(RNS) — Twenty-five years ago, Phil Vischer had a big idea.
He and a college friend, Mike Nawrocki, had dreamed up a Monty Python-esque Christian cartoon for kids— a mix of silly songs, wisecracks and Bible lessons, delivered by a host of lovable animated vegetables.
Armed with $60,000 borrowed from family and friends, they put together the first episode, working mostly on a computer in Vischer’s spare bedroom.
The first episode, “Where is God When I’m S-Scared?” — starring the comic duo of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber — debuted just in time for Christmas. Sales were slow at first. Then college kids who worked at Christian bookstores began to play copies of the videos for customers.
The show became a home video hit, making national headlines by selling more than 65 million videos and spawning a major motion picture, “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.” After nearly a decade of success, however, VeggieTales fell on hard times. Vischer’s company, Big Idea Productions, went bankrupt and was sold.
Still, 25 years later, VeggieTales lives on. The show had stints on Saturday morning TV and Netflix and even spawned a second film, “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.” It’s currently owned by Universal.
Religion News Service editor Bob Smietana recently caught up with Vischer to discuss the 25thanniversary of VeggieTales and what he’s learned along the way.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What are you up to these days? Are you still involved with VeggieTales?
Now that Universal owns VeggieTales, I’m involved in some conversations about if, when or how to bring it back for another round. Nothing is guaranteed yet, but there are some interesting possibilities. Beyond that, I’ve got a small team here in Chicago producing videos to open up the Bible for kids. You can find those videos on RightNow Media and, we hope, some other outlets soon.
Do you miss being closely involved with Bob and Larry? What’s your relationship with them now?
We’re still on speaking terms. Sometimes Bob can be cranky, but Larry will always take my calls. There are always new conversations when VeggieTales ownership transitions, so with Universal now in charge, there’s hope for some new life.
Are you surprised VeggieTales is still around after 25 years?
I was surprised it became as big as it did, but things that become that big tend to stay around for a long time — though part of why it’s still prominent is the lack of other strong content for Christian families, which is a little sad. In the general market, good shows don’t hang around long because there’s always another good show right around the corner. In the Christian market, unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
Old cartoon characters don’t die — they just get displaced by newer ones. If Bob and Larry are still on top in another 25 years, well, that’d be a real problem!
What would you tell younger Phil Vischer, if you could go back in time?
Take it easy. Life isn’t a race. God can accomplish what he wants to accomplish without you working yourself half to death. Oh, and don’t sign any bank documents that pledge your characters as collateral. That’s a really bad idea.
What’s your favorite VeggieTale? And why?
I like different episodes for different reasons. “Where’s God When I’m S-scared?” because it was the very first one. “Dave and the Giant Pickle” because it was the first episode that didn’t kill us to get it done on time. “The Star of Christmas” and “An Easter Carol” for the way they fit together, and the way they tell the story of Jesus more directly than any other episodes.
Where did the “Silly Songs” with Larry come from?
The first one just seemed like a fun way to add nonsense to the middle of the show. It was the Water Buffalo Song, and it came to me while I was picking up tax forms on my lunch break in downtown Chicago. I didn’t write another one for the second video, and people complained. So I asked Mike Nawrocki if he could come up with a Silly Song for video #3, and he came up with The Hairbrush Song. The rest, as they say, was history.
What are some of your favorite memories of VeggieTales and Big Idea?
Working with such creative artists was really fun. We had some artists join us from places like Disney and DreamWorks who were really talented, but we also found local kids who turned out to be fantastically gifted. Some of those kids are now at places like Pixar, and I love seeing their names in the credits and remembering when (we worked together). All the staff meetings with Krispy Kreme doughnuts for everyone. Big events at the Christian retail conventions to premiere new films for bookstore owners and their families. There are a whole lot of good memories.
How did VeggieTales change your life?
I made a lot of good friends. I also discovered what I’m good at — leading creative projects — and, just as importantly, what I’m not good at — managing lots of people. And then, of course, when you lose something very important to you, you find out that God is the only one you really needed in the first place. And that’s a pretty valuable lesson.