After the Veggie sale, Part I

NASHVILLE -- VeggieTales fans know that strange things happen when the big green digital cucumber launches into one of his infamous "Silly Songs with Larry."

The new "School House Polka" salutes words that sound alike, with the chorus: "Homophones, homophones, where the crews come cruising down the plane. Homophones, homophones, I need my kneaded biscuits plain!" The twist is that Larry keels over on his back and delivers an accordion solo that fuses great moments in rock music history.

Some nervous Christian consumers let Mike "Larry the Cucumber" Nawrocki know that (a) Jimi Hendrix was not a Christian musician, (b) "Smoke on the Water" was not a Christian song and (c) "School of Rock" was not a Christian movie.

"There are always people who are going to say, 'We don't think rock 'n' roll like that is appropriate for our kids,' " he said. "You just have to be funny anyway, even if that bugs them."

Nawrocki pondered this artistic dilemma, then continued: "The whole key to humor is to be able to criticize the authorities and make fun of the powers that be. But that's hard for some Christians to do. ... That may even mean criticizing the church, in particular. But how are we supposed to do humor if we can't do that?"

It isn't easy to write computer-animated comedies that are safe enough for Sunday school, yet hip enough for media-soaked youngsters and their parents. Yet this high-wire act has made VeggieTales one of the most recognized brands in family entertainment.

These days, even loyal customers are scrutinizing new products from Big Idea, Inc., the reorganized company that replaced Big Idea Productions. Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer created the original company in 1993, but it slid into bankruptcy in 2003 after losing an $11 million federal lawsuit about a verbal contract with a video distributor.

The new owner is Classic Media, which owns Rocky & Bullwinkle, Lassie, the Lone Ranger and a flock of family franchises. Nawrocki, musician Kurt Heinecke and a small team of other Big Idea veterans moved from greater Chicago to join a cluster of entertainment companies in Franklin, just outside Nashville. Vischer will continue to do the voices of his many digital characters, while writing one Veggie script a year and consulting on others.

The key is that the VeggieTales brand is still healthy, said Terry Pefanis, the new chief operating officer. During the bankruptcy proceedings, bidders put Big Idea under a microscope and found that it was selling 5 million home video products a year, with about $50 million a year in total product sales.

No one doubted the future of the Veggies -- if they remained hip and wholesome. But Pefanis said executives from one or two entertainment giants still thought that Big Idea needed to stop quoting the Bible so much.

"They kept saying that VeggieTales needed less God so that we could make it big on mainstream television," said Pefanis. "But the problem is that if we stop talking about God, what use are we? What are we going to tell stories about? ... On top of that, if we start leaving out the Bible, we're going to lose our core audience and we're dead."

As entertainment entrepreneurs, the new Big Idea leaders know they have to do what they have done in the past -- dominate the Christian market, while reaching out to suburban superstores that hail from Arkansas. While the Christian retail industry claimed $4.2 billion in sales in 2003, the Big Idea team keeps talking about two bigger ideas in the marketplace. Forty percent or more of all Americans say they go to church and 80 percent or more say they believe in God.

Thus, the new "Sumo of the Opera" ends with a bite of St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews, but gets to its lesson on perseverance via Gilbert and Sullivan, professional wrestling, ESPN and "Rocky."

"You can't just haul off and hit people in the nose," said Nawrocki. "If you do, you've started selling a sermon and that doesn't work.