Thanks to Phil Vischer, kids love their veggies.
Not necessarily the vegetables that land on the dinner plate (because, let’s face it, beets are disgusting). But in 1993, he and Mike Nawrocki introduced them to Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and a bunch of other characters typically found in the produce aisle. Their direct-to-video VeggieTales episodes were filled with engaging stories, thoughtful theology and lots and lots of silliness. VeggieTales became a titanic crossover hit: Some kids who never went to church in their lives still knew “The Water Buffalo Song” by heart, and they got a healthy dose of Christian thought along the way.
It’d be too simple to say that the veggies got “spoiled” by all their success. But Big Idea, the original company behind the famed produce, went bankrupt in 2004, and VeggieTales cycled through several new owners as Vischer (who still did some voice work) went on to create other popular—and still biblically rooted—creations.
But this year, Vischer and VeggieTales have reunited in earnest: He’s behind 18 new episodes to be aired on TBN and available via DVD and several streaming networks, beginning Oct. 22. In addition, Vischer’s the mastermind behind The Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids, which’ll officially drop Sept. 10. It’s a a series of 52 Bible stories that he hopes will serve as a bridge between products such as VeggieTales and the actual Bible. “The gap [between the two] is so huge that it’s like going from a four-inch-deep kiddie pool to a high dive on a full-size grown-up pool,” he says. “So I feel what I’m trying to make is the shallow end of the grown-up pool that kids can actually learn how to swim in.”
I had a chance to talk with Vischer about VeggieTales, the Laugh and Learn Bible and his passion for teaching kids—particularly smart-alecky kids like he was—about God. What follows is a condensed, and lightly edited, portion of that interview.
Paul Asay: So, you’re involved with VeggieTales again in a big way. How did that come about?
Phil Vischer: After the bankruptcy in 2004 kind of ended my ownership of VeggieTales, it has been owned by three different companies, I believe? Four? [And now it is with] NBC Universal, which is part of Comcast. And they are, unlike some of the previous owners, open to other people getting involved with things that they own. So the Trinity Broadcasting Network reached out to Universal and said, “Hey, we would love to do something with VeggieTales, can we get involved?” And Universal said, “Sure, what do you want to do?” And so Universal pitched them a new TV series, an 18-show season that they wanted to put together.
So both TBN and Universal reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you get involved? We’d love for you to do voices, and hopefully more.” And I said, ” I don’t really want to do voices unless I can do more.” So they said, “Well, how much do you want to do?” and I said, “What do you have so far?’ And they said, “We’ve written a pilot.” And I said, “Send it to me.” And then I said, “Hey, can I just set this aside and write a different pilot?” They said, “Sure!” So I wrote anew pilot and they said, “Hey, we like yours better! You’re good at this! Have you done this before?” and I said, “As a matter of fact, I have. Thank you for noticing.” I also said, “Hey, I want Mike [Nawrocki, who voices Larry and several other characters] involved, and I want Kurt Heinecke involved in producing music, so we can put the band back together and try to make VeggieTales the way it was back in the beginning: simpler, shorter stories, with a strong lesson and a lot of silliness.”
Asay: So, ticklish question: How is your relationship with the cast? You’ve been involved with these characters for so long, was it a concern that you’d run out of things for them to say?
Vischer: I took a nice long break. Not entirely intentionally, but I had a nice long break. And I did wonder, you know. I hadn’t written anything for Veggie Tales in a decade. And so sitting down again, [I wondered] Are the characters going to start talking again? Or are they just going to stare at me and go, Who are you?
[Vischer discussed about how the format of the program—where Bob’s running a variety show, à lathe old Muppet Show—helped spur the creative process.]
Well, Bob the Tomato, he’s basically Kermit the frog, freaking out because the show isn’t going well. That’s easy. And Larry the Cucumber, he’s Fozzie Bear, he’s just running in with a stupid idea that he loves and drives Bob crazy. So I was writing the first one, and Larry walks in with an idea: “Hey, here’s what the show should be about, Bob.” And then they started talking, and they never stopped until the script was done. Well, that’s easy, I thought. It’s just like riding a bike.
Asay: I wanted to talk about another project you’re involved with—The Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids. I think I’ve heard you refer to it as a bridge between simpler Bible stories and the actual Bible.
Vischer: After the Veggies, I did a product called What’s in the Bible, which was a 13-DVD series to walk through the entire Bible. Because I really wanted to take kids deeper into their faith. And that was really well received, but I also wanted to do something that you can actually put in kids hands. … It’s not all “Let’s sit down and stare at a screen.” Let’s interact with God’s word in a literary way.
What we’re missing in so much of what we do for kids is the overall narrative structure of the Bible. Even in VeggieTales. It’s, “Hey, let’s tell the story of Noah,” and then the next time we’re going to tell the story of Abraham. … But how do they connect? What’s in the middle? And that’s the harder part. So this is to give them all of the connective tissue, so they don’t just have snapshots from the bible, they actually have the whole picture, and they can find their own place within it.
Asay: You’ve spent so much of your career boiling down these spiritual lessons for kids. Where does that passion come from?
Vischer: I have a pastor friend with a fairly large church. And he says, “You know, I’m not a theologian. I’m not an expert, I don’t have a doctorate. I don’t do that deep, deep, deep stuff. He said what I’m good at is taking the cookies and putting them on a lower shelf. I’m taking the deep, deep stuff and making it more acceptable.”
And I realized that that’s what I do. I’m not N.T. Wright, I’m not Dallas Willard, and I’m not Tim Keller, and I’m not going to pretend to be. But I’m pretty good at reading N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard and Tim Keller and actually reading all of my study Bible. And then saying, Now, how do you explain that to a 4-year-old, or a 5-year-old?
I always think about the kid sitting in the back of the third-grade Sunday school class who’s thinking of a really sarcastic response to the overly simplistic presentation that was just made. Because guess what, that was me! And so I will go in and say, “All right, so I’m reading this Bible story to kids. If you’re that kind of wise guy in the back—that 10-year-old wise guy—how are you reacting to this presentation? Do it again so that it makes sense to him. So that you’re answering the questions that he’s gonna ask before he asks them. And that’s what I enjoy doing. I think I still have enough of that third grade, cut-up class clown in me to think what about this presentation is not going to work for a kid. Now stop and write it again.
Asay: It’s been said that we’re in a post-Christian society, and Christian parents have challenges today that they’ve never had before. What advice would you give to parents in how to navigate that world?
Vischer: You have to be proactive. At one point, Christianity was just, in this country, the water that you were swimming in. You just absorbed it. And there may be a few places in the country where that’s still sort of true, but overall it’s clearly not the case anymore. So parents have to be proactive and say, OK, what resources will help me accomplish what I want to accomplish? What resources are working against what we are trying to accomplish? And how do I shape their consumption? Their media consumption, even their idea consumption? To pull them in the direction that I believe they should go in?
But also, I believe you have to have to ask yourself—and I still have to do this with my adult kids—am I modeling it? Because it doesn’t matter what video I put in front of them, if they don’t see it in my life, it’s not compelling. What they see in my life will speak much more loudly than anything I put in their hands. So it really does start with me as a parent—putting on your own oxygen mask first before assisting your kids. Make sure you’re breathing the faith in and out before you tell them to. Because if it’s not coming out of you, it’s not going to be compelling to them.
You can get more information about the “Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids” here. New episodes of VeggieTales will be available beginning Oct. 22.