IF, IN 1995, you'd told someone that the most successful series in the history of children's ministry was going to be computer generated talking vegetables you'd no doubt have soon been asked by a white-coated professional if you heard voices coming from your Bird's Eye packs.
But today Veggie Tales rule supreme. The series of videos, with their surreal spiritual stories, Bible teaching, silly songs and sillier characters - Junior Asparagus, Larry The Cucumber (sometimes mistaken for a pickle) and Bob The Tomato (pronounced To-Mae-Toe -after all this is an American series) has become evangelicalism's answer to Disney. Now in Britain such anarchic adventures as Rack, Shack And Bennie and The Grapes Of Wrath are ascending new dizzy heights as millions of ITV viewers enjoy the Tales, rock gospel heroes Audio Adrenaline record the Silly Songs With Larry classic "The Hairbrush Song" and news comes through that (gasp) the veggies will be playing Cross Rhythms '98. One of the legions of Veggie Tales fans Mike Rimmer meets Bob The Tomato and Larry The Cucumber and speaks to production company Top Banana Phil Vischer.
It isn't every day that you get the chance to interview a television personality and this must be my lucky day because I get the chance to interview two! The phenomenal success of Veggie Tales in the USA makes Bob The Tomato and Larry The Cucumber genuine media megastars with a ministry to teach kids more about Jesus.
Riding the crest of a wave of success in America, by the time you read this Veggie Tales will be showing on British television. This speaks volumes when it comes to the quality of the show! As an indication of how far Veggie Tales have impacted the USA, a glance at the Christian retailers top 10 best selling videos for 1996 reveals that the top six titles are all Veggie Tale tapes! With that kind of success you'd expect that Bob and Larry might have, shall we say, developed a little "star" attitude. You can judge from the following conversation that Bob is the shrewd media mover and shaker of the partnership and yet it's Larry who seems to win over the hearts of the viewers.
Taking a break from shooting their latest show, off the set Larry and Bob relax in the plush boardroom of the show's production team Big Idea. Over coffee and doughnuts, I get the opportunity to talk to the pair about their lives and their work.
Mike: What is the best thing about working on Veggie Tales?
Larry: We get free iced tea. Well, actually it's not really free. When we take one out of the refrigerator we're supposed to mark down our names on the paper on the wall that we took one and then at the end of the month somebody counts all the iced teas we've had and then we have to give them money... But at the actual time we get the tea from the refrigerator it seems free.
Bob: Top rate health insurance.
Mike: Do you socialise out of work? What do you do together?
Bob: Larry and I jog every other morning.
Larry: Bob has bad knees, otherwise we'd jog every day.
Mike: Can God use a cartoon to change the world?
Bob: Yes, I think so. But that line of thinking can' be dangerous. Napoleon thought he was a cartoon.
Larry: He wasn't? I coulda...
Bob: You're thinking of Ronald Reagan.
Larry: Oh yeah.
Mike: Is being a vegetable fun?
Bob: Compared to what? It's more fun than being a Q tip.
Larry: I think it's fun...
Mike: Don't you wish you had limbs?
Bob: I guess I never really thought about it.
Larry: Yeah sometimes...especially when they give away free deodorant samples at the supermarket.
Mike: Is it true that vegetables don't die, they just pass their sell by date?
Bob: You've obviously never seen a pumpkin in November.
Larry: Hey Bob, a pumpkin is a fruit.
Bob: So are we.
Larry: Oh yeah.
Bob: Don't take that the wrong way.
Larry: Who, me?
Bob: No! Not you! Mike!
Mike: How did you become Christians?
Bob: Billy Graham.
Larry: Me too!
Mike: How do you cope with fan adoration?
Larry: I eat less fibre.
Bob: Ahh, Larry...never mind!
Mike: Tell me about the rumours that Sparrow Records want to sign up Larry for a solo album deal.
Larry: Only if Phil Keaggy lets me play tuba on his next album.
Mike: And what about the rumour that Bob was asked to deputise for Oprah Winfrey recently when she was ill?
Bob: They wanted me to drop 10 pounds, which I did but then I gained it back again right before the show, so they used Gordon Elliott instead. But I've lost 15 pounds since then, so maybe they'll reconsider. Are you going to eat that doughnut?
Mike: Tell me about your unfulfilled ambitions.
Bob: Only if you buy me dinner.
Larry: I wanna be a fireman and save the rain forests.
Mike: Now that you're TV stars in Britain, do you have a final message to send to your friends over here?
Larry: If I come over can I stay at your house?
Bob: Thank you friends and fans in Britain.
The cold coffee and empty plate of doughnuts signal that my time with these TV stars has come to an end and we say our goodbyes. As we walk back to the studio, I ask whether there are any celebrities they would like to have on the show. Bob ponders for a moment, "Probably Kenneth Branagh. I think we're missing out by not doing Shakespeare. He could even direct. I wouldn't mind." Bob shrugs and then walks quickly through the doors to the studio.
Veggie Tales is the brainchild of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki. The video series and associated spin offs has generated critical acclaim, huge sales and a Dove award! Their production company Big Idea is based in Chicago and to give an indication of the hi-tech nature of their work, they employ the same hardware and software that was used to create dinosaurs for the Jurassic Park films and special effects for Mask. The 3-D computer animated series was launched two years before Disney's Toy Story and continues to win fans.
Having interviewed Bob and Larry, it was time to track down Big Idea president, Phil Vischer. The series manages to combine biblical teaching, great songs, huge entertainment and a large portion of humour. So I began by asking him about the roots (ouch!) of Veggie Tales. "The original idea was from where I wanted to make a show for kids using a computer animation," said Phil. "This was in 1990, so about a year before they started working on Toy Story, and the software was nowhere near capable of doing limbed characters on a TV budget, or even worse, a budget that was destined for the religious market, so I had to come up with characters that were simple enough to actually produce a show on a tight budget, and sorry to say, they couldn't have arms or legs, so the idea was to do candy bars, until I realised that that would make kids want to eat more candy and it would be my fault! So we then thought, 'Hey, what about vegetables.'"
Phil continued, "The first one we came up with was a cucumber and gave him one mole tooth, and a little grin, and he looked like a Larry, but he was lonely, he was alone and it was not good, so we made him a help mate. Someone asked me if we put Larry to sleep and took out one of his ribs to make Bob. It's just a nasty rumour! Larry was tall and skinny, so he needed someone who was short and round, and that was Bob The Tomato, and then they became the Abbot and Costello of the vegetable kingdom. And then once we had their dynamics, their dynamic carries the show."
Vischer confessed about the involvement in developing Bob's character - "I am Bob, and Bob is me. He's the one who is always trying to run the business, get it done, 'Come on, come on, let's keep moving,' and Larry is the one who's in the background, who is just snooping around and hoovering in a flowered hat, and that's Mike! We met in Bible college in Minnesota, doing puppet shows, in '84/'85. We were driving around north west Minnesota in a van, scaring Baptists with our puppet shows, and really weird scripts that we were writing! Somehow we both ended up in Chicago working in video production, we were doing your typical advertising work - Pop Tarts, etc, and in my spare time I was developing these ideas for these shows. I've been doing computer animation for about 10 years, the last four or five of which have been completely wrapped up with Veggie Tales."
It is soon very clear when talking to Phil that God has blessed him with a rich sense of humour. So, what about comic influences? "Monty Python was a big one," responded Phil. "I like the British wit and timing of John Cleese and most of the guys, also the films of Terry Gilliam. In the US I find stuff like Saturday Night Live a little bit too broad, so it can be funny but it's often too coarse and not very clever. I'm really big on clever and I think that clever is a dying art in Hollywood. I find a lot more cleverness in Nick Park. We've got a bunch of guys on staff who are Wallace and Grommit maniacs."
One of the things that is most appreciated about Veggie Tales is the way in which the series takes a cringe-free approach to getting the message across. I wondered whether Phil thought that "clever" and "children" are normally an oxymoron when it comes to entertainment and ministry for Christian children. His answer proved that he has considered deeply the implications of his work. "Well, the clever is not for the kids," Phil replied. "The lessons are for the kids, and the big bright colours are for the kids, and the songs, and that's about it. But humour is definitely not for the kids. We've had people say, 'Why do you put in so much humour for adults if this is a kids' video?', and there are two reasons. Firstly, if we didn't put in the humour, these would be really boring shows. More important is that if we didn't have anything in these shows for grown ups, they would just put in the videos and kids would watch them by themselves. There are some videos that are like that, where grown ups just don't want to watch. If you have something in the show that is really valuable that the kid has been exposed to, the kid has to assimilate it all on their own with many videos because the adult hasn't seen the show."
This is a crucial element to the Veggie Tales philosophy and Phil continued, "The alternative is that when you have a really good movie that comes out and the whole family jumps in a mini van and goes together to see the movie. On the way home, they can talk about what they've learned, and you help the kids learn from the lessons. So we wanted to make videos that would not just be diversions for kids but would be family events, so that when a new Veggie Tales video comes out, the whole family sit down together on the couch and watch it together. The only way to do that is if there is content in the video that the adults find entertaining."
The humour of the programme is important but Phil is clear that this is not where the success of the show lies; this isn't the most important element. "I tell everyone who writes for the show that humour is the icing on the cake, but it is not the cake. The cake is building characters that people care about and get involved with, and stories that touch people's hearts and make them cheer up at all the right places and then the humour is in the icing on top of that. If you don't have the cake, the humour is pointless. That's why you don't want to watch more than five Monty Python bits back to back, because there's no sincerity."
Showing page 1 of 2