[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time].
#47 Phil Vischer. Cartoonist. b.1966
Primary among the recognized responsibilities of the parents, teachers and, and story tellers of every generation is to educate and socialize their children, and to explain their understanding of the meaning of life, the virtues and truths of their faith, and the principles necessary to thrive in this world and to grasp the hand of the God who transcends time.
Since 1993, one of the principal communicators of religious culture to the children of the nation has not been huge organizations such as Awana Clubs or Child Evangelism Fellowship, the home school movement, or even the Sunday schools, but Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber, and their vegetable cohorts at Veggie Tales—the creations of a bright but quirky Bible college dropout from southeast Iowa, Phil Vischer.
This may seem like an overstatement, but rarely has a line of programs or products dominated a field as thoroughly as Veggie Tales shorts and films (now more than 31) did the children’s religious education/entertainment since 1993.
Christianity Today reported:
“Before the singing vegetables of VeggieTales hit the scene, there had never been a Christian video series that sold 25 million copies. There had never ever been a fully computer-animated feature (Pixar’s Toy Story was still two years away). And there had never ever, ever been Christian-produced entertainment so funny and smart that viewers did not realize they were receiving moral instruction.”
Veggie Tales was introduced to the world as productions of Big Idea, founded in 1989 by Vischer and his college firend, Mike Nawrocki. The company officially launched in 1993 with its first Video, Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?.
Vischer was born and raised in the southeast Iowa rivertown, Muscatine, the second of three children of a prestigious but tormented Christian family. His paternal grandfather was a founder of the Bandag tire company based in Muscatine, and his maternal grandfather the longtime director of the Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference (Christian and Missionary Alliance). His mother is a professor at Wheaton College. Phil tells his personal story in Me, Myself & Bob.
I spent my middle and high school years living across the street from the Vischer family, and Phil’s parents were my youth group leaders at Mulford Evangelical Free Church. I remember young Phil, 12 years my junior, as Flip–a longtime nickname he was happy to abandon as he grew older. When Phil began making films, those of us who knew him well were not at all surprised by the off-beat humor or cartoonish voices. They were simply an outgrowth of Phil’s persona. Our only surprise was how rapidly Veggie Tales exploded in the Christian marketplace (not surprised because the products were poor but because, as Jesus found, a prophet is without honor in his hometown).
The discussion of creating culture and penetrating existing cultural forms is often a heady exercise of sociologists and missiologists. But for at least a brief and shining moment, they were led by vegetables named Bob and Larry.
With a danger of oversimplifying, it may be safe to say that Vischer found maintaining a large production company took different skills than creative great stories and characters. In 2005 Big Idea was sold as it faced bankruptcy and a distribution lawsuit. Veggie Tales lives on and Vischer still works with the company on a contract basis, writing scripts and performing many of the voices for new Veggie Tales productions. He has also started a new creative shop called Jellyfish Labs.