Veggies attack the funny gap

While flipping through TV channels the other night, VeggieTales writer Mike Nawrocki discovered an absolutely hilarious preacher. We're not talking about the big hair, molasses and glitz humor that makes so many televangelists laugh-to-keep-from-crying funny. No, this preacher was using humor to communicate. He knew his people and he knew how to make them laugh.

"It was very, very funny. But he was doing this in his own pulpit for his own people," said Nawrocki, who is "Larry the Cucumber" for 25 million Veggie video buyers. "I don't know if this preacher would have felt free to be that funny anywhere else. I don't know if he could have been funny outside his church."

Making ordinary people laugh is serious business to Nawrocki and his colleagues at Big Idea Productions, an independent company near Chicago built on the silly idea of vegetables acting out Bible stories. The twist in this tale is that the VeggieTales people have created a brand of humor that sells in mainstream superstores as well as in small Christian outlets. They don't just joke with the choir.

Now Larry the Cucumber, Bob the Tomato, Junior Asparagus and the virtual vegetables have jumped to the big screen, where they face the long knives of secular critics and consumers. "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie" opens this weekend in 1,100 theaters nationwide. Once again, the Big Idea team is chasing kids 8-years-old and younger, while wooing parents with in-jokes about Monty Python, "Jaws," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Blues Brothers" and pop culture.

Industry experts are watching to see if the VeggieTales are truly funny -- not church sanctuary funny, but suburban multiplex funny.

"We all know that Christians have trouble with humor," said Nawrocki. "Part of the problem is that all humor is irreverent, in one way or another. But the biggest problem Christians have with comedy is that they're afraid of offending other Christians. So much of humor is rooted in hard truths and Christians are not fond of hard truths, especially if they're about the church itself."

Nawrocki and Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer have wrestled with these issues ever since they were tossed out of Bible college in the mid-1980s. Soon, they were combining their puppetry and comedy skills with computer animation and dreaming about taking on Mickey Mouse.

Meanwhile, they watched their hip friends turn into pastors and youth ministers.

"The implicit message I received growing up was that full-time ministry was the only valid Christian service," said Vischer, the founder of Big Idea. "Young Christians were to aspire to be either ministers or missionaries. ... But I wanted to make movies. And from the movies and TV shows I watched growing up and the influence they had on me, I figured God could use a filmmaker or two, regardless of what anyone else said."

The key, said Vischer, is that he was raised in a culture in which everybody went to church. Then he ventured into the harsh world of advertising and corporate media and he had to reach people who never went to church. When he created Big Idea, Vischer was determined to create humor that blended both cultures.

Vischer and Nawrocki wanted to make videos, and now movies, that were openly religious, but not aimed at pews. They did not, in other words, want to settle for making "Christian movies." As another Christian in the entertainment industry, David McFadzean of the sitcom "Home Improvement," once quipped, the typical "Christian movie" is very similar to a porno movie. " It has terrible acting. It has a tiny budget. And you know exactly how it's going to end."

That quote is funny, yet painfully true, said Vischer.

"We seem to think every artistic expression by a Christian artist, to be valid, must end with an 'altar call.' It's the equivalent of saying every valid football play must end in the end zone," he said. Thus, "many of our efforts are so philosophically aggressive that they read more like war propaganda than entertainment, effectively limiting our audience to only the most committed faithful.

"The end result is that our work and our worldview have little or no impact on the broader culture. We've effectively taken ourselves out of the game."