- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

ATLANTA — How strange that no one thought of it before, this idea of using singing vegetables, towering chocolate bunnies, space aliens, domesticated Vikings and slothful pirates to teach Bible stories and basic Judeo-Christian values to children.

Now that the "VeggieTales" have created an entire industry around such nonsense and non sequiturs, however, it seems so obvious.

Benign rulers of the kiddie-Christianity marketplace, the "VeggieTales" are a series of videos that have sold more than 25 million copies (they currently have five of the Top 10 best sellers on the Christian Booksellers Association list) and spun off books, CDs, toys and clothing. With a new live stage show, the Veggies' brand of irreverent reverence has shown children, parents and educators how Bible stories and strong moral teachings can be coupled with goofy songs that stick in your brain like Top 40 tunes.

"The kids today have so much in front of them, with Nintendo and Game Boy and DVDs; then they come to church and they're bored. You can't just open up a Bible and start reading to them," says Theresa Bennett, director of preschool ministry for the nondenominational North Metro Church in metro Atlanta.

"The 'VeggieTales' videos teach them about real things they are going through, about honesty, being fair, how to share core values that every kid needs," she adds.

North Metro uses "VeggieTales" puppet shows as well as the videos to teach its young students, which sounds familiar to the Edminson family in Dacula, Ga. They frequently watch 8-year-old daughter Mechelle put on her own "VeggieTales" shows in their living room with homemade puppets built from Popsicle sticks, fabric and socks. "She likes making up her own stories about the characters," says mom Shelly Edminson.

A quick catch-up for the hopelessly lost at this point: "VeggieTales" are computer-animated videos starring Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and a supporting cast of legless legumes. Some are retellings of Bible stories the story of King Nebuchadnezzar trying to force Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego to worship a golden idol wouldn't seem very appealing to modern children, but the Veggies twist it into the tale of Nebby K. Nezzer, despotic manufacturer of chocolate bunnies, who tries to make young Shack, Rack and Benny worship a giant bunny.

Others are invented stories, such as "Larry-Boy and the Fib From Outer Space." Larry (he's the cucumber remember?) usually interrupts each narrative to sing a silly song like "I Love My Lips" that has nothing to do with the story, but it always comes back to God's love.

"A Sunday school teacher gave my eldest son a 'VeggieTales' video for his birthday when he was 3," recalls Romana Cozzolino of metro Atlanta. "We put it in the machine and thought, 'What is going on here? This is not your average cartoon.'"

Her home-schooled son, Anthony, is now 10. "I've watched each [video] like 70 times each," he says, and starts into a scene involving peas dressed as soldiers talking with ridiculous French accents.

Anyone who's seen the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" instantly recognizes those French peas as an homage. "It's such an obvious takeoff on 'Holy Grail,'" says Tom Buchanan, manager of Shepherd's Staff Christian Bookstore in metro Atlanta. "When I watch with my son or daughter, they're laughing 'cause little vegetables are dancing around on the screen. But I'm laughing up a storm at the jokes that fly over kids' heads."

That might explain why Bob and Larry and the gang are so popular on college campuses as well, where students hold dormitory parties to indulge in these Veggies on videos or DVDs.

"If it's good creative stuff and you like it, it doesn't matter how old you are," says metro Atlanta's Angela Merritt, 19, a sophomore at Florida State University. "And it's not like I wear 'VeggieTales' shirts all the time or anything," she adds. (OK, she does have a "Silly Songs With Larry" shirt that she wears at Florida State just not all the time.)

Monty Python's Flying Circus, the wacky and enormously influential British comedy troupe, was one of the guiding lights of "VeggieTales" co-creators Phil Vischer (voice of Bob the Tomato) and Mike Nawrocki (voice of Larry the Cucumber), as well as Dr. Demento, Mel Brooks and Jim Henson's Muppets.

Mr. Vischer and Mr. Nawrocki were puppeteers in college, and started Big Idea Productions in a spare bedroom in Chicago in 1993. Their first video, "Where's God When I'm S-Scared," sold only 500 copies that first year, but the Veggies caught on, largely through word-of-mouth at Christian bookstores. Then the videos started being added at megastores such as Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, and really took off. Both Veggie-masters are now 35, married with young children, and still run their company out of Chicago.

"The reason we came up with vegetables was they were easy to animate," says Mr. Nawrocki. "We needed characters who were simplistic so we could concentrate on telling the story, and that's why they have no arms and legs.

"We started with the basic idea that there is a God who made us and loves us. The ideas of Judeo-Christian heritage are so important to our culture, but they are not represented in the media anymore."

The video stories generally focus on Old Testament stories rather than the New Testament. And that's probably the way it will stay.

"We're not going to tell a story with Jesus in it directly," Mr. Nawrocki says. "We really wanted to avoid portraying Jesus as a vegetable. We felt that would be stepping over the line."

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