VeggieTales fans know that strange things happen when the big green digital cucumber launches into one of his infamous “Silly Songs with Larry.”
A High-Wire Act that Works
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.
Scrutinizing the New Owner
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.”
A Spoonful of Funny
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.… So we do get to say, 'Hey kids! This is what the story means!' But that only works if the story is funny. You have to be funny period.”
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, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. The new owner is Classic Media, which controls Lassie, Rocky & Bullwinkle, the Lone Ranger and other wholesome products.
The Bottom Line Is the Story Line
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.… “Now I don't know what is supposed to happen. It's a matter of faith, again. All I know is that I want to get back to telling stories.”
(Editor’s note: Two of Mr. Mattingly’s columns were combined for this article.)
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.