By Riley Manning
In the pantheon of Christian media aimed at children, Veggie Tales stands above all others.
For those who didn’t grow up or raise children in the 1990s, Veggie Tales is a series of computer animated films featuring talking vegetables. Thoughout the series, Larry the Cucumber, Bob the Tomato, Archibald Asparagus, and a countertop of charismatic produce portray stories from the Bible and creatively illustrate themes of morality.
The man – and in many cases, the voice – behind the edibles is Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, who said the key to reaching kids for the kingdom of Christ is to still be a kid yourself.
Birth of a cucumber
The story of how Veggie Tales came to be is synonymous with Vischer’s own artistic development. A native of Muscatine, Iowa, said he began playing with puppets at age six and experimented with his first film at age nine.
He loved to create, he said, but relished staying behind the scenes.
“That’s often the case with shy, creative people. We want to bring things to life without people staring at us,” he said “As I grew, it became clear that I was too goofy to make stuff for grownups, and too goofy to be a preacher. I was much more at home playing on the floor with four-year-olds.”
Vischer attended St. Paul Bible College with the intent of advancing to film school, but instead ended up working as a truck driver. By 1989, however, he’d found work as a computer animator in Chicago.
“I wanted to use the technology to tell a story, not just to produce graphs and charts and things like that,” he said. “So I needed something very geometrically simple.”
Vischer’s first attempt was a talking candy bar, but anticipated mothers wouldn’t like the character because it would encourage unhealthy eating. So in 1990, Larry the Cucumber was born.
“It’s funny, now moms tell us their kids will either only eat vegetables on Veggie Tales or only eat vegetables they don’t see on Veggie Tales,” he said.
Now, he said, technology has changed everything. The novelty of the VHS tape deck is far back in the collective memory. Now kids are watching on iPhones. Never have there been more opportunities for telling stories, but never has it been more difficult to make a living at it, he said.
Old stories made new
Regardless of the technology, Vischer said the tricks to telling stories and reaching youth are nothing new. He points to Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who was once asked to write an introduction to a textbook on dentistry.
“His assistant wrote this long, elaborate block of text, but when Mr. Rogers got it, he marked it out and wrote one sentence,” Vischer said. “He wrote, ‘Remember, you, too, were once a child.’ That’s all anyone needs to know about interacting with kids.”
Vischer said he’s always enjoyed taking something complex and explaining it in simple terms. If he can take an abstract topic like substitutionary atonement and turn it into a five-minute cartoon, anyone can understand it. He said the real balancing act is making Biblical stories entertaining and zany, but also staying true to them.
“First I ask, ‘What’s sacred about this story,’ then ‘what facts would you want a kid to not mess up,’” he said. “You don’t want a kid going into Sunday school saying David fought Goliath on the back of a gorilla because he saw it on TV. Once those two things are figured out, I just tell the story the way I would have enjoyed it when I was six.”
Making Christian media better
Another unique aspect of the Veggie Tales phenomenon is its popularity in the secular world. Generally speaking, Vischer said, media under the Christian genre usually fall short in quality.
“Part of it is the depth of the talent pool. People take Christian music and say it’s just not as good as secular music,” Vischer said. “But they don’t realize they’re hearing the top two percent of all secular music. Go to a bar and listen to the secular band. They’re usually pretty bad.”
But in his eyes, all of that is changing as Christian universities begin to beef up their creative departments, like art, film, and music.
“Maybe the best thing Veggie Tales does is inspire kids to think like artists for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Better artistic departments at Bible colleges would be even more incentive to express their faith through art.”