The Rise, Fall, And Return Of VeggieTales

 

VeggieTales is a Christian cartoon featuring singing vegetables that teach kids bible stories. It was huge in the 90s. Then it went bankrupt. Now, it’s making a comeback.

The show’s two creators, AKA Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, first met on their Bible College Puppet Team.

On the eve of VeggieTales’ return, hear the story of how Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki created a Christian media empire, why it all fell apart, and what they learned about faith along the way.

Hosted by Lee Hale. From KUER and PRX. This is a special two-part story about VeggieTales. Be sure to listen to both parts!

VeggieTales ’ creator Phil Vischer, who also voices Bob the Tomato. (Illustration by Renee Bright. Images courtesy of DreamWorks.)

VeggieTales’ creator Phil Vischer, who also voices Bob the Tomato. (Illustration by Renee Bright. Images courtesy of DreamWorks.)

Show Notes:

Transcript:

PART ONE TRANSCRIPT

Larry the Cucumber (singing) Where is my hairbrush? Oh where is my hairbrush? Oh where oh where oh where oh where oh where oh where oh where oh where oh where is my hairbrush?

Lee Hale VeggieTales is a computer animated Christian show for kids. It's about a group of vegetables who sing and dance and teach kids morals based on Bible stories. 

The band of characters is led by Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. And at its peak in the 90s, VeggieTales was everywhere. It had spin off shows, toys, games, even a feature film.

And kids loved VeggieTales. Parents loved VeggieTales. Especially this mom.

(phone rings)

Lee's Mom Hello.

Lee Hale Hey Mom.

Lee's Mom Hi.

Lee Hale I grew up in a devout Mormon household with eight siblings. And we watched a lot of VeggieTales. It was good clean fun and it was explicitly teaching us lessons from the Bible. There were catchy tunes talking about the Old Testament.

VeggieTales Clip Long, long ago in a faraway land, there lived a young man named Daniel. When Daniel was a boy he was taken from his home in Judah to live in a city called Babylon.

Lee Hale It was all catnip to Christian parents.

Lee's Mom Just seeing little vegetables (laughs) which it just sounds so ridiculous. But they had personality. And they were endearing. And it was just a lot of action and teaching a Bible story too. So it was really winning on every level.

 Lee Hale And some parts were just silly on purpose.

 VeggieTales Clip And now it's time for silly songs with Larry. The part of the show when Larry comes out and sings a silly song.

Lee Hale Like my personal favorite...

Larry the Cucumber The Water Buffalo Song! (singing) Everybody's got a water buffalo. Yours is fast but mine is slow ... 

Lee Hale VeggieTales wasn't just a big deal for me. It's a big deal for a lot of millennials. And there haven't been any new episodes for a while. But it is coming back to TV this fall on the Christian outlet Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber are back.

Now Millennial parents who grew up with the show can show it to their kids. So I decided we should get to know the real Bob and Larry. Their goal is to serve God by creating a Christian cartoon kids actually want to watch. 

Their story has it all. 24 hour diners. Wind up lobsters. And a lot of puppets. 

But also a box office flop. A lawsuit. Bankruptcy. A crying Midwestern mayor. 

And through it all, faith. Faith is a central part of this story through all the highs and lows. And there are enough of both to make for quite the roller coaster ride. They did almost build a VeggieTales theme park after all. But since that theme park was never built, instead let's start with the theme song ...

VeggieTales Clip (singing) If you like to talk to tomatoes. If a squash can make you smile. If you like to waltz with potatoes up and down the produce aisle. Have we got a show for you.

Lee Hale From KUER and PRX, this is Preach. A show all about the messiness of faith. I'm Lee Hale. This week, a story in two parts because it couldn't be contained in just one. It's a story of a cultural phenomenon from the 90s that's making a comeback. The story of VeggieTales.

First let's meet Bob the Tomato. His name is Phil Vischer.

Phil Vischer I grew up hearing stories of the amazing things that people were doing for God all over the world. And these were the people that were held up around the dinner table as these people are living lives worth living.

Lee Hale Phil is the creator of VeggieTales and the former CEO of Big Idea Productions, the company that started it all. Growing up, Phil felt pressure to prove his faith. He's from a long line of devout Christians and he's a descendant of a legendary preacher.

Phil Vischer My great-grandfather on my mother's side was the first non-denominational radio preacher in America and preached every Sunday morning on the radio from 1923 until 1964 when he died. 

One of my relatives was the first European into a whole section of Irian Jaya who carried the Gospel to cannibals. Literal cannibals. (Wow) Yeah. 

So I was a really shy kid and I was trying to figure out in my head how does someone as shy as me live a life worth living. What can I do for God that would be worthwhile? Because I don't see myself as a missionary. I don't see myself as a pastor. I really didn't like to leave the basement where I made my little projects.

Lee Hale During his sophomore year of high school, Phil got his first glimpse of the future. It's 1982. And that's when his neighborhood gets cable TV.

Phil Vischer Suddenly we go from four channels to 42 channels coming in through our RCA console television. And one of those channels is MTV.

 MTV Ads America, demand your MTV ... I want my MTV ... I want my MTV ... Call your cable company and say 'I want my MTV!'

 Phil Vischer If you saw MTV in the early years, it was like a 24 hour film festival. It was all these experimental videos. And so as a creative kid I just ate it up. 

But I also noticed as a kid who grew up in Sunday school many of the value messages coming across in these videos are not the values that I learned in Sunday school. And quite often were like the exact opposite. Like, you know, the morality switch had just been flipped and its polarity. 

And I remember thinking 'OK. If everyone my age thinks this is as cool as I do I think that's a problem.'

Lee Hale There was one music video in particular that struck Phil as morally problematic.

Phil Vischer I think the Madonna one in particular that really caught me was 'Like a Virgin'. Where she's in a wedding dress. Kind of writhing on the front of a gondola. And I'm just thinking, wow. This is really wonderful. (laughs) What message is she sending to kids? 

And that was the moment sitting on the couch watching MTV where I thought I can do something about that. I was already making films. I was already playing around with computers. And I thought OK I could use these tools in a way that is honoring God and the values that I grew up with. 

And that was really I kind of sensed as my moment of calling. I know what I'm supposed to do! And that's what led to, I'll go to Bible College and then I'll go to film school.

Lee Hale He heads to a small Bible College in Minnesota. And that's where Phil first meets the Costello to his Abbott. The Laurel to his Hardy. Or maybe a more modern example? Broad City. The Ilana to his Abbi. He meets the man destined to play Larry the Cucumber. 

His name is Mike.

Mike Nawrocki My last name is Nawrocki, which is a good Polish Catholic last name.

Lee Hale Would it be weird at some point if I asked you do the voice? Is that weird?

Mike Nawrocki (In Larry the Cucumber voice) No, not at all. It's right there.

Lee Hale It's always waiting and ready. I love it. 

Mike Nawrocki That's right.

 Lee Hale Very cool. 

Mike's dad was in the Air Force so as a kid they moved a lot and the family was active in the Catholic Church. Then after one deployment Mike's dad returned and something was different.

Mike Nawrocki We found that we had a brand new dad and he had had a real personal conversion experience that really changed his life and in turn changed the dynamic of our family. We began going to another church affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. You know I began getting involved in the youth group and starting to look at God and religion differently and more personally.

Billy Graham Archive The judgment is coming in some future day. We scoff and laugh. But for those of us that know Christ it's a blessed and glorious hope.

Mike Nawrocki I ended up making what I call a salvation decision watching a Billy Graham crusade on TV with my dad about a year later.

Billy Graham Archive Every born again believer a member of the body of Christ is going to be joined as the bride to the bridegroom. My seat has been reserved. It was bought for. Not with silver and gold but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Is your seat reserved? Will you be there?

Lee Hale Mike was only 13 at the time but he decided he needed to find a way to serve God. A big way. But like Phil, he was actually a pretty shy kid.

Mike Nawrocki I didn't feel like I was being called to preach in fact I didn't like being in front of people and talking. I'm about 6' 5'' and so I always stood out but I always didn't like to be seen. So, you know my dad was an engineer. My brother was a chemistry major. My mom was a nurse and so in my 17 year old brain at the time I figured out well, God wants me to be a missionary doctor.

Lee Hale So med school was the goal. But first, Bible College. And this is where Mike and Phil first meet. Crown College is nestled between a couple of little lakes about 30 minutes outside of Minneapolis.

Crown College Promo Video Beginning in 1916 with only four students who want to study the Bible it quickly developed into a training school for those interested in ministry. 

Lee Hale By the way, you can see in that promo video that from the sky the campus buildings form the shape of a giant cross. The school has a lot of rules besides regular academic and theology classes. Early morning chapel. Strict curfews. And mandatory community outreach work.

Phil Vischer You had to be involved in some kind of service project for credit, you know, if you wanted to graduate. You could do visitation of the elderly in retirement homes. And I thought, 'No, strangers don't like it'. And then I went down and you could do street witnessing downtown Minneapolis and I thought, 'Heck no, that's not gonna happen'. (laughs) 

I'm just going down this list getting more and more depressed and I finally hit the bottom of the list and it said puppet ministry. I thought 'Oh that's a thing you can do? For credit? Yeah!’ (laughs) And so I showed up for auditions. I hoisted a puppet. I lip synced it a classic Christian kids song 'Bullfrogs and Butterflies'.

Lee Hale And then Mike, a gangly 6 foot 5 fellow freshman walks into puppet team auditions. So this is the soundtrack to the meeting.

(Bullfrogs and Butterflies song)

Phil Vischer And then we were all nervous. Are we going to make the team? Are we going to make the team? Because if I don't make the team I going to have to do street witnessing or something. We all made the team. In fact everyone who auditioned made the team.

Lee Hale It wasn't super competitive, gotcha.

Phil Vischer It was not super competitive. (laughs)

Mike Nawrocki Phil is this, you know, this funky looking kid with horn-rimmed glasses. And we were both these really crazy, kooky, kind of out of the box kids. 

Phil Vischer Mike and I discovered we had a very similar sense of humor.

Mike Nawrocki You know, we were big Jim Henson fans.

Phil Vischer Both loved Monty Python. He would stay up late listening to Dr. Demento spoof songs ...

Mike Nawrocki Big Dr. Demento fan. You know, love parody music and so we combined sort of all these elements.

Phil Vischer Let's write the weirdest songs we can think of and then see if anyone else finds it funny. And so we really connected and we kind of ran the puppet team together driving around in one of the school vans.

Mike Nawrocki We roamed the Minnesota countryside with puppets stories and you know just had a really great chemistry. In hindsight was really great training for animation down the line and, you know, in fact a lot of the voices that we ended up using in VeggieTales, you know, started off as puppets initially.

Lee Hale They were having a lot of fun. Maybe too much fun.

Phil Vischer Both Mike and I were asked not to return after three semesters because we'd failed chapel. We had too many chapels skips because we were staying up too late writing ...

Lee Hale Is that right?

Phil Vischer Yeah, yeah.

Lee Hale Wow.

Phil Vischer He (Mike) didn't mention that? He didn't mention that he was kicked out of Bible college for failing chapel?

Lee Hale Everything was squeaky clean from his end.

Phil Vischer Holy cow. Well, then it's time for the dirt.

Lee Hale Yeah. Gimme the dirt. How often did you have to go to the chapel?

Phil Vischer Chapel was either daily or three times a week.

Lee Hale Wait, so you were just staying up doing puppets?

Phil Vischer Yeah. We were staying up being goofy, basically. (Yeah.) Perkins pancake houses are very popular in Minnesota and they're open 24 hours a day. (Right.) Well, you had to be inside by I think 10 p.m. or 10:30 on the campus. You couldn't be off campus. So rather than coming back late and getting in trouble we would just stay at Perkins all night. (Wow.)

Lee Hale After getting booted from Bible College, Phil ended up in Chicago and Mike followed along. They both started working at a video production house. This is the late 80s. Early, early days of computer animation.

Phil Vischer We bought an FGS 4000. It was the first commercially available computer animation system and it was the one that they did the Dire Straits 'Money For Nothing' video on.

Dire Straits Video Look at them yo-yos. That's the way you do it. You play the guitar on the MTV ...

Phil Vischer If you know MTV history it was the first computer animation other than logos flying on the news shows that most people had ever seen.

Mike Nawrocki We were in the right place at the right time in terms of where the technology was at the time. 

And we had this, you know, storytelling puppeting background and we thought, well what if we combined what we did with puppets with this new technology of 3D animation.

Phil Vischer If you look at the state of the art of computer animation back then it was just rigid hard shiny objects and there was nothing in there that was warm for a kid to connect to. 

You know everyone was trying to figure out how to do limbed characters. Characters with clothes. Characters with hair. Characters with real faces. And it was just impossibly hard. And instead, I thought that's the secret. That's the ticket. Don't try to do limbed characters. Don't try to do characters with hair or clothes. 

I need naked, bald, limbless characters for Christian parents. (laughs).

 Lee Hale So you thought: cucumber, tomato.

Phil Vischer No, I thought candy bar. (Oh) That was my first thought was candy bar. I'll make a candy bar and then a whole bunch of candy can tell stories. But I'd just gotten married. And my wife walked by and saw the candy bar on the computer screen. I was working at home. And she said, 'you know, moms are going to be mad if you make their kids fall in love with candy bars.'.

Lee Hale Right. Well, more than they already were in love, right?

Phil Vischer Yes. Right. And I thought 'oh no she's right'. Okay what is shaped like a candy bar that wouldn't make moms mad if their kids fell in love with and the next thing that popped into my head was a cucumber.

Mike Nawrocki After the candy bar incident with Lisa, the very next model for animation was a cucumber. And he did a little screen test. It was called ‘Mr. Cuke's Screen Test’. And Larry poked his head out, smiled with his one tooth smile, hopped out of the jar then hopped up to the camera and just smiled. 

The next character to come along was Bob. And I think in the development of those characters we wanted to create contrast. You know, the idea of OK, it's Laurel and Hardy. One is serious, one's kind of goofy. 

I voiced Larry just because Larry looked like a little bit more of the taller goofier one. And I was a lot less serious than Phil. Phil was very mission driven. Serious in a lot of ways but still obviously hilarious.

Phil Vischer Bob is me on too much caffeine basically. He needs to come across like a very sincere children's television host.

Mike Nawrocki The first speaking roles they have, we did a three minute piece of animation called 'Take 38'.

Take 38 Video All right. VeggieTales promo, take 38.

Mike Nawrocki What happens is Bob is announcing to the world how amazing this new show called VeggieTales is gonna be.

Take 38 Video Okay. Get this. All the citizens in the kitchen come together. Fruits, vegetables small kitchen appliances regardless of species, color or brand name. They all come together with one purpose and that purpose. (Hey Bob)

Mike Nawrocki And in the meantime Larry is hopping around behind him looking for his...

Take 38 Video Plastic wind-up lobster. Not now. That purpose is to create the most fantastic Christian children's series anyone has ever imagined. A show bursting with positive values filled with lighthearted story songs and educational materials. A show so bold, so innovative ,so earth shattering it could only be called one thing. VeggieTales!

Phil Vischer So people have asked: 'Were you trying to make kids eat more vegetables or were you trying to make them eat less vegetables?' And my response is neither. 

It wasn't about diet. It was about technological pragmatism. I was looking for simple characters.

Lee Hale They faced plenty of skeptics along the way. Because a computer-animated Christian cartoon starring a tomato and a cucumber sounded insane. So in that three minute experiment they even gave those skeptics a voice. They were snooty spears of asparagus.

Take 38 Video Just a minute not so fast. Before all this nonsense goes any further. I just want everyone to know that I was against it from the start.

Isn't that right dear?

That's right, he was.

Yes. When that pickle came up to me.

It's a cucumber dear. 

Oh yes, whatever. As I was saying, that cucumber came up to me and asked me what I thought which should do this week and I suggested a Caesar salad might be nice. We hadn't done one of those in a while. But no! They decided to do a television show instead. I mean really. You put vegetables in salads. You use them as side dishes. Occasionally you might use them as an aesthetically pleasing garnish. But you never, never put vegetables on television. It is simply not done.

Lee Hale Coming up, we'll talk about how those simple screen tests launched Bob and Larry into a business that grew faster than Phil and Mike could have ever imagined.

---

Lee Hale Phil had been getting some interest from Christian media companies. They wanted to see a full episode. If they liked it they might invest in the show. But even to make a 30 minute pilot they needed money. And it had been over a year of trying to sell investors on VeggieTales with no luck. So Phil is all in. He quit his full time job but he was feeling stuck.

Phil Vischer And I remember thinking: This is what God wants me to do. This is what God wants me to do. I've felt it you know since I was on the couch watching MTV. This is what God wants me to do. So he should show up somewhere in this and help me. 

But he just wasn't. And that came to a head. We just had a daughter. So we had like an 18 month old. And we ran out of money. Completely ran out of money. We came down to our last ten bucks. Literal last ten dollars and discovered that we were out of dog food. And remember at that time a big bag of Purina was 10 bucks. 

So my wife said, 'So what do we do? Do we spend it on the dog food?' And I said, 'Spend it on the dog food'. And so she took my last 10 bucks and drove to the store to get a bag of dog food. 

And I'm sitting at the dining room table just depressed and thinking what a fool I am. Feeling like a complete loser. I misheard God. He wasn't talking to me. I wasn't supposed to do this. And now I am not able to take care of my family. So to get my mind off that depressing thought I started flipping through the mail in front of me on the table. And there were bills that I couldn't pay. 

And then I got to an envelope that had no return address on it that was addressed to me. And I opened it up. And there was an anonymous cashier's check for 400 dollars and a handwritten unsigned note that said 'God laid it on my heart that you might need this'. 

And I still to this day have no idea where that came from. But it was like God just walked into the door and sat down next to me and said: 'I did call you to do this. And I am in it with you. It's not going to be easy but just keep going'. 

And so I kept going. I never doubted again that I wasn't doing what God wanted me to do. And we would look back to that say, 'Remember the dog food? Remember the dog food? (Wow.) God was there then. God will be there going forward.

Lee Hale For somebody who hears a story like that and thinks, like, well maybe that person just knew you're going through a hard time and they wrote a check and God nothing to do with it. For you as a believe, what role does God have in a moment like that?

Phil Vischer Yeah. Almost every moment in my life where I believe God showed up in a profound way someone else could shock up to as 'well that was just a coincidence'. 

And it could be. But when I look at the timing. And I look at where I was emotionally. When you start to see that pattern across your life of being at the end of your rope. One of my favorite Christian authors is Dallas Willard. And he has this comment of, ‘Where do we find God?' And his response is 'God's address is the end of your rope'. 

You know, so when you're at the end of your rope, when you're desperate, I have found that's when I'm most likely to have some experience that I would attribute to the divine. Some experience with God. 

And when you see a pattern of those not only over your lifetime, but over the lifetimes of my parents, and my grandparents, and my great grandparents and other people that I admire that I've read about or know personally, it becomes harder and harder to say 'Yeah, that's just a coincidence'.

Lee Hale So the dog got his dinner and after a couple of years Phil got the funding not to make just one but 13 episodes of VeggieTales. They formed a company: Big Idea Productions. Phil was the CEO. The work would still have to be done scrappily and fast. They've only got one computer at this time, so they got three guys working around the clock in shifts. 

And this is when Mike, a.k.a. Larry the Cucumber, is the one with the big decision to make. At the same time Phil got the first investment for VeggieTales, Mike found out that he'd been accepted into the Peace Corps to teach biology in Africa. This was a natural step on the way to med school. And that had been Mike's plan all along: to become a missionary doctor. 

But he also believed parents needed help instilling these values into their children. And maybe VeggieTales could do that. 

He asked family and friends for advice. And he asked God in prayer. What do you want me to do? Go to the Peace Corps? Or stay in Chicago and work on VeggieTales?

Mike Nawrocki It was like a scarecrow with his arms crossed one hand pointed one way and the other hand pointed the other way. Knowing that that decision in my life would impact the rest of my life. That's what I prayed about.

Lee Hale How did the answer come?

Mike Nawrocki It came through just people speaking into my life. I think a lot of times that's how God speaks to us is through our community of faith. And so I just thought, you know what, I'm going to stay here and do VeggieTales.

Lee Hale All right. So it's 1993. Mike's all in. Phil's all in. And thanks to a friend from church and another investor they've got all the cash they need. And they're working around the clock for months to make a Christmas deadline.

Mike Nawrocki It was so hard to do one about killed us all. After we shipped that first VHS, you know, running to the Post Office on December 23, you know, to mail off all of those VHS tapes. You know, we hadn't slept in weeks and it was just so hard to get it done.

VeggieTales Clip Hi kids, and welcome to VeggieTales. I'm Bob the Tomato. And I'm Larry the Cucumber.

 Lee Hale That first episode is called 'Where is God When I'm Scared?' And from the very beginning you can see the ingredients that will become the winning recipe for VeggieTales. First, Bob and Larry set out to answer a question from a little girl.

VeggieTales Clip Dear Bob and Larry. I am six years old. Sometimes I think there are monsters in my closet. That make me real scared. Can you help me?

Lee Hale Yes they can. And to help her, they tell her the story of Junior Asparagus, Junior Asparagus watches a scary show on TV right before bed. And then understandably he has trouble falling asleep.

VeggieTales Clip I'm not scared. It was just monsters.

Lee Hale Bob and Larry crash into Junior's bedroom to help. And it just so happens they have the perfect song for his problem. Which happens a lot in the episodes to come. There is a lot of music.

VeggieTales Clip (singing) God is bigger than the boogeyman. He's bigger than Godzilla and the monsters on TV.

Lee Hale And the basic message is this …

VeggieTales Clip So you're saying God's the biggest of them all and he's on my team.

That's right!

Lee Hale Then we switch over to a silly song with Larry. Pivot to the parable of Daniel and the Lion. And then ...

VeggieTales Clip (singing) What we have learned applies to our lives today. God has a lot to say in His book.

Lee Hale Their trusty computer spits out a Bible verse. 

VeggieTales Clip And God said in Isaiah 41:10: So do not fear for I am with you.

Lee Hale And that's it. That's the basic combo of ingredients that Veggie fans would come to know and love. A kid asks a question. Some veggies act out a story. Slip into a non sequitur silly song with Larry. Learn a parable from the Bible. Or occasionally a moral lesson from elsewhere, but almost always the Bible. All led by Bob the Tomato and his goofy cucumber friend Larry.

VeggieTales was in the right place at the right time because by the early 90s practically everyone had a VHS player at home.

Mike Nawrocki And the ability to actually create something that you could then sell at a bookstore or through the mail that you didn't have to put on TV, you know, because the gatekeepers for television world we weren't gonna get anything faith-based in through those doors.

Lee Hale They also had an important adviser from the start.

Mike Nawrocki Phil's mom, Scotty May, you know she's got a doctorate in Christian education and so she was a consultant at the very beginning too. Just in terms of trying to make sure that we were really boiling down the lesson to something that a preschooler could understand.

Lee Hale Phil's mom just had one important rule for their silly show no veggie Jesus. People from the Bible could be portrayed by squash and asparagus and peas but no plant based versions of the Holy Trinity. For that first episode in the early 90s they offered up the show as a VHS available purchase by mail in Christian parenting magazines. They got about 500 orders.

Phil Vischer For about two years, always in danger of missing payroll. I couldn't make payroll. I was close to missing payroll. I just barely got enough in to make payroll. Ah, can we sell a few more videos next week so I can make payroll. And then Christmas of 1996 is when something happened.

VeggieTales Ad New from VeggieTales ...

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! It's Christmas Bob!

Phil Vischer And then we got a call from Kmart saying hey can we have VeggieTales videos? Because they were only in Christian bookstores up to that point. And then they were in Walmart. And then they were in Target and then sales were doubling every year. 

VeggieTales Ad USA Today calls VeggieTales fast moving and sophisticated.

 Phil Vischer Then we started hearing about parties on college campuses to watch VeggieTales. And you know Larry the Cucumber T-shirts showing up at dance clubs. 

VeggieTales Rap If you like to talk to tomatoes. If a squash can make you smile...

VeggieTales Ad VeggieTales From Big Idea Productions. Sunday morning values. Saturday morning fun. Wherever videos are sold. (singing) Gotta be, VeggieTales.

Phil Vischer And then we were showing up on the bestselling charts for all of video not just for Christian video. In 1998 and 1999 VeggieTales was the number one selling kids video in the world non theatrical. So it was just it was on fire. To me that was the indication that God wanted me to build something huge.

Lee Hale From just a few guys on a single computer to a company of more than 200 people in less than a decade. 

But then things start to fall apart.

Jonah Film Clip Somebody up there must be really upset with somebody down here.

Mike Nawrocki It was sort of the perfect storm. 

Phil Vischer OK God. This is definitely not part of my plan.

Lee Hale Listen to Part 2 of the VeggieTales story right now to hear what happens next.

Thanks for listening to preach. This show is a production of KUER and PRX.

We have a newsletter. Find the sign up link at preachpod.rog and you can chat with us on Twitter. We're @preachpod. In fact, let us know your favorite memories with VeggieTales. Favorite songs, or just whatever comes to mind.

This show is produced by me Lee Hale along with Tricia Bobeda.

And this episode was mixed by Ania Grzesik.

Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton and our executive producer is Joel Meyer.

Special thanks this week to Tim Slover, Roddy Nikpour and Colin McNulty. 

If you're a fan of the show, it really helps us out if you leave all the stars in review on Apple Podcasts like Dylan Bakker, who said “It's refreshing hearing stories of those who are willing to be vulnerable and willing to share their individual journey with their faith.”

Thanks.

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PART TWO TRANSCRIPT

Phil Vischer The reason parents didn't trust Barney the Dinosaur is that he had no sense of humor and he never winked at them. Kids love Barney parents. Barney gave him the creeps. 

Lee Hale From KUER and PRX this is Preach. A show about the messiness of faith. I'm Lee Hale. This is part two of our deep dive into VeggieTales and the story of two nerdy guys from a Bible college puppet team who created a Christian media empire.

If you haven't listen to part one yet go do that first and then come back. We'll get to Barney and how that pesky purple dinosaur plays into the story in a little bit. But first let's remember where we left Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki. Better known to countless millennials as ...

Bob the Tomato Bob the Tomato.

Larry the Cucumber:And Larry the Cucumber.

Lee Hale Things were going great. They were making millions selling VeggieTales videos and merch. Their unique blend of Bible stories and silly songs were a staple of a TV diet for lots of kids in the 90s. Kara Bettis was one of those kids. As the daughter of a pastor, she grew up watching the original cartoons with her siblings. I asked if she considers herself more of a Bob or Larry.

Kara Bettis Probably more like bossy Bob. I would have loved to be a mischievous troublemaker like Larry but you know I'm the oldest sibling so just relating to the bossiness of just wanting things in order all the time.

VeggieTales Clip … and that purpose. Hey Bob! Have you seen my plastic wind-up lobster? Not now.

Lee Hale Now Kara is an editor for the magazine Christianity Today. She says the rise of VeggieTales in the 90s changed the game for religious media.

Kara Bettis Christian film was a little cheesy and there wasn't actually a lot of alternatives for Christian kids entertainment. It really filled a need. Definitely raised the bar in terms of the quality of Christian film because those are pretty quality cartoons for the early 90s.

There was just a lot of good mixture of both silliness and good moral lessons of how to be a good kid but also teaching kids about God and the Bible. And so I think there was a really wide reach of both kids in Christian homes but also kids outside of that as well. Because of the quality of the films between 1996 and 1999 their revenue went through the roof. You know, they're up to 44 million dollar franchise which is crazy.

Lee Hale So, what went wrong? How did the makers of the best selling kids video series in the world go bankrupt? Well they took a couple of big swings that did not go well.

One of the first signs that trouble was brewing for the business came when Phil tried to build a new headquarters for Big Idea Productions. And where should this booming animation studio put down their roots? Not New York. Not L.A.

Lombard Advertisement The Village of Lombard is just 21 miles west of Chicago with easy access to O'Hare and Midway International Airports expressways and regional mass transportation. Lombard takes...

Lee Hale I want to talk about Lombard, Illinois.

Phil Vischer Oh boy.

 Lee Hale Tell me what your vision was for Lombard. It wasn't necessarily the city you might think of as being like exciting and sexy and a great flagship. This is kind of sleepy town right?

Phil Vischer Yeah it's a small suburb west of Chicago. There was an old movie house, the DuPage theater that was a nationally registered historic place that was built in 1923, I think. That was half empty kind of sitting there on the verge of falling apart. So in my mind I'm thinking OK wouldn't it be great to save an old historic building. Fill it with artists, young fun artists, right walking distance from the train station so they can, if they want to live rural lives, they can go west from there. If they want to live urban lives, they can go east from there and live in Oak Park or Chicago. And fans could come and you could do tours and then maybe you could add a restaurant or a store and then maybe someday you know...And then my mind starts going off in crazy directions and someone has to tie me down.

Lee Hale And so you made this announcement. You promised the city, we're gonna do this thing. We're gonna revitalize.

Phil Vischer Oh yeah. Of course. We had a groundbreaking. The Chicago Tribune attended. The mayor of Lombard was there wearing a Bob that Tomato tie and a shovel and a hard hat.

And about two weeks after the groundbreaking we finally got the full construction cost estimate in which had taken a long time and it was significantly higher than we thought.

And at the same time our bank had decided they wouldn't loan as much for us to do the project which meant we didn't have the money. So just as we're breaking ground, literally about to start digging with big giant machines, we had to call the whole project off. Had to call the mayor of Lombard in and say we're sorry but the whole thing is falling apart. He said later that he went home that night and cried. I thought, great. That was exactly my plan for my life was to make small town mayors cry because of my failed plans.

Lee Hale Was he still wearing the Bob the Tomato tie when you told him?

Phil Vischer I hate to have to say this but yes he was. He put on his Bob the Tomato tie to come in for the meeting because he didn't know what he was walking into. And it just turned into a mess. I'm just sitting there. Okay God, this is definitely not part of my plan. 

Lee Hale So Lombard was a bust and the next financial blow came from placing a huge bet on a risky venture. Their first full length animated feature film.

VeggieTales Clip Before 'Free Willy.' The biggest fish story of all time. Big Idea's 'Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.' Only in theaters 2002. Holy mackerel!

Lee Hale It was based on the Bible story of Jonah and the whale. You know, that guy that was ignoring God and then got thrown into the sea and got swallowed? That one.

Mike Nawrocki We had slowed down on our home video production in order to produce our first feature film and kind of the story behind that is we really felt like we wanted to grow the company to be able to make more of a cultural impact. And you know feature films are a great way to do that. But at that time no studio was going to bankroll a feature film with faith based content. 

Lee Hale So Big Idea Productions sunk a ton of its own cash into making the animated feature film. And by the night of the 'Jonah' premiere you could say that the boat was taking on water. 

Phil Vischer So everyone who had worked on it, we flew everybody in and we're having a premiere downtown Chicago. At a big theater just for everyone who worked on the film and their kids and spouses. And then the next morning we were doing a cruise on Lake Michigan for everybody as kind of the official wrap party.

I was thanking everybody before the screening and fighting back tears because we'd already realized what trouble we were in and the next morning I was going to have to lay off half of the studio. And it was just a profoundly bittersweet moment of trying to celebrate what all these people did, sacrificing so much and working so hard, at the same time knowing that it was the end. Kind of a funeral for a dream that you've been nursing and chasing at that point I think it was 14 years building toward that moment of making my first feature film.

And then to have the celebration of that moment also be the funeral of that moment. It was brutally hard to stand up there and say, you know, ‘Hey good job everybody’. Wait till you hear what I have to tell you tomorrow morning.

Lee Hale Man, that is not how movie premiers are supposed to go. And the movie actually did okay at the box office just not well enough. It wasn't the final nail in the coffin for Big Idea Productions though. That would get hammered in by a different culprit.

Barney Theme Song I love you. You love me.

Lee Hale That's right. Bob the Tomato got taken to court by Barney the Dinosaur. Well, not exactly. It was Barney's parent company. But if you'd like to picture a somber tomato and a dinosaur wearing a suit in a courtroom, be my guest.

The trouble started when Big Idea sold the VeggieTales distribution rights to Warner Bros for $15 million dollars. But Lyrick, in addition to being Barney's parent company, had a pre-existing deal to distribute those videos. Lyric said, not so fast. You breached your contract. So Lyrick sued Big Idea and suddenly it was Barney v. Bob the tomato in federal court.

Phil Vischer I had to spend two and half weeks sitting in a federal courtroom in Dallas, Texas. That's the jurisdiction that Barney the dinosaur lived in.

Lee Hale Big Idea argued they'd done nothing wrong. No contract violations. Now it was up to the jury to decide.

Phil Vischer In my head it was the moment where God would ride in and save the day. It's the dog food story chapter two.

Lee Hale Remember the dog food story? That was back when Phil was struggling to start VeggiesTales. He was broke. Like really broke. And spent his last ten dollars on dog food. Then he found a seemingly heaven sent anonymous check. That story had become a bit of a legend at Big Idea.

Phil Vischer One of our artists actually as the trial was going, on a big whiteboard in one of our conference rooms didn't write anything, just drew a giant bag of dog food. And said this is where we are. We're trusting on God to save the day. And he didn't. And I went in and sat down to hear the verdict and the jury gave them everything they were asking for in damages. About $14 million dollars in damages. It was completely clear that the company was done. There was no, you know, if I hustle I think I can. Nope, you're done, you're done hustling. There is nothing you can do to save everything you've been working for. It's all dead.

Lee Hale Phil didn't just lose the company in bankruptcy. He lost the rights to the VeggieTales characters. Big Idea had put the intellectual property up as collateral on a bank loan. Phil had lost control of his creations. Bob and Larry got bought up by new owners. And Mike says that's what hit Phil the hardest.

Mike Nawrocki That was a very very difficult time and you know each of us struggled with different things. I think Phil you know because he was much more of the entrepreneur he was leading the business you know for him it was the loss of control of all of that. I remained with the company and continued to make VeggieTales.

Lee Hale I asked Phil if he ever blamed God.

Phil Vischer I really didn't. What I gave up on was my certainty and my theology about what God would or wouldn't do. I thought OK, you know, I've seen God show up enough in my life that I know he's real and he's active. So I'm very curious why he didn't show up here today.

Lee Hale Coming up …

VeggieTales Clip We're over here by Qwerty the Computer to talk about what we've learned today. And so what we have learned …

Lee Hale What have we learned today?

----

Lee Hale So after the dust settled what did this mean for Mike and Phil's friendship? This gangly 6 foot 5 teenager and the goofy guy with the horn rimmed glasses who first became best friends on their Bible College puppet team.

Lee Hale Did the bankruptcy change your relationship with Phil at all?

Mike Nawrocki You know, in some ways yes. In some ways it improved it because I think you know we were best friends going into business and I think that has its advantages and disadvantages. And particularly since it wasn't an even pairing. Phil ran more of the business side. You know there was tensions in our friendship, by nature of being in business together that once the bankruptcy dissolved that business relationship we could kind of go back to being friends again. Now Phil and I get along great and you know we talk all the time and whenever I'm up in Chicago we'll have dinner.

Lee Hale Is your faith different?

Mike Nawrocki I don't know if it's different. I look back at my relationship with God how I've believed about the world and it's still where it was when I started. As a young Christian you're much more sure about being right about everything. About your doctrine and everything and then as you get older you realize how much mystery there is in the world and how much you just want to leave a lot of room for God's mystery, for God's grace, and for God's mercy.

Lee Hale Is there a song or an episode that comes to mind for you because it's a lesson that you need repeated?

Mike Nawrocki Probably the third or fourth VeggieTales episode I wrote and directed was 'Esther.'

VeggieTales Clip Our hero isn't a king. Just an ordinary girl. 

Mike Nawrocki It's a story where God had called this girl Esther into a life that she had never imagined. You know, give her this opportunity.

VeggieTales Clip She wasn't born from greatness. She didn't go to school for it. She just learned that sometimes God has plans so big only he can see them. All she had to do was believe. Yep. She was just a regular kid. Just like you. 

Mike Nawrocki I kind of come back to that. You know God has put you here for such a time as this and to just be open to what God has for you. You know you can make your own plans. But God will direct your paths.

Lee Hale Mike's path was to stay with the new Big Idea, working for the new owners in Nashville. Phil stayed in Chicago and struck out on his own making new shows and writing books about the Bible for kids. But even as the characters passed from new owner to new owner over the last decade Phil has never stopped doing the voice of Bob the Tomato.

Phil Vischer I related it at one point to the state comes and they take away your children and they put your children in foster care. But then the foster family calls and says we don't really know what to do with these can you come and help.

Make the tomato do what he's supposed to do but then leave because it's our tomato now. As I'm going through this growth process on the front end it just makes me angry. You know, it's like if you need me then give me the tomato back.

But then I realized more and more that you know what? The tomato is never mine. It's God's tomato. Everything that I have I have because of God and God can do whatever he wants with it. So what is the purpose of the tomato at this point in my life?

And I realized that God was allowing me to stay involved with VeggieTales primarily for my own sustenance so that I could eat, so that I could have some money to invest in new ministry. And once I looked at it that way, that VeggieTales was no longer my ministry but now my source of funding for new ministry. I thought, okay what do you need Bob to do? I'll show up. And it became much easier.

Lee Hale For a long time Phil thought he was supposed to be the Christian Walt Disney. Destined for the kind of greatness that begets an empire of shows, toys, films, even theme parks. And this intense ambition caused problems for him spiritually. And he admits it even caused problems for the business too. 

Phil Vischer So in many cases it was people coming to me and saying, ‘Phil I think we're going too fast. I think we're spending too much. Or maybe we should slow down a little’. And it was me saying...

Blues Brothers Clip Oh yeah? Well, me and the Lord, we got an understanding. 

Phil Vischer No way man. I'm the 'Blues Brothers' with my sunglasses on at night. I'm on a mission from God.

Blues Brothers Clip We're on a mission from God.

Phil Vischer I gotta roll, man. This has to happen. And so it was me that was often vetoing more rational input to pursue you know what I felt was my God given destiny. I think.

Lee Hale What was hard about trying to be both a boss but then also inspirational to people who may have been drawn there for Christian values mixing with employees that were not there for that?

Phil Vischer Once it became successful ,now every Christian animator in the country wanted to do work at Big Idea. Where it became tricky is we still had our core team which was mostly local Chicago art school kids and now we were throwing in these really mature Christians who were very excited to work someplace Christian. And it became a bifurcated culture. And I didn't know how to put that together because the Christian artists coming in were like, ‘when are we having Bible study?’ You know? ‘When are we having prayer meeting?’ And then the non-Christian kids that I love just as much and, you know, were just as good artists were saying, ‘wait is that what this is? Wait, do I have to go to that?’ And it was really tough. So we tried to do things where you know we would say, all right we're gonna do a prayer meeting everyone can come, no one is compelled. No matter how far we went out of our way to say you don't have to come, this is entirely optional, we would hear from people who were convinced that if I don't show up I'm not going to get a raise. And there was nothing we could do to convince people otherwise. So in the end we had some of our non-Christian artists leave saying this is too much like a church now. We had a couple of our Christian artists leave saying this isn't enough like a church. I managed to disappoint people on both ends.

Lee Hale Phil and Mike really considered VeggieTales as their ministry. For them, teaching kids that God loved them wasn't an afterthought, it was the whole point. That's why it stung so much when a few years later after the bankruptcy NBC bought the rights to old VeggieTales episodes and started scrubbing the religious references out of the show. Even the show's main message, its ending tagline: 

VeggieTales Clip God made you special and he loves you very much.

Lee Hale Was turned into the uber secular: 

VeggieTales Clip Thanks for coming to my house today. See you next week.

Lee Hale It upset Phil that NBC would not air the original episodes as is, but he wasn't surprised.

Phil Vischer It was kind of a face palm moment of, well of course they can't. I was shocked when you said they could. So that was not a huge surprise. It was disappointing. But you know, Hollywood is Hollywood.

Lee Hale: The rights to the characters have been passed around quite a bit in recent years. Even in the Netflix version Phil voiced the characters but didn't have any say in the script.

Phil Vischer There have been three different owners of VeggieTales since the bankruptcy, actually maybe four. Classic Media, Entertainment Rights, which is a British company, then Classic Media bought it back then Classic sold itself to DreamWorks and then DreamWorks did a series with Netflix that they specifically did not want my help with and that the fans did not like very much. 

Lee Hale Maybe the saddest thing about all this was that lawsuit with Lyrick, that was eventually overturned. So there was some vindication there. But the company had already gone belly up. The damage was done. And Phil had learned a valuable lesson. He says he let the dream of VeggieTales get way too big. And he let it blind him from a much simpler and more satisfying approach to life, the idea inspired the name of his new company Jellyfish Labs.

Phil Vischer I needed to come up with a name for my new company and I was looking for something that would remind me of what I'd learned and the thing about jellyfish is they can't locomote. Whatever direction they're in they can go a little bit in that direction but they can't change directions. A jellyfish cannot change directions. So a jellyfish has to stay in the current and trust that the current will carry it where it needs to be to find food, to escape predators, anything is just up to the current. And I realized that I had spiritually, theologically, I was conceiving myself as a big studly barracuda. Like ,OK God, look at the amazing things I can do. Now if you'll just bless me then stand back and watch me go. And I realized no I'm not a big studly barracuda. I'm much closer to a brainless spineless bag of goo. That as a follower of Jesus I get my form, my purpose, my shape when I am in the current of his will. And so I had to kind of reconceive myself away from this Westernized, Americanized, individualistic, I can do great things because I have the power within me, to a much more historically Christian Orthodox point of view. I can do nothing apart from God.

Lee Hale And that's the mindset that Phil is bringing to the new VeggieTales show launching this fall. The first new episode is a Christmas special. 

VeggieTales Clip VeggieTales, the best Christmas gift. Have we got a show for you.

 Lee Hale It's set for release on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and DVD on October 22nd. Phil and Mike are voicing their characters again and Phil's back in the writers room for the first time in a long time.

Phil Vischer What feels great is to go in and do the voices and they're words that you wrote. Like, yes that is what Bob would say in this situation.

Kara Bettis This new show is exciting because he's actually involved creatively and so he's actually able to shape and develop the story.

Lee Hale That's Kara Bettis, the Christianity Today editor who grew up on VeggieTales. And she says it's encouraging to fans of the original show to have Phil back in the mix again.

Kara Bettis And so this new show is really exciting I think for some people who are now grown up. They grew up with VeggieTales and now they get to be able to show their kids the same characters and the same storylines as they did. So I think that'll be a fun audience base of people who grew up with it. It's kind of like when the new Star Wars came out or something like that and people are excited to see because they had grown up with them and had fond memories of them. 

Lee Hale In the age of the Internet both fans and critics make themselves heard loud and clear. And VeggieTales can't please everyone, of course. Just recently Phil mentioned in an interview with an online magazine that he wasn't a fan of the way another kid's show, Arthur on PBS, had handled showing a gay wedding. That got written up in a bunch of clickbait headlines, which got picked up online by the left and the right and resulted in a tornado of angry tweets. Well, Phil had made those comments after we'd done our interviews. But I wanted to give him a chance to tell you how he felt. So I called him up. He was outside a cafe when we talked.

Phil Vischer I do expect for LGBT representation to start showing up in kid shows. It's the cultural direction right now. But when it first shows up, especially in a show for young kids, as a producer I never want to put myself in between a parent and their kids and try to give their kids a message that their parents wouldn't agree with.

Lee Hale And remembe,r Phil's working on the show again, yeah, but he's not the CEO anymore. And so he doesn't get to unilaterally decide what goes in or what stays out of a VeggieTales script. But I asked if it was up to him, does he know how he would approach LGBT representation?

Phil Vischer Heck no. My feeling is it would be like trying to address women ordination in a children's video. You're guaranteed to lose half your audience regardless of which way you go. They're going to be a whole variety of positions. There are affirming churches, unaffirming churches, churches in between. There's a continuum of reactions within churches and to try to come up with one statement that works for young children of all of those traditions would be very near impossible.

Lee Hale The interesting thing to me is like, so, you create this kid's show that teaches morality. But do you have to have a healthy distance between what you Phil think and what the philosophy of the show is?

Phil Vischer Yeah my job is not necessarily to make everyone think like I think or to present my point of view. My job is to present my understanding of the Orthodox Christian position. I would refer to it as Centrist Evangelical Christianity.

Lee Hale That wasn't the first time Veggie Tales had stirred up some controversy online. In 2018, a college student from California State University in San Marcos argued that some of the Veggie characters had racially insensitive accents and that the show often gave those accents to characters who were villains. That class assignment went viral and Phil says the way the show handles voices now has changed a lot since they started.

Phil Vischer You know it's similar to the Muppets, when the Muppets started out it was just a small group of guys that had to do all the voices so they had to see how far they could push to do different voices. And that's how it was with Mike and I and VeggieTales. Suddenly the world changes and you have to go back and think ‘wait a minute, is it appropriate that I'm doing all those voices? Which voices am I allowed to do and which voices am I not allowed to do?’ The rules have become a little confusing. So DreamWorks first set the rule internally that any ethnic voice needed to be done by a person of that ethnicity. That's the new world and we just have to figure out how to make it work.

Lee Hale: This issue is not unique to VeggieTales' back catalogue by the way. Looney Tunes doesn't quite hold up either. And the Simpsons have been scolded for their Indian character Apu.

So, 2019 is a very different landscape though when VeggieTales started more than two decades ago. But their goal is still the same: Teaching biblical morals to little kids with a wacky cartoon. Faithful fans, pun intended, will likely enjoy these new episodes.

This time around they'll be more about Jesus and the gospels too, because unlike NBC, Trinity Broadcasting Network does not shy away from religion. And even in today's crowded media landscape I think it's fair to say...

VeggieTales Clip:There's never ever ever ever been a show like VeggieTales.

Lee Hale:That's it for Preach. Thanks for listening. But before we go one more thing. Now it's time for silly songs with you. The part of the show where you, dear listener, sing a silly song. Thanks to everyone who shared a rendition of their favorite VeggieTales songs. Let's start with Kara Bettis, associate features editor of Christianity Today.

Kara Bettis: Can I remember the lines? Oh where is my hairbrush. Oh where is my hairbrush?

 Lee Hale: Thanks for listening to Preach. This show is a production of KUER and PRX. We have a newsletter. Find the sign up link at preachpod.org. Or just chat with us on Twitter @preachpod. 

This show is produced by me Lee Hale and Tricia Bobeda. 

This episode was mixed by Ania Grzesik. 

Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton. 

And our executive producer is Joel Meyer. 

Special thanks this week to Tim Slover, Roddy Nikpour and Colin McNulty.




 
 
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