An urge to get ahead in his own awkward way and still be loved. Jim Varney. An American archetype with a long tradition; at least going back to before the civil war and the times of Herman Melville. In Constance Rourke and her history of American humor we can understand the inability to pin down the Jim Varney type to a given geographic area; there is an ambiguous zone of what Rourke termed the “untrustworthy narrator” capable of reinvention of identity (ed.)….
Art Chantry (email@example.com )
I admit it. I’m a big Ernest P. Worrell fan. I think Jim Varney was a genius, the perfect American anti-hero. the good- natured, simple minded boob with an urge to get ahead but still be loved. the great American knuckleheaded everyman. He makes Jerry Lewis look like a light weight. even the french loved him.
Varney started out doing a sort of ‘franchised’ tv commercial formula. I have no idea where the character came from (i suspect he developed it through those commercials). Varney was a small time regional actor – he apparently played Hamlet to good reviews. Hard to imagine, but I saw a clip of him doing Shakespeare on a 60 minutes profile and he was rather surprising.
When the earnest creation started, he and his cohorts, a virtual repertory crew, began marketing the character of their creation to small local ad markets all over the country and managed to set up a small empire. He had self-created adverts for car dealerships and restaurants and savings and loans all over the country, including up here in the Northwest. He and his crew wrote, acted and directed each one on commission to a local businesses. Through this process Ernest P. Worrell became a national ‘star’ of sorts. Everybody had seen some of those oddball entertaining commercials and laughed.
I have a “reel” of those commercials. They’re brilliant. a friggin’ laff riot. The rubber faced Varney mugs them to the hilt and they still work incredibly well, due almost entirely to the lunkheaded charisma of Jim Varney. The character is not as fully developed yet as he later became. This earlier stuff is more adult in humor and the tone is not as goofy as it is ‘white trash”. Maybe that’s why I love him, he’s my people.
So, here you are making millions doing cheezy but hilarious tv commercials made to order all over the country. You’ve become a star big enough to be profiled on 60 minutes. You’ve become a one-man salesmonster powerhouse industry as by yer lonesome. What’s a person to do? why, you start making movies, of course. And that’s exactly what they did. His company made a feature film.
It was smart. They altered the Ernest character to be more appealing to g-rated family viewing (they really knew where the money was). Their first film was “ernest goes to camp” (i think). It wasn’t too good, but it introduced the “new” Ernest – the man child. He was goofier and dopier and clumsy but good hearted. He just wanted to love and be loved, never mind he was a brilliantly idiotic savant.
He followed that one up with his two classics, his most brilliant work by far: “Ernest Saves Christmas” and the grand opus, the coup de grace, “Ernest Goes to Jail”. Both of these I very highly recommend, especially ‘Ernest Goes to Jail. It’s the best intro to what Ernest can be, what I love about Ernest P. Worrell.
I first saw “Goes To Jail” at a drive-in theater on Whidbey Island in the Northwest. This was an old school drive-in that subbed as a cow pasture during the off season (they also have a go-cart track.) You literally parked your car on grass! They even still had the old ‘speaker box’ system, where you brought those horrid buzzing little aluminum speakers on a wire into your car. It was wonderful. At night, the cars would pile in and the local servicemen (and their dates) alongside entire families would roll out blankets on the grass and haul out coolers full of refreshment and watch the feature film (always 3rd string z-level fare) under the open sky with shooting stars and the whole works. It’s a little slice of American heaven.
“Goes to Jail” is the closest thing Varney did to an “adult’ feature film. The entire thing is full on twisted asides and situation comedy and prop gags that, shall we say, “shoots over the heads of them young’ns.” I’ve watched it a dozen times and I still am amazed by how good it is. Jim Varney takes this opportunity to demonstrate his extensive talents as a comic character actor, which has always been under-appreciated and under-recognized.
‘Saves Christmas’ predates ‘Goes to Jail’ and still has an Ernest character in transition between the old “commercial adult” version and the later newly minted ‘g-rated’ persona. The crew even, suddenly and without warning, toss in a vignette structured like one of his commercial formulas – a panicking Ernest in a overwhelming situation trying to stay calm while reassuring the camera, addressing is as his erstwhile buddy, “Vern”. It seems incongruous and jolting to be presented with the ‘new’ Ernest, even at that point.
Box office wasn’t exactly huge with this new creation, this new enterprise of the ‘family viewing’ Ernest. There quickly followed several more but, much less carefully crafted features – much lesser in quality. films like ‘Ernest Scared Stupid’ (the ‘halloween’ movie) landed with a thud and sadly cemented his creation as a gormless no-talent idiot. There followed a succession of direct-to-video movies like ‘Ernest Joins the Army’, Ernest Goes to Africa’ and some stupid thing having to do with professional basketball. I’d like to call it a sell-out, but nobody was buying.
Jim Varney supplemented his career with ‘cameo’ performances on hip television shows like ‘Rosanne’ and ‘the Simpsons’. he even popped up in several major studio efforts, most notably playing Jed Clampett in the Hollywood remake of ‘the Beverly Hillbillies.’ his performance was a shock, he played Jed totally straight, as if he were the southern gentleman gone to seed that Buddy Ebson only hinted at in his original interpretation. He stole the film. Go back and watch it and see what I mean, he was brilliant and working with almost nothing.
Behind the scenes, Jim Varney was a life long heavy smoker. He contracted lung cancer in his final years and spent most of his efforts and money trying to beat it. I think what we actually witnessed was a man literally “spending” the assets he had struggled to build through his entire career in an effort to just stay alive. It sort of puts a slightly different spin on watching those later Ernest films. There was a desperation in them that I now can see as off-putting.
Jim Varney may be gone, now, along with the Ernest P. Worrell character, but his influence still lives on. Currently, there is an actor on television who is virtually playing Ernest all over again. I can’t recall his name, but he’s the guy who had that “dirty jobs” reality show, where he took it upon himself to tackle the most disgusting occupations imaginable.
Nowadays, he’s a regular on the (you guessed it) auto commercials, and banking commercials. He is dressed virtually the same as Varney’s old Ernest uniform (minus the vest). his “aww, shucks, just one of the guys” smart ass persona is so close to the lovable white trash goofball known as Ernest, that I can’t help but wonder if that actor doesn’t have a complete collection of everything Jim Varney ever did sitting at home.
so, Jim Varney may be gone, but (thank god) Ernest lives!