 1983 to 1984 he was a regular on a show called The Rousters, playing a carny descendant of Wyatt Earp.

Then — the Ernest phenomenon. Who can say why these things happen? Certainly, Varney had a rare ability to mug, and a plastic, malleable mask that allowed him to do some extraordinary things such as this:

He started showing up in TV commercials circa 1980, usually talking directly to the camera, referring to the viewer as “Vern” and uttering his catchphrases “Hey, Vern!” and “Knowwhatuhmean?” It was broad to the point of obnoxiousness and audiences were bombarded with it. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who liked the spots or the character, but of course I grew up in the bubble of the Northeast. Surely, SOMEBODY liked the character because then Ernest started getting his own vehicles. There were TV specials like The Ernest Film Festival (1986), and Hey Vern Win $10,000 (1987). There was his sitcom Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! (1988). There was a TV movie Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain (1989). And, probably his greatest claim to fame, there was a successful series of movies for theatrical release: Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam (1986, in which Ernest is just one of many characters he plays), followed by Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Ernest Goes to Jail (1990), Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), Ernest Rides Again (1993), Ernest Goes to School (1994), Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Ernest Goes to Africa (1997), and Ernest in the Army (1998).

You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines and Varney did. The Ernest work was critically panned, but a certain subset of the American public lined up to see him. In any case in the mid 90s he started making an effort to break out of his niche and to get some mainstream work, and he was successful. He had a supporting role in the comedy Wilder Napalm (1993) with Dennis Quaid and the husband-wife team of Debra Winger and Arliss Howard. In 1993 he was cast as Jed Clampett in the film version of The Beverly Hillbillies, and silly as it sounds this was the first place I ever became aware of Varney’s abilities as an actor. He had them! It’s really saying a lot that a movie like this required much subtler acting than the Ernest films, but it did, including the occasional straight, dramatic moment. Varney brought his “A” game to the picture, and it showed. He did terrific work.

One was even more flabbergasted by his recurring role as Prince Carlos on the “crazy season” of Roseanne (1996). This was a gimmicky turn to be sure, but it paid off, it was much talked about, got a lot of press at the time. I was certainly aware of it. He went wildly against type as an aloof, jet-setting, English-accented monarch who is in love with Roseanne’s sister Jackie. Again, he nailed it. As a demonstration of what he could do, he knocked it out of the park.

Ironically his performances with the widest reach may have come as voiceovers in animated films: he played the Slinky Dog in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999), and Cookie in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001, posthumous). His last role was in the Billy Bob Thornton film Daddy and Them (2001), whose cracker dream-cast includes Thornton, Varney, Diane Ladd, Laura Dern, Andy Griffith and John Prine.

Lung cancer took Varney’s life at age 50, before he could truly shake off the shadow of Ernest (that is, if he wanted to, the character was a cash cow. Haha, I said “cow”).