It's not every Christian-themed production that features a young stalk of aparagus in a sideways baseball cap watching Tales From the Crisper, a veggie-themed version of Frankenstein, er, sorry, Frankencelery, in its first episode.
Welcome to the colorful, tuneful, plant-based world of VeggieTales, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Let’s take a look at why there has never, ever, ever, ever, ever been a show like VeggieTales.
What VeggieTales Is About
Each video generally follows the same format, but is fresh with the wacky follies of our stars, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, when they are presented with a moral quandary, either through a viewer question or an issue that arises between Bob and Larry.
The cucumber and the tomato then answer the question through either one or more "teleplay" segments mimicking Bible stories or pop culture. These segments end with a lesson learned and a Bible verse pertaining to the lesson learned.
Usually, the videos contain a segment in the middle called “Silly Songs with Larry,” which feature a musical number performed by Larry or another cast member.
Each “Silly Song” does not usually pertain to the episode it appears in, and, true to the name, can get pretty silly.
My personal favorite would be “Endangered Love (Barbara Manatee)” in which Larry sings about his love for his favorite day-time drama star who happens to be a manatee.
Series co-creator (with Mike Nawrocki) Phil Vischer, who also voices the majority of the VeggieTales cast, was given two rules for the show by his mother, who had a Ph.D. in Christian Education.
The first rule: Jesus should not be presented as a vegetable. The second rule was that the Veggies should not be presented as having a redemptive relationship with God.
The second rule is why Larry’s final statement at the end of each program is said in the second person. “God made You special, and He loves you very much.”
Originally, Vischer had no interest in vegetables as the main cast and first experimented with a chocolate bar as his lead. But, he chose a much healthier option after his wife warned him a candy hero might open them up to criticism from parents (and dentists).
His decision to use vegetables also aligned with his need for characters that did not have limbs or hair, which would have been incredibly difficult to animate with the software available at the time.
Along with the release of Jurassic Park, 1993 also saw the release of the first direct-to-video VeggieTales video, “Where is God When I’m S-Scared?”
And here it is (Frankencelery and all):
Vischer would have had no way of knowing that VeggieTales would become so popular, as the show produce nearly 50 more direct-to-video videos and two feature films.
Problems in Production
But, even in Christian-video-land, there are crosses to bear.
Vischer would struggle in the early 2000s, when a disgruntled former distributor hit Big Idea Entertainment, the production company behind VeggieTales, with a lawsuit. This eventually caused Vischer to lose control of the company in 2004.
Vischer continued to work on VeggieTales productions until 2021. Then, he announced via Twitter that he and his wife, along with Nawrocki and original music director Kurt Heinecke, would be leaving Big Idea Entertainment, after several years of being just freelancers on the show.
Vischer and Nawrocki would return for the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s new VeggieTales series, The VeggieTales Show, which ran for three seasons, from 2019 to 2022.
This new show featured new designs and voice actors, and saw the Veggies recreating Bible stories in a theater.
How VeggieTales (Temporarily) Lost God
In 2006, the series landed a coveted place as part of NBC's Saturday-morning lineup, where it was a success. Imagine fans' surprise, though, when the references to God disappeared.
From the Los Angeles Times:
After first blaming time constraints as the reason certain references to God were cut from a popular children’s television series, NBC on Friday acknowledged that the edits were made because the network did not want to appear to be advocating any religion.
The new statement came in the wake of mounting criticism from advocacy groups that questioned why NBC had asked the creators of “VeggieTales” to take out the references.
“NBC is committed to the positive messages and universal values of ‘VeggieTales,’ ” the statement said. “Our goal is to reach as broad an audience as possible with these positive messages, while being careful not to advocate any one religious point of view.”
Just one more example of mainstream media wanting the Christian audience without the Christian message. The show ceased its NBC run in 2009.
An Ongoing VeggieTale of Success
Despite a stop-and-go relationship with its creators -- and some legal and creative bumps in the road -- VeggieTales has established itself as a mainstay of Christian children’s programming.
According to a 2019 press release from TBN, VeggieTales has sold over 75 million videos, 16 million books, 7 million music CDs, and 80 million music streams -- numbers which have undoubtedly grown in the ensuing four years.
The expanding VeggieTales universe also includes video games, related media, music, and stage productions.
The VeggieTales official YouTube channel still publishes videos every other day, which gain thousands of views. Some of their more popular videos have even gathered tens of millions of views.
Today, you can find complete episodes of the older direct-to-video VeggieTales show for free on the VeggieTales official YouTube, as well as DVD box sets sold on the official VeggieTales Website.
You can also find VeggieTales in the City on Netflix and The VeggieTales Show exclusively on the Christian-oriented Yippee.TV.
Image: © 2023 Big Idea Entertainment, LLC.
Connor McDuffie is a student at the University of Georgia, where he studies Entertainment and Mass Media. He writes scripts for shorts, features and animated media.
He wrote this while an intern at Family Theater Productions.