Getting the Band Back Together
An Interview with Phil Vischer / Staff Writer: Ryan Sinclair
Today, I’m speaking with Phil Vischer, creator of the beloved faith-based animated series, Veggie Tales. If you’re a millennial like me, you grew up on Silly Songs with Larry the Cucumber and the spiritual lessons of Bob the Tomato. Last October, a fresh take on Veggie Tales hit airwaves thanks to a partnership between Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), Big Idea Content Group, and NBCUniversal.
Ryan: Phil, I’d like to thank you for doing this interview for 71.5 Magazine. Veggie Tales means a lot to me. 71.5 is a magazine that sits at the intersection of faith, pop culture, and lifestyle with the missional impetus of the gospel undergirding all of the articles that Emily Long (editor and creative director) curates.
As an individual who was raised by deeply devout and loving parents, I grew up in the 1990’s with all the key touchstones of a faith-informed childhood; Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Adventures in Odyssey, Your Story Hour, DC Talk, and, of course, Veggie Tales. Out of all of those things, the one that has had the most lasting influence on the person that I am today is the spiritually nutritious diet of Veggie Tales. To this day, my favorite episode of Veggie Tales is the Daniel 3 episode, “Rack, Shack & Benny!”
Phil: It’s my pleasure! I’m thankful Veggie Tales has impacted your life through the years!
Q What lead you to create Veggie Tales? What was your end goal?
A My initial goal, going all the way back to high school, was to be a filmmaker and somehow incorporate my faith into my films. My dueling interests in animation and computers, completely unrelated in my childhood, suddenly came together as the world of computer animation took off in the late 1980s, and I set my sights on developing characters that I could animate on a computer. After experimenting with a friendly candy bar in 1990, my wife recommended I switch to something healthier for kids, and the first thing that popped into my head was a cucumber. So talking vegetables became my first attempt to integrate my faith and my film-making, and it worked out pretty well.
Q What’s the overarching message you hope viewers take away from the new iteration of Veggie Tales?
A Since I no longer own VeggieTales, I can only influence it as much as I’m invited to. But I certainly hope VeggieTales continues to tell kids about God’s love for them long into the future.
Q How did the decision to bring back VeggieTales come about?
A The Trinity Broadcast Network has always been a fan of VeggieTales, and reached out to Bob and Larry’s newest owner, NBC/Universal, a couple of years ago to ask if they could produce a new series. After they had a deal in place, TBN reached out to me to ask if I would get involved creatively, and if I could make the show feel more (gospel centric) like it felt back in the “old days.” I said, “Yep” to both questions.
The new show feels similar, but is set in a new context, an old theater where Bob and Larry are trying to produce a variety show, as opposed to the kitchen counter where they produced their old show. The new format is fun because we can follow the veggies “backstage” and see the chaos that is going on behind the scenes while they’re trying to put on the show.
Q How will the new Veggie Tales communicate the gospel to kids, tweens, and adults? Will the show be accessible to fans who grew up on the original or will it specifically target today’s younger viewers?
A Hopefully it’s accessible to everyone. I’ve written 10 episodes for the new season, and I used the Fruit of the Spirit as my template. Like the old shows, a kid writes in with a question, and Bob and Larry have to dig into a Bible story to come up with the answer. Because they’re putting on a variety show, the story segments can be shorter so I can use Bible stories that are shorter or more obscure, like Paul and Silas in prison, or the story of Abigail and Nabal from the Old Testament. We’ll get to introduce kids to some stories they’ve never heard before.
Q How has Veggie Tales grown and matured over the years? How have you as a person grown spiritually and how will your theological growth influence the new show?
A I don’t know if VeggieTales has grown and matured, since it’s been passed around to various owners over the last 15 years and I haven’t really been involved. I’ve grown and matured quite a bit, though, especially through the experience of losing something that was so central to my life (those talking vegetables), and discovering that God was really all I needed all along. I’m twice as old as I was when I started writing VeggieTales, so hopefully the extra years and maturity will show up in the scripts as well.
Q Your passion for fidelity to Scripture and proclaiming the Gospel is bold and inspiring. In addition to bringing back VeggieTales, you’ve produced a Bible for children, ‘The Laugh ’N’ Learn Bible for Kids.’ What was the thought process behind it and what lead you to pursue creating a Bible geared towards children?
A After veggies I produced a series called What’s in the Bible? That walked kids through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Quite often when we teach kids the Bible, we focus only on the stories that are the easiest and most fun to tell, typically involving animals and no dying. Kids end up with a very limited picture of the Bible - just a few stories with no connective tissue. So with What’s in the Bible? I tried to give kids the big picture. Even the tricky stuff. Because a partial view of the Bible leads to a partial understanding of faith, and that doesn’t do anyone any good at all. The new kids Bible is an extension of that. The whole Bible, from Creation at the beginning to the new heaven/new earth at the end, summarized and simplified to make it accessible to kids. Putting it in book form makes it easy for parents to use as an after dinner or before bed reading time, which brings the whole family closer together.
Q Veggie Tales has essentially been the creative gold standard for high quality faith-based entertainment for well over two decades. In recent years, we’ve begun to see liturgical media grow in popularity and demand thanks to individuals like Alex Kendrick (Facing the Giants, War Room), Stuart Hazeldine (The Shack), and DeVon Franklin (The Star). What foresight can you offer on the future of faith-based media arts? How can missional entertainment continue to evolve, grow, and influence and transform society for the betterment of humanity?
A I think the future of Christian entertainment is a little fuzzy right now. A certain type of universal faith-based movie is doing pretty well, but an ever-growing portion of global media is being funded by the big streaming companies, none of which seem particularly interested in creating content solely for a Christian audience. So other than the movies that fit the current model (Kendrick brothers, Erwin brothers, or “Soul Surfer” style inspirational films), it is very hard to fund Christian entertainment. Unless someone builds a viable streaming platform with deep pockets and an appetite for Christian media, most Christian producers will need to move to a donor model for funding, using YouTube, etc. for distribution. Global distribution has never been easier. Generating revenue is getting harder all the time. The Bible Project (www.BibleProject.com) is a great example of a donor funded, freely distributed model that is having significant impact. More Christian producers may need to follow this model, rather than hoping Netflix or Amazon or Apple are going to mail them a big check.
About the Writer:
Ryan Sinclair is a discipler and deacon at Thomaston Seventh-day Adventist Church in Thomaston, GA. Ryan is currently enrolled in the ARISE Online Institute ‘Discipleship Training’ course. He enjoys community outreach, theology, philosophy, photography, comic books, video games, drawing and is also an avid book reader.
Follow him on Twitter: @NirvanaMonk116