“Hey, Vern! I see you’re still usin’ them big, fancy Madison A venue ad agencies. Must be costin’ you a pile of money havin’ them expense account lunches and hirin’ all them big-name stars to sell your product. Take it from your ole buddy and neighbor, me, Ernest P. Worrell, you oughtta come on down to Nashville and take a look at the TV ads I been makin’. Nearly 2,000 of ’em so far. Folks love ’em, and I kin sell just about anythin’, knowwhutuhmean?”
His real name is Jim Varney, and he is an actor and stand-up comic whose rubbery mug is an advertising phenomenon to make even the gnomelike Clara Peller look pallid. In the guise of his boorish alter ego, Ernest P. Worrell, Varney, 36, appears in 100 TV markets, playing an intrusive bumpkin who is always butting into the life of his long-suffering but never-seen neighbor, Vern.
Ernest wakes Vern before dawn to remind him of a car dealer’s big sale. He crashes Vern’s party—”Hey, Vern!
I see you’ve got all your highfalutin friends walkin’ ’round, talkin’ big and actin’ rich”—to tell him he ought to be serving Green’s Dairy premium ice cream. Unbidden, he paws through Vern’s grocery bags to make certain he’s bought the right milk. And Ernest is forever leaning through Vern’s kitchen window to offer unsolicited advice on what brand of orange juice he ought to be drinking or what local television news show he ought to be watching. “Knowwhutuhmean?” he asks with a leer.
Most of the 30-second spots are wide-angle close-ups of Varney’s jug ears and bug-eyed, wide-mouthed grin. His trademarks are his baseball cap, the threadbare vest he wears even into the shower and the manic, no-holds-barred camaraderie with which he bulldozes his way into Vern’s home. So far Varney and the ad agency for which he works, Carden & Cherry, have resisted offers to make Varney a spokesman for a single company, turning down even General Motors on the theory that there’s more money in making ads for a variety of regional clients than in casting their lot with a national giant.
Depending on the size of the market, each client pays between $7,000 and $10,000 per ad to have Ernest P. Worrell pitch its product. And public response to the ads has earned Varney a cult following of Worrell enthusiasts. “The appeal Ernest has is that there’s someone like him in every hometown and in every neighborhood,” says Lorraine Snebold, promotion director of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va. “On the one hand, he’s the guy who drives you absolutely crazy. On the other, he cracks you up the whole time he’s doing it.”
Ernest P.’s downhome drawl, if not his yahoo manners, comes naturally to Varney, a native of Lexington, Ky., whose father was a recreational therapist at a VA hospital. Young Varney had three older sisters and was always the class cutup. “I think anybody who does stand-up comedy was the class clown,” says Varney in an accent considerably more genteel than Worrell’s. “It was my way of coping. I was extremely bored at school.”
To make up for time wasted in class, Varney read every page of the encyclopedia in the school library and never missed a chance to get on stage. After high school, Varney headed for New York, where he began doing stand-up comedy with fellow unknowns including Freddie Prinze, Jimmy Walker, Robin Williams and Richard Pryor. One of his early guest shots was on Fernwood 2-Night as Virgil Sims, a “mobile-home daredevil” who cheated death by jumping over his domicile a la Evel Knievel.
But his big break came five years ago when Nashville adman John “Buster” Cherry was looking for a TV spokesman for a failing amusement park. The place was so dismal, Cherry knew he couldn’t let people see it, so he invented Ernest P. Worrell and cast Varney—back in Nashville after an unsuccessful assault on Hollywood—in the role. The amusement park failed anyway, but another client fell in love with Varney’s redneck routine and promptly demanded more of the same.
Viewers, though, were not instantly smitten, and expressed themselves early and often. “It was like a nasty letter contest,” recalls ad agency owner Jerry Carden. It still is whenever Worrell is introduced in a new market. “You’d be surprised how many people take Ernest for absolute serious,” says Varney. “People assume the companies can’t afford a nicer representative—a three-piece suit kind of guy with a nice haircut. After we realized what was happening, we warned the clients that the first two weeks they’d get people calling or writing letters. But Buster would say, ‘Just hang on. They’ll get it, and they’ll become the biggest fans you got.’ ”
In fact, it doesn’t take long for the payoff. An Indiana ice cream chain saw sales of its banana splits double in one week after Ernest began touting them. A St. Louis natural gas company says people actually call to ask where and when the next “Hey, Vern!” ads can be seen. And a Hawaii bank has dubbed the ads in Japanese and aired them as far afield as Guam. At home, Varney receives mash letters; on the street, he is besieged by autograph seekers. At last spring’s Indianapolis 500, spectators watched a parade of celebrities with sullen indifference until Varney appeared, bringing the crowd to its feet, whooping with recognition.
Divorced with no children, Varney lives alone on his 14-acre farm outside Nashville. The only cloud on an otherwise pristine horizon is his concern over being typecast as an incorrigible loudmouth. In his first movie, Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, a science-fiction spoof that has been released in only a few cities, Varney plays five different characters, and Worrell appears only in cameo. No hard feelings, but not even Varney wants to live too close to the ubiquitous Ernest. Vern would know just what he means.