The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

VeggieMovies, take two

NASHVILLE -- The idea for the movie began with a vision of three fake pirates falling from the sky into the ocean, transported in a magical rowboat back into the 17th century.

It helps to know that Elliot, Sedgewick and George have, in their previous dramatic lives, been known as Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Lunt and Pa Grape -- key characters in the successful VeggieTales products created by Big Idea, Inc. Now they're headed back to theaters in "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything," a feature film distributed by Universal Pictures that is scheduled for release on Jan. 11.

This time around, the vegetables don't quote scripture and their adventure doesn't turn into a funny version of a Bible story. Still, the artist also known as Bob the Tomato stressed that Veggie fans don't have to worry that these pirates have abandoned the faith.

"You can do a story like this one of two ways," said Phil Vischer, who created Big Idea, Inc., and continues to work as a writer and performer for the company.

"You can say, 'Let's start with a Bible story and then we'll figure out where our characters fit into it.' When you do this, you know that you already have a story and some characters and there is a biblical message in there. The challenge is figuring out how to make it VeggieTales story. You have to find the humor."

This is what happened with "Jonah," the first feature-length VeggieTales production, which cost $16 million to make and took in about $25 million at the box office back in 2002. That was a lot of money for an openly Christian movie in the days before "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

However, "Jonah" was a high-stakes gamble for Vischer and his Big Idea team, part of a complicated legal and financial train wreck that led to the sale of the company to Classic Media. The VeggieTales franchise -- which has sold more than 50 million DVDs and other video products -- is now part of the Entertainment Rights, a British company.

The VeggieTales stars have also been a hit on Saturday mornings for NBC, but with some of their more explicit God references trimmed for general consumption. The big question for the Big Idea people is whether softening the religious language in their stories is a plus or a minus, when it comes to reaching a wider audience.

This is not a new question. Vischer noted that the VeggieTales team has been using a second, less explicitly religious, way of telling stories since the very beginning.

If the first approach to telling stories starts with the Bible and then blends in humor, the second begins with a funny story and then tries to blend in some faith. That's what happened in 2003 when Vischer had his rowboat vision and wrote the script for "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything."

"You can do it either way. This time, we just started out with the slacker pirates and we went from there," he said. "When you go this route, someone always has to ask, 'So what's the lesson here?' I usually have to say, 'I don't know right now, but we'll dig around until we find one.' "

So the new movie's message is biblical, even if it doesn't openly quote the Bible.

Christian parents who take their children to see the film will recognize that it's a parable about God helping the heroes conquer their fears and weaknesses, said Terry Pefanis, the chief operating officer at Big Idea. Many other viewers will think that it's a silly, positive, wholesome story for children -- period.

Studio executives know that, to be a mainstream hit, this kind of faith-friendly product has to appeal to both of these audiences. It has to please the people from the pews, while reaching out to as many other viewers as possible.

"There is a Christian market out there," said Pefanis, after a test screening of an unfinished version of the movie last week in Nashville. "Hollywood is starting to realize that, now.

"There are people who want to see good entertainment that has some Christian content. But it has to be good. You can't just put something in a Christian box and expect people to love it. There has to be a real story in there."

Slicing the Veggies

If you were a television executive, which program do you think would offend the most viewers across America?

The first is a children's show featuring digital vegetables that sing and dance and tell silly parables. Each episode ends with a Bible verse and a witty tomato's reminder that "God made you special and he loves you very much!"

The second is a prime-time special in which Madonna sings her enigmatic ballad "Live to Tell" while hanging on a disco-mirror crucifix and wearing a crown of thorns.

If you decided that it's the vegetables that are too hot to handle, then you're on the same wavelength as NBC.

Actually, both shows got early green lights -- although the latter had to surrender its Bible verses and some key God talk. The man in charge of slicing the "VeggieTales" is Phil Vischer, the heart, mind and voice behind Bob the Tomato and many other characters. He has faced a crucial question while wrestling with NBC program guidelines: How much God is too much God?

"The parameters of what we're doing have not been clearly articulated," said Vischer, who works as a consultant for Big Idea, Inc., the company he created that is now owned by Classic Media. "It's kind of like hunting for the electronic fence in your yard. You keep walking until the back of your neck starts tingling and then you know that you've hit it."

However, he discovered a crucial clue while editing the broadcast version of "Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Samson's Hairbrush."

In the script, Larry the Cucumber is convinced Samson must have gotten his extraordinary strength from his hairbrush. No, replies Bob the Tomato, the Bible says that Samson's strength came from God.

"That line was OK," said Vischer. "Where we got into trouble was the next line, where Bob says, 'And God can give us strength, too.' The NBC people said we had to take that out, so we must have crossed a line right there. ...

"What God does in the past is OK as long as it stays in the past. But if you cross that line and say that God can affect your life in the present, then that's too much. That's reaching out to the audience and that's proselytizing or something. That's bad."

The rules get tougher when children are the primary audience, he admitted. Media executives worry about programs that blur the line between "values" and "evangelism." Still, anyone who studies modern cartoons knows that producers are constantly trying to shape the beliefs of children when it comes to the environment, racism, gender, self esteem and a host of other topics.

Thus, some angry conservatives sense a double standard.

"NBC has taken the very essence of 'VeggieTales' -- and ripped it out. It's like 'Gunsmoke' without the guns, or 'Monday Night Football' without the football," argued L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center. "NBC is the network that hired a squad of lawyers to argue that dropping the F-bomb on the Golden Globe Awards isn't indecent for children. ... Or, as one e-mailing friend marveled: 'So, saying '(expletive) you' is protected First Amendment speech on NBC but not 'God bless you.' "

Also, some "VeggieTales" loyalists -- Big Idea has sold 50 million DVDs and videocassettes -- have posted notes at arguing that the grown-up believers behind the silly stories have "sold out" in the secular marketplace.

Vischer said the key is that edited "VeggieTales" episodes will be shown on television, but they will not replace products on store shelves. If children like what they see on Saturday mornings and want their own copies, they will end up watching the original versions -- with "the Bible verses and the rest of the God stuff still in there," he said.

The semi-open door at NBC, he said, is "kind of like being invited to sing at the White House. The good news is that you get to sing at the White House. The bad news is that they aren't going to let you sing all of your Christian songs because they might upset the ambassador from Saudi Arabia and some of the other foreign dignitaries.

"But it's still good, in the long run, that people at the White House get to hear your music. The goal is for them to want to hear more."

After the Veggie sale, Part II

While brainstorming the other day, Phil Vischer thought up an idea for a wacky late-night show that could also deal with faith issues.

This show would not feature digital vegetables and Vischer playing a big, red, silly tomato named Bob. It would not be a VeggieTales show produced under the Big Idea brand he created a decade ago. It would sink or swim on its own.

This felt exhilarating and terrifying.

"That was the whole thing with VeggieTales," said Vischer. "It was wonderful, but everything we did had to end up as a digital-animation video product. We had a studio to protect and everything had to feed that franchise. ...

"What if you had an idea for a live-action movie? Too bad! How about new characters? Too bad! How about new children's books? Too bad! Maybe an old-fashioned animated movie? Too bad! What if we went back and did a puppet show? Too bad! We had to stick to Veggies."

The good news, said Vischer, is that he is now free "to chase all these creative bubbles" wherever they go. The bad news is that he is free to do so because Big Idea Productions crashed into bankruptcy last year after losing an $11 million lawsuit about a verbal contract with a distributor, only 10 years after releasing the first Veggie video called "Where is God When I'm S-Scared?"

VeggieTales started with Vischer and Mike "Larry the Cucumber" Nawrocki, two wisecracking puppeteers who exited Bible college because they were in trouble almost as often as they were in chapel. Vischer learned computer graphics, Nawrocki wrote silly songs and a dream was born.

At its peak, Big Idea was a 210-person animation studio in the Chicago suburb of Lombard. The reorganized Big Idea, Inc., has downsized and moved to Franklin, Tenn., just outside Nashville. The new owner is Classic Media, which controls Lassie, Rocky & Bullwinkle, the Lone Ranger and other wholesome products.

Nawrocki and a circle of others made the move. Vischer did not, but agreed to keep providing the voice of Bob the Tomato and legions of other characters. He will write one of three Veggie scripts each year and consult on others. "The Lord of the Beans" is just around the corner.

"I'm trying to tell the stories that God is putting into my head," said Vischer, pausing. "And I'm still trying to learn how to let go. But it's good to let go. It was killing me, trying to run a studio and be creative at the same time."

The late Bob Briner would have agreed, 100 percent. Throughout the 1990s, the president of ProServ Television used "Roaring Lambs" and his other books to urge believers to stop cranking out predictable products to sell to the converted.

Briner was a big VeggieTales fan. Yet, weeks before dying of cancer, he offered sobering media insights that would soon become highly relevant to the Big Idea story. Briner said that when he started paying attention to the Christian marketplace, he feared that the artists didn't have what it takes to make competitive, mainstream products. This was not the case.

"We have people who can tell stories, write songs and be funny," he said, in April of 1999. "We have lots of talented people. I've decided that this isn't the problem. Our biggest problem is that we don't have enough people who know how to handle the money so that the talented people can do what they need to do."

Vischer found that out. He said he started out telling stories and ended up "chasing the Walt thing" as he tried to build a corporate brand that could compete with the Walt Disney Company and the rest of the industrial entertainment complex.

In the end, it was hard to tell funny stories. The pressure was too great.

"I wanted to do as much good as I possible could as fast as I could," he said. "I mistakenly believed that the bigger we got, the more opportunities we would have to do good. What I learned was that just the opposite was true.

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.

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."