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Teens, adults among faithful fans of children’s show ‘VeggieTales’


CHICAGO (BP)–Larry and Bob are pretty much ordinary,
run-of-the-mill, next-door neighbor type of guys — for the
most part. They’re friendly, cheerful and likable.
Except, they’re vegetables.
Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato are the two stars
of “VeggieTales,” a hit video series created primarily for
children which teaches Bible and moral lessons. The nine
videos, produced by Big Idea Productions of Chicago, have
sold 2.7 million copies in four years.
But even though Larry and Bob are exceptionally popular
with kids, they’ve also been embraced by another group
pretty far removed from children — teens and young adults.
“My kids just love it,” said Grant Medford, youth
minister from Calvary Baptist Church, Alton, Ill., referring
to his youth group. “We watch them over and over again. I
think they’re great.”
Rachel Hamilton, a sophomore at Glenwood High School,
Chatham, Ill., took one of her VeggieTales videos to her
Spanish class. The video contained a song, “Dance of the
Cucumber,” sung mainly in Spanish. The whole class loved
that song so much, they kept watching. “We watched basically
the whole thing,” Hamilton said. “People have borrowed my
tape. They all like them a lot.”
VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer attributes much of the
popularity of VeggieTales among teens and young adults to
the cynical, sarcastic nature of many in the younger
generations.
Vischer said a lot of children’s entertainment, like
Barney and Mr. Rogers, is completely sincere. With the
breakdown of the family in the past few years, however,
young adults have become suspicious of sincerity.
“We try to walk a line halfway in between Mr. Rogers
and Ren and Stimpy,” Vischer said. “If you’re never sincere,
you can never teach anyone anything. If you’re completely
sincere, people can’t stand it. By striking the balance, we
are able to create a product people like because of the
humor, but then we can stop on a dime and communicate
truth.”
Vischer said Big Idea Productions is “giving people
what they need and at the same time giving them what they
want.”
VeggieTales, which are completely computer animated,
got their start about eight years ago when Vischer, 31, put
an idea into motion. He had previously worked in the
corporate world as a computer animator but had always
“wanted to tell stories and use characters that could teach
kids things,” he said.
Because the technology was not yet available to create
people by computer animation, Vischer had to come up with a
concept that was “limbless, hairless and without clothes.”
He initially thought about using candy bars, but decided
moms wouldn’t like the idea.
So, he turned to vegetables, and in 1992 created Larry
the Cucumber. Vischer focused on creating expression in
Larry’s eyes, since he didn’t have any hands with which to
communicate. “He just came to life,” Vischer said. “He was
tall and skinny, so we needed someone short and round.”
Thus, Bob the Tomato came to life shortly thereafter,
followed by a supporting cast of gourds, peas and other
vegetables.
Vischer pitched the VeggieTales idea to a number of
Christian publishers. “Everyone liked the idea, but no one
wanted to put money into it,” he said.
Discouraged, Vischer gave up on the idea for a while.
He finally decided to try it again, after a number of
friends and family invested money in his idea. “Friends and
family just pitched in because they thought it was too
important not to happen,” Vischer said.
In July 1993, Vischer quit his job and went to work
full time on VeggieTales, using a computer in his spare
bedroom. He hired two guys to help out, and the trio
finished the first video a week before Christmas that year.
Vischer, a little disgusted with Christian publishers,
decided to distribute the VeggieTales video himself. He took
500 orders over the phone and shipped the 500 videos two
days before Christmas.
It took a while for the idea to catch on with
consumers.
“When they first came out four or five years ago, they
didn’t do anything here,” said Sharon Frossard, manager of
the Baptist Book Store in Carterville, Ill. “They were real
slow to catch on. My first reaction was, ‘Who wants a video
about a bunch of vegetables?'”
But since then, primarily by word of mouth, Vischer
said, the popularity of VeggieTales has exploded. A year
ago, Vischer had nine people on staff at Big Idea. He now
has 40 people working for him. Word Music, meanwhile,
handles the distribution.
“I can’t keep them in stock,” Frossard said. “I place a
Word Music order every other week, and I order VeggieTales
videos every time I order. They’re a constant seller.”
Most of the VeggieTales videos tell a Bible story —
“Josh and the Big Wall” is about the fall of Jericho; “Dave
and the Giant Pickle” is about David and Goliath. Others
teach moral lessons — “Larry Boy and the Fib from Outer
Space” emphasizes the importance of telling the truth. All
the videos contain a number of catchy songs.
While Vischer includes a lot of humor in the stories,
he is careful not to obstruct truth with humor. “You always
have to know what is sacred,” he said. “When we are in a
teaching method, there are no jokes. …
“I don’t think we ever make fun of the truth behind the
story, but you can put interesting characters into the
story, and they can react in very funny ways,” Vischer
continued. “Anything that isn’t sacred you can have fun
with.”
For example, in “Josh and the Big Wall,” the guards
atop the Jericho wall are peas with a French accent. Josh
introduces the children of Israel to the peas, to which one
replies, “Hello children. It was nice to meet you. Now, go
away.”
Medford attributes much of the success of VeggieTales
to its originality. “So much stuff in the Christian market
is just so repetitive of the secular world,” Medford said.
“VeggieTales has been one of those things that has been
something original. It’s quality. It’s funny. It doesn’t
have to be mean. It doesn’t have to be dirty.”
Vischer hopes the success of VeggieTales is only a
small taste of what’s to come for his company. His goal is
for Big Idea Productions to be one of the top four family
media brands in the next 20 years.
The company is well on its way. In February, a
VeggieTales Vacation Bible School curriculum will hit
stores. In March, Big Idea Productions will introduce two
VeggieTales videos to the mass market. Someday, Vischer
wants to have enough VeggieTales episodes for a television
broadcast. Entertainment Weekly magazine recently included a
brief feature about the animated produce items.
“In my mind, I think we’re just getting started,” he
said. “It is my goal to build the next Disney.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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