Phil Vischer—Moving Into “Mid-Life”

The "Father of VeggieTales" filled us in on his beginnings and why he chose to start creating animated singing and dancing vegetables in a conversation started in the first half of this column. (Missed it? Then have a click and get filled in… [ publications/rgcolumns/2006/1019.asp])

Now, with the veggie empire in the hands of other players, Phil has some thoughts about the turn of events involving NBC, the future of religious broadcasting and a few more things I think you’ll find interesting and perhaps surprising…

Rod Gustafson: I promised not to drag you through the whole NBC fiasco again (for those unaware of this topic, read the background on Phil’s site: []), but I am curious about one thing: Were you surprised at how the whole thing fell apart in the end?

Phil Vischer: I wasn’t surprised by the outcome at NBC. I was more surprised when they said they only wanted to cut the bible verse [included at the end of each VeggieTales episode]. That’s why I signed up. We would still have had the bible lessons within each episode, and that would have been great.

Rod: I have spent some time editing television programming. How did they ever think they could excise any religious content from VeggieTales and still have anything left that made sense?

Phil: They evidently only watched one or two episodes. The problem is they are excited about Christians as a demographic, but at the end of the day they don’t want to be associated with them. Suddenly we’re dealing with [the] Standards and Practices [department], and not the people putting the kids’ block together. It was very disappointing. I’ve had lots of people in the past say, "Just make VeggieTales about life lessons and not about God." And now fans are wondering if I gave in because there was more money! I agreed that it will expose kids to VeggieTales who would not otherwise see it, but there are few VeggieTales that hang together with God clipped out.

Rod: Why do you think TV networks and movie studios suddenly so interested in religious groups, and Christians in particular?

Phil: What seems to be happening is the distributors are very interested in segmenting the audience in new ways, to try and generate more revenue out of the same populace. In the 70s it was the African-American audience. Then Spanish and Latino. Before that everyone was white except Flip Wilson.

Now there is much more interest in programming for minorities. Conservative Christians is an unexploited minority. That’s good and bad. We now have people who are trying to act like ministers for purely financial gain. But you do have more access opened up for genuine ministers. In a 500-channel universe there is room for religious programming. In movies, there is room for Christian filmmakers. Most people want to see good films that defend Christian sensibilities, or at least don’t offend.

Rod: Agreed Phil, but even though I consider myself religious, I’m frustrated that most TV shows and movies either ignore the idea of "faith," or they hit you over the head with a virtual bible. Where’s the "middle?"

Phil: Pixar films and movies like Lord of the Rings only support [a] belief system. Yet when you get a film that is specific about that belief system, it gets heavy handed. It’s almost impossible to preach in a movie. People do not like to go to the movies to get preached to.

[Previously, religious] TV has been used as a big pulpit amplifier, but that’s changing. It’s been used that way for 30 years, and now people in Christian broadcasting are wondering what’s next. We’ve amassed a ton of assets in the broadcast world but we’re not quite sure what to do with them. Most people don’t want to be preached at. Mr. Rogers could teach much more explicitly than Pixar. Mr. Rogers could look right into the camera and make a statement. But there is an attraction based on the sexiness of movies and not realistically based on their potential to change beliefs.

Rod: With those things in mind, what’s next for you? How do you see your "mission" playing out? Is there a new animated series in the future?

Phil: [When it comes to technology], you can do a lot more with a lot less now. VeggieTales was a response to the opportunities of 1992. What I’m working on now is a response to the opportunities of 2006. Ultimately the theological heart will be the same. But you cannot do what I did in 1992 today. Everything is different. Every trend that made VeggieTales possible has changed.

I’m also writing a book for adults. It’s the story of ME! The story of VeggieTales, the bankruptcy, and all that stuff. [When told I should write a book about this] I said, "That’s not what I do," but then I realized God was handing me a new ministry. Guys in their 40’s see me, and they can relate to the fact that I failed at something.

Beyond that I’m a kid at heart. When I tell stories, they are so goofy.

Rod: I’m glad to hear you are hoping to help us guys going through the nasty mid-life crisis. Even though VeggieTales was made for kids, I’m sure it has reached a lot of adults.

Phil: When I write a story and say it is for grown ups, they won’t watch it. When I write the same story and say it’s for kids, grown-ups will watch it with their kids.

Rod: Last question—what has been the biggest "pay off" for you with your work?

Phil: When I get a letter from a mom saying, "Thanks for the impact VeggieTales has had on my kids. My husband was no longer going to Church, and then when he watched VeggieTales and he started going back to church.

Rod: While you’ve at least proved that vegetables are good for you, no matter how old you are. Thanks Phil.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…