The talking vegetables from VeggieTales, the popular Christian series for children, will hit the big screen on January 11 in The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. Catholic Digest recently spoke with Veggie Tales creators Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki about faith, family, vegetables, and pirates.
CD: Both of you are parents. How did that impact the development of VeggieTales?
NAWROCKI: Growing up in the church I was involved in doing puppetry and Sunday school and stuff like that for kids. So for me it was part of what I had always done.
VISCHER: I saw that there was kind of gap between the shows that were good for kids and the shows that kids liked. They needed the apple, but they wanted the Twinkie. Was there a way to make an apple taste more like a Twinkie? (That) was really what I was trying to do.
CD: Phil, in a speech given at Yale in 2005 about the VeggieTales phenomenon, you talked about how the series used a particular style of humor and teaching that met an untapped need “for a generation whose own attitudes and worldview were in radical upheaval…. It was exactly what people didn’t know they were looking for.” Can you talk a little more about that?
VISCHER: I think VeggieTales was shaped a lot by my generation’s experience being parented and how we were the children of the sexual revolution. We were kind of the fallout, the ones who got the short end of the stick. It made [for] a pretty cynical bunch of young adults who were now writing all the TV shows and comic books and movies. I think I said in the speech that our patron saint was David Letterman and (we were) the generation who made light of everything. [There was] an inherent mistrust of sincerity. But at the same time [we wanted sincerity]. Something has to mean something. It’s that tension that drives a lot of what I was trying to do with VeggieTales. Particularly (with) Bob the Tomato, who kind of represented the frustrated Mr. Rogers in a world gone cynical.
CD: How has working on VeggieTales impacted your faith life?
NAWROCKI: Well, it does give you a good motivation to get in the Bible. (laughter) Obviously when you’re retelling a Bible story and [trying to] to boil down the lesson for a 4-year old, you really have to dig in and research and get to know it. That’s been very cool.
VISCHER: I have discovered that the stories that I write that seem to touch people the most aren’t the ones where [I say], “Oh, it’s time to write a story, [let’s] crack open the Bible and look for something.” [It’s] the ones that actually come out of my own devotional time, when I’m not looking for a story and God just kind of lights something up on the page. A Snoodle’s Tale would be one that I’d point out. It came out right after the bankruptcy of my original company (Big Idea); it got no marketing budget whatsoever, so it was just kind of doomed. But more people buy it every year because they find the story so meaningful. I get more emails about that show than I think any other in the last seven or eight years. I realize that my best work doesn’t come when I’m using the Bible as fodder for my work, [but] when I’m using it the way it was intended for my life, and then it informs my work.
CD: In 2003, Big Idea went bankrupt, leading to employee layoffs and the selling of the company to Classics Media LLC, which today is part of Entertainment Rights PLC. How did faith help you and your families try to cope with all that?
VISCHER: I’ll just tell you one story: I made it pretty clear to my kids that this was ministry and that the productions assist what I’m doing to help kids. My son, who was 8 at the time, had decided he was going to be the next president of Big Idea. I was heartbroken to have to tell him that it fell apart and we lost it. As I was putting him to bed that night I was kind of waiting for his reaction of, “How does that affect me? Does that mean I don’t get to be president or that we don’t have any money anymore?” But instead he turned to me and said, “Does that mean you don’t get to tell kids about God anymore?” It just busted me up, and I said, “Oh, buddy, there’s a million ways to do that. This was just one of them.” But it was just amazing to see how he had internalized not just, “We own a company and that’s really cool,” but “My dad tells kids about God, and that’s really cool.”
NAWROCKI: I think for me, too, it was just learning the lesson that God is in control. I think a certain amount of security came with the success of Big Idea. Then when that all went away it [was] God revealing, “No, I’m the one that provides for you. Your security comes come from Me, not from these external things.” So that was a big lesson for me.
(To read Vischer’s detailed account of the factors leading up to Big Idea’s bankruptcy, visit philvischer.com.)
CD: Jonah, the first VeggieTales feature film, was a biblical story. Though the new film doesn’t have any direct references to God, you have described it as a spiritual allegory. Can you talk a little more about that?
VISCHER: The film is really a parable. It’s partly to explore different forms of Christian filmmaking. Because everyone in Hollywood is looking for Christian films and no one in Hollywood knows what a Christian film is. There’s a danger of defining the genre too narrowly. When Jesus told a story, most of his stories didn’t overtly reference God. God shows up as the owner of a vineyard or the judge who gets annoyed with a woman. The disciples would say, “Are you sure they got that?” And he would just say, “For him for who has ears to hear.” And so what I wanted to do with this one was to teach a Christian lesson in the form of a parable and let parents kind of unwrap it for their kids.
CD: The film makes a distinction between false heroes who are looked up to merely because they are famous or they have a certain image and people who are heroic for doing good deeds. As parents do you find it a challenge to explain to your children what real heroism is? How do you go about that?
VISCHER: I think as a parent it is hard to expose your kids to real heroism, biblical heroism, when they’re getting inundated with models (from the media) who focus on the superficial. We have to work really hard to expose them. We were just at my mom’s house for Christmas last night and with all the cousins, and she invited a 70 year-old missionary couple over to tell stories to the kids about growing up in China and escaping the Communists, and [being] in Indonesia for 35 years fighting wild boars in the jungle. You see your kid’s eyes open and [they] say, “Dang, I never heard anything like that on TV. That’s really cool.” But it’s definitely a responsibility for us parents to say, “Here are some other models.”
NAWROCKI: (In the movie) we boil down the core concept of what a hero is: somebody who’s not afraid to do what’s right, no matter how hard it is. And I think kids can get that message. They watch the stories of 9-11, the firefighters who risked their lives doing what was right to save others. But I think in a biblical worldview we [ask], OK, who calls us to that? I think what we’re trying to do in the films [is to show that] it’s not about us; it’s more than that. There’s a God who calls us to [heroism].
CD: What role would you say that humor plays in our faith as Christians?
VISCHER: I don’t even think it’s so much as Christians but as humans. I think humor was God’s gift, besides faith, for coping with the human condition. [I have] the picture in my head of the chuckling monk. How else did he get through a day of feeding the poor? Life is so bittersweet, so melancholy.
I just read Steve Martin’s autobiography and it made me sad. These really funny guys [are sometimes] lacking in faith. They’re using humor to try to win love. I think there’s a great value in kind of redeeming humor, combining it with faith. Although many of the faithful aren’t particularly funny. (laughter) I’m not sure why that is. It’s kind of sad. They give an award in the Christian bookstores market for the funniest Christian of the year. Mike and I won it like three years running until it was almost embarrassing.
CD: What is your goal for VeggieTales?
NAWROCKI: With the movie, it’s to try to start a conversation about why we’re here. Even among Christians, so many of us have just really fallen into consumerism: “I was put here to consume, and the world is my shopping mall.” God calls us to be producers, not consumers. We’re put here to do good works, which He’s prepared for us from the beginning. So I’m just trying to start the conversation of linking that together with that innate desire to be heroes. When we’re little kids, we pick up swords, and we want to fight dragons, and we want to save people from things. Well, there’s a connection there. God gave us that desire from childhood and he’s prepared adventures for us, which may be huge, may be tiny — that’s irrelevant. But we’ve got these adventures that He’s calling us into, but we’ve got to get off the couch.
For me [it’s giving] parents a resource to pass on biblical values to their kids. To take a story which has such a powerful impact on kids and use that to reflect a biblical worldview that can help kids learn about the Bible, learn about the values in the Bible, and learn what it means that God made them special and He loves them very much.
VISCHER: I would say that is my personal mission. To help raise the next generation of Christians. To look at kids who are getting 20 minutes a week from a church and then 21 hours a week from Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel and say, “OK, whose values are they really growing up with here?” And to just look for ways to help. Hopefully VeggieTales will continue to be one of those ways. CD
VeggieTales: How it all began
Phil Vischer has written a book about the history of VeggieTales called Me, Myself, and Bob, available through amazon.com and many other book retailers.