Phil Vischer is the co-creator of the computer-animated video series VeggieTales, which has sold more than 75 million copies. At one time, VeggieTales videos were in one-third of American households with young children. Trinity Broadcasting Network is set to release nine new VeggieTales episodes later this year. Vischer voiced character Bob the Tomato and wrote a book, “Me, Myself & Bob,” in 2005. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Lisa.
Talk about the rise of VeggieTales.
Vischer grew up in a Christian home and his extended family included missionaries and pastors.
As an introverted child who liked to play with his Atari computer and watch Saturday morning cartoons, Vischer had a different dream.
Ironically, MTV set his dream in motion.
“I couldn’t figure out how I could combine my faith with my love of creativity and filmmaking until I was in high school and MTV launched,” Vischer said. “I’m watching MTV, and I had two thoughts. This is so cool, but the second thought is this is trouble because most of the value messages were not what I learned in Sunday school. If everyone my age thinks this is as cool as I do, we can have a moral problem. That’s when I had a sense of, ‘I think I can do something about that.’”
While Walt Disney and Jim Henson were his inspirations, Vischer taught himself animation while working the graveyard shift for a video production company.
“I saw a test of some software for a TV commercial that had animated a salt and pepper shaker,” he said. “For the first time, they were squishy. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s how I can sell stories and make simple objects squash and stretch. I don’t need arms, legs, hair or clothes.”
About a year later, Vischer borrowed $25,000 from his parents to buy the hardware and software he needed to create an animated show.
“I thought about a candy bar,” he added. “He could hop around, and he’d be really cute. But my wife says, ‘Moms are going to be mad if you make their kids fall in love with candy bars.’ I thought, ‘That’s a good point. What’s shaped like a candy bar?’ The next thing that popped into my head was a cucumber, and I gave him one big tooth because everyone knows cucumbers are kooky. He was Larry, and he was alive.”
For two years, no one seemed to be willing to invest in Vischer’s idea, but a couple from his church believed in him and gave him $80,000 out of their retirement fund.
“That was the seed money to start VeggieTales,” Vischer said. “We made the first episode in 1993. I sold very little for the first year and a half. There were college kids working in Christian bookstores who handled the kid’s projects. They would watch it, find it hilarious, put it on in the VCR, and the backs of Christian bookstores became VeggieTales theaters. That’s what launched it.”
Talk about the fall of VeggieTales.
VeggieTales took off.
“It led to a rollercoaster from being nothing to the best-selling kids video series in America by 1998,” Vischer said.
Yet Vischer’s pursuit to become the “Christian Walt Disney” led to over-aggressive expansion, and Vischer’s company, Big Idea Productions, filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
“When things completely fell apart, there was a point I was hanging on and hanging on and hanging on, and I just had to keep this going because God wants this to keep going, so He will help,” Vischer added.
Vischer realized VeggieTales wasn’t something he did, but someone he became.
“I had made the work I was doing for God more important than my relationship with God,” he said. “I was so determined I had to do something big to change the world that I didn’t have time to walk with God and listen to Him. It’s not about big; it’s about obedience. Whether it’s something small or giant, it’s none of my business but God’s business.”
What’s the danger in our theology on dreams?
God started using Vischer’s failure for His fame.
Vischer spoke at a variety of churches, businesses and wrote his biography.
“God really revealed what I had done,” Vischer said. “It was about letting go of your dreams because anything you’re unwilling to let go of is an idol. I realized God didn’t make me just a children’s storyteller, but a storyteller. And it could be that my own story is the most impactful story to tell.”
Looking back, Vischer said there is a dangerous side to wanting to reach the destination of a dream.
“We have to be really careful when we throw around the word ‘dream’ as Christians,” Vischer said. “Quite often, we’ll spiritualize it like Joseph and relate it to the dream God has given me. Or everyone wants a call as clear as Noah and wants to save the world. Noah was 500 years old when he got his call. The question is, ‘What did Noah do for the first 500 years of his life?’ It says he walked with God, not tried to figure out what his special gift to humanity was.”
You’ve mentioned you like to mow the lawn to spark creativity. Talk about the right setting.
“Everybody’s different. Some people are morning and night creatives. For me, I happen to be an afternoon creative, which is weird because that’s when you want to do your menial tasks. I write all afternoon.”
How do you come up with your content?
“For story craft, the VeggieTales episodes I’m writing now we decided we need to write quite a few of these, so let’s take something like the fruit of the Spirit and use those as launching points for nine episodes. So I start with one, such as forgiveness. Now, I do a quick online study. How many different ways are there to define forgiveness? What does the word mean? Now, what Bible stories reference this? Now, come up with a twist of how to apply this to a kid’s life. What question could a kid be asking that the answer is learning more about forgiveness? I’m fairly logical, so this is how an episode is supposed to be structured.”
How do you know what works and won’t work for an audience?
“As a creative, you do what works for you, and you find out if your taste lines up with a large enough audience to build a sustainable career. You can’t try to guess and write for the audience because you’re not writing from your own tastes. If you’re trying to write for somebody else’s tastes, you’re not going to write anything inspired. When Mike (Nawrocki) and I started writing VeggieTales, I was writing the stories, and he was writing the silly songs. We were just making ourselves laugh. You know, Monty Python didn’t start with a focus group of, ‘What do British people find funny today?’”
If you hit a writing wall, how do you push past it?
“If I’m really stuck, I find it generally doesn’t do any good to just stare at my laptop. You don’t get unstuck by staring harder, so it’s time to change locations. I’ll go to a coffee shop, go on a walk or watch something on Netflix when there’s a logjam in my brain. Usually either changing where I am, moving my body or watching something that someone else created will give me some new thought or breakthrough.”