When Phil Vischer launched VeggieTales, he wanted a faith-based alternative to the Disney empire. A committed Christian, he sought to provide quality children’s entertainment that draws young people (and their parents) closer to God.
Using computer-generated characters such as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, overt Scripture references, and enough pop-culture references to keep it interesting, Vischer largely succeeded with his Big Idea Productions. With videos (and one big-screen film) telling lessons about “Dave and the Giant Pickle” and “LarryBoy,” Vischer (and others, such as Mike Nawrocki) fulfilled the VeggieTales slogan: “Saturday morning fun and Sunday morning values.”
Unfortunately, a series of financial reverses eventually brought Big Idea crashing down, and it was sold to Classic Media, a secular corporation. And with it went Vischer’s dream to establish a media empire for Christ. However, Vischer keeps his hand in the business, seeking to produce stories with the same combination of quirky humor and commitment to Christian values.
Meanwhile, broadcasters, who must air three hours per week of educational programming for children, are scrambling for content. An executive with NBC came upon Bob and Larry, and decided to contact Phil. Would Vischer allow NBC to broadcast the wholesome VeggieTales video library this fall on Saturday mornings?
This was finally the big time for Vischer. There was just one catch: The overt references to a loving and active God and to Scripture would have to go. We live in a pluralistic society, after all, and wouldn’t want to offend anyone.
“At first we were told everything was ‘okay’ except the Bible verse at the end,” Vischer writes on his blog. “Frankly, that news really surprised me, because, heck, we’re talking about NBC here. God on Saturday morning? It didn’t seem likely. Since we’ve started actually producing the episodes, though, NBC has gotten a little more restrictive. (I think they actually sat down and started watching a few VeggieTales videos. ‘Hey wait – these are religious.’) So it’s gotten trickier, and we’re having to do a little more editing. More than I’m comfortable with? Frankly, yes.”
It was a tough decision for Phil, and hardly the first time a cartoonist has been asked to compromise in the interest of greater commercial success. Enter Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, which chronicles the adventures of a mischievous boy and his stuffed tiger.
For years the syndicate tried to persuade Watterson to license images from the strip to be used on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts. Watterson refused, not because he hated money, but because he loved his art. Watterston believes that Calvin and Hobbes live in a particular universe that can only be accessed on its own terms. To plaster the images of Calvin and Hobbes on cheap trinkets would rip them out of their context and dispel the magic that Watterson has created with his strip.
The marketers, for their part, had ample precedent on their side. Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, allowed Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and Snoopy to appear on every other piece of ceramic and plastic in America, and that decision no doubt has made enough cash registers ring to fit an army of angels with their wings.
Watterson, however, stood firm. There are some things more important than money and influence.
Vischer, facing much the same dilemma (with not just artistic values on the line but also the much-loved spiritual truths inherent in VeggieTales) decided differently.
“I had already committed to helping Big Idea with this, and I really didn’t want to leave them in a tight spot,” Vischer says. “Plus, the new stuff we’re coming up with is really fun, and at least some new kids will meet Bob and Larry on NBC, and maybe wander into Wal-Mart and buy a video with all the God [stuff] still in. So it could be better, but overall it’s not a total loss. The new stuff is really cute. You’ll like it.”
Cute? Let’s face it: There are plenty of cute (even wholesome) cartoons out there. What makes VeggieTales stand out from the crowd is not Vischer’s cleverness or the believability of floating vegetables. What makes the Veggies different is their unabashed stand for Christ.
Now that this “big idea” is gone, what do we have left? Call it “Saturday morning fun and Saturday morning values.”