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Thoughts on the tenth anniversary of Jim Varney’s death.

Thoughts on the tenth anniversary of Jim Varney’s death. (photo)

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Ten years ago Jim Varney, best known as the once-ubiquitous “Ernest,” died of lung cancer — ironically enough for a guy who made one of the more chilling anti-smoking ads I’ve ever seen.

The character of Ernest is, to my knowledge, the only comic character created expressly for advertising purposes who transitioned into his own cinematic franchise. How he did this remains unclear. Ernest began in 1980 as the brainchild of a Nashville ad agency and first wound up on film on 1986’s “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam,” a dark cult item that looks pretty much unwatchable. (Its Wikipedia synopsis is an untoppable feat of vandalism.) It was the wild commercial success of 1987’s “Ernest Goes To Camp,” though, that began Varney’s transition out of commercials to simply selling himself.

Though critically loathed, Ernest has survived and endured more than anyone might’ve suspected — there has to be least two solid hours of Ernest footage of various sorts on YouTube. A Tom Brokaw interview embedded below dubbed his brand marketability “redneck selling power.” By being on every TV market in the US, but always in local spots, Ernest created personal affinities with people all over the country that national advertising wouldn’t have achieved. This kind of redneck camaraderie, self-consciously exploited, arguably paved the way for the likes of Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. You’re welcome.

02102010_witlessprotection.jpgAnd when he became a movie star, he made movies for uncomplaining kids, adjusting to the times as he went along. “Ernest Goes To Jail,” per Caryn James’ contemporary review, gets a little Pee Wee Herman-ish in its depiction of Ernest’s house as “an overstuffed playroom,” complete with in-house Ferris wheel. He later downscaled to profitable direct-to-video ventures; he was working on the tenth “Ernest” movie when he died at 50.

As a kid, I never really understood why Ernest’s face seemed to be taking up advertising space in every waiting-room magazine, but looking at the footage I’m suitably impressed. It’s a modest bit, occasionally grating but definitely distinctive. Here’s a good sampler, per that Brokaw profile, which features a one-of-a-kind moment of Varney performing “Hamlet” (his life-long dream):

[Photos: “Slam Dunk Ernest,” Buena Vista, 1995; “Witless Protection,” Lionsgate, 2008]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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