James Albert Varney, Jr. was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to Nancy Louise (Howard) and James Albert Varney, Sr. He became interested in theater as a teenager, winning state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. At age 15 he played Ebeneezer Scrooge in a local children's theater production of "A Christmas Carol", and by 17 was performing professionally in nightclubs and coffee houses. He chose Nashville rather than New York or Los Angeles as a place to pursue his acting career and, with advertising executive John R. Cherry III, turned "Ernest P. Worrell" into a cash cow, making commercials for clients ranging from soft drinks to food stores and, eventually, Disney. Even though Ernest's catchphrase "KnowhutImean?" became a national craze almost immediately, Jim worked in TV and film for more than a decade before his famous alter-ego hit the big screen in Ernest Goes to Camp (1987).