REDNECK MASTERPIECE THEATER: Episode 3: KnowhutImean?

Let’s face it, redneck entertainment is basically a shuffling procession of drawling buffoons, be they half-baked characters or the actual actors themselves.  Perhaps they mean well.  Perhaps the public can only accept these backwoods types of characters when they are portrayed as harmless dolts.  But that’s no excuse for jingoistic crap like Joe Dirt, Forrest Gump, Earl Hickey, and those Blue Collar Assbags.  In each case these characters, comedians, and actors are so stereotypical and condescending that they make Huckleberry Hound and Yosemite Sam come off as more relatable and human.  Except one…

That’s right.  I’m talking about Mr. James Albert Varney, perhaps better known to you as Ernest P. Worrell.  But he was also the Slinky Dog in Toy Story.  He was a European prince on Roseanne.  And he was the only man to play Jed Clampett besides the original Buddy Ebsen (shoes that had to be hard to fill, but Varney not only pulled it off, he made it look easy). More intelligent than Jeff Foxworthy, more sincere than Larry the Cabletard, and packing an entire megaton of talent in his back pocket alone, Varney was a force of nature, a born performer who’d been entertaining folks since he was a kid telling jokes and doing impressions.  And besides all that, Varney could actually, y’know, ACT.  And sing.  And dance. And quote Shakespeare.  Even Tom Brokaw has to respect that.

Still, Ernest is what the man’s most known for, and so it shall be Ernest that we talk about in today’s Redneck Masterpiece Theater.  The Ernest character started as a simple pitchman for local commercials, chatting with ‘Vern’ about everything from gutters to hamburger joints.  Kind of like the “Can you hear me now?” guy, only not a douchebag.  Varney had a nice little racket going, but then the character blew up.  Ernest found himself a member of the pantheon of 80’s cultural icons.  He got a Saturday morning kids’ show and a phalanx of cheap comedies.  Were the people hungering for a simple-minded hillbilly selling them aluminum siding?  Maybe.  But I like to think that the real cause of Ernest’s success was the way Varney brought him to life, with a genuine voice and natural enthusiasm.

Ah, that voice is like thick Kentucky molasses poured into my ears.  Even when puking.  I watched Varney’s show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!, religiously when I was a kid.  All one season of it.  The Ernest schtick never gets old when you’re eight, but that was only the tip of the iceberg.  Jim Varney had an entire sideshow of other characters besides Ernest, each one unique, fleshed out, and sharing the same sense of goofy humor.  Varney dressed in drag to play the malicious Aunt Nelda, and took on a stiff military posture while playing Sergeant Glory, a tough drill sergeant.  Then there was Lloyd Worrell, Ernest’s great uncle, who was sort of an evil and crazier Ernest.  The most unique was Dr. Otto, a mad scientist that Varney had actually created long before Ernest.

 This image = proof of awesome

And this isn’t even getting into the movies.  Ernest had epic adventures that rivaled any daring deed done by Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, James Bond, or Super Mario.  In his movies, Ernest single-handedly: went to school, went to jail, joined the army, saved Christmas, slam dunked, went to Africa, went to camp, was scared stupid, and rode again.  If you’re interested in any of these adventures, I recommend going to camp and saving Christmas, as the quality of the series took a gentle and excruciating dive as the years wore on.  Since this is the holiday season, and I can’t possibly do justice to the cinematic spectacle of all ninety-four Ernest movies, here’s a clip from Ernest Saves Christmas.

And to bring this theater post to a close, I’d like to toast the legendary Jim Varney, who’s been dead for nearly twelve years now.  Lung cancer’s a bitch.  But let’s remember the man as he’d want us to, with laughter…

 Zombie Varney, keeping us laughing whilst eating our brains

What a hero.  On the next episode of Redneck Masterpiece Theater, we delve once more into hillbilly culture to examine its worst VILLAINS.

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