Mike Nawrocki met Phil Vischer, CEO of Big Idea Productions, in college. They worked together in a St. Paul Bible College puppet ministry and became roommates. That is, until they were kicked out of school for missing too many chapels.
Nawrocki and Vischer then worked on a single computer to create the VeggieTales series. Nawrocki is writer and director for Big Idea and a father of two young children. But he is perhaps best known to VeggieTales fans for lending a voice to Larry the Cucumber, the goofy sidekick to Vischer's Bob the Tomato.
As the Big Idea staff was putting the finishing touches on Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, Christianity Today editor at large Edward Gilbreath talked with Nawrocki about starting the video series, creating Larry, and why he isn't a doctor.
Did you and Phil know in college that you wanted to work together?
Yes. We met on a puppet team while there. Every student coming in was required to do a student ministry, and they had a bunch of different ones to choose from. I was from Denver; Phil was from the Chicago area. I had been involved in puppeteering and drama in my home church in Denver.
There were probably about five or six of us on the puppet team. We just traveled around doing our puppet shows. Phil and I did the majority of the writing and we just had a great time writing together. We had this creative chemistry that really clicked in terms of writing and performing.
Back then did it have that sort of VeggieTales humor?
It did. Really, it turned out both of us were really influenced by Monty Python. Mel Brooks was another kind of a big humor influence. We had a real similar sense of humor, and that kind of came through our writing at that time, and later with VeggieTales. Larry's voice is a voice that evolved from a puppet that I did at the time. It was called "Soupy."
You were planning at that time on going into medicine, right?
At this point I was still planning on it. But by this time we actually started to talk about VeggieTales too. We'd come up with a concept for the show, and we were looking for somebody to fund it, basically. I had come to the point where I was ready to go out of video postproduction. This was probably in the early nineties.
I thought, "If we're not going to make VeggieTales I need to go ahead with my plans in life and go to medical school." I applied with the Peace Corps. I was going to go teach biology in Africa for a couple of years. I got in, and I had my acceptance letter from the Peace Corps and funding for VeggieTales came through.
So I was at this real crossroads in my life. I really did feel a calling from God that I needed to serve him with whatever I chose as my vocation. And for me, what that looked like in high school was medicine. But as I got to that point, I really had to do a lot of soul searching and think, What is it really that God wants from me? I prayed and I asked a lot of people around me and kind of told them my situation. Looking back on it, I think I wanted to help others by showing them God's love.
Did you originally think that you would do some of your creative stuff on the side when you were a doctor?
It didn't even click for me. For me, theater and art was a passion, but I never equated it with a vocation. My mom was a nurse; my dad was an engineer. So I thought, okay, when I go get a real job maybe I can do something like this on the side. It never dawned on me growing up that this would be a possibility for my life. Nobody thinks growing up that they're going to be a cucumber.
When I had graduated from pre-med, my mom bought me a nice leather-bound edition of Gray's Anatomy. I almost went to medical school just because of that book. They paid a lot of money for that book. But they were really supportive, of course.
Most people, when I told them "I'm not going to go to medical school; I'm going to animate vegetables," were kind of like, "Are you sure you want to do that?" But I really did feel strongly that we had an opportunity to tell stories with the biblical worldview and be really entertaining. So we had something.
The biggest thing in computer animation at the time, and this was before Toy Story and before any computer animated series came out, was the scrubbing bubbles commercial on TV. That shows you where the technology was at the time.
Like the scrubbing bubbles, we needed characters that were relatively easy to animate. So we thought they can't have any arms or legs, any clothes or any hair. And so just naked vegetables were all we needed. So that's what we chose.
Did you know it was going to take off the way it did?
It was a very gradual thing. We were starving for the first four years, after the first tape, because basically our strategy for the first show was to take out ads in Christian parenting magazines. We received five hundred orders for our first tape, which didn't quite cover the $70,000. So it was a little bit of a flawed business plan. But then Word Records picked us up.
How did Bob and Larry come about?
A lot of it just had to do with our personalities and how we related with each other.
With Bob and Larry, we wanted to create characters that were sort of reflections of our own personalities. Phil and Bob are both very driven. And Larry and Mike are a bit more laid back. And so we just thought we would be a really good combination.
As part of raising funds for our first show, we did a small piece called Take 38. It's basically Bob trying to sell the world on his grand scheme for this vegetables series that was going to change the world and win him a Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, Larry's in back of him looking for his plastic windup lobster and ends up pinching Bob in the nose at the end. So it's sort of that dynamic, that serious, driven personality next to the kind of happy-go-lucky type of personality.
There's something about Larry's eyes and his expressions. There's a sadness there, but it's goofy at the same time.
That was very intentional. I think Larry kind of really lives in the moment. The style of music [in one video is] tango. And if you've ever watched tango before, nobody smiles. It's very serious. So my direction to the animators for that whole piece was that it's a really goofy song, but Larry is not going to smile through the whole thing. It really fit that style of music to have Larry's character really be a part of that whole mood.
But it's funny because people have asked me before "Can you laugh like Larry?" And I thought about it and said, "Larry's never laughed." It's really funny. There's never been a point where Larry has just done a big guffaw laugh. And I don't know why that is.
I guess the humor that people see in Larry is just within his character and kind of laughing at his character and himself rather than sort of a dialogue-based humor where he's cracking jokes and laughing.
Does your daughter like VeggieTales?
It's funny because she loved it when she was one-and-a-half to three. And she got into a little VeggieTales hibernation. Now she's kind of in recovery. It's to where that's what she wants to watch now. Her first preference is to pop on a VeggieTales' dvd or something.
Does she know you are Larry?
Yes she does. Although I don't know how it connects in her brain. She'll say, "Daddy's Larry the Cucumber," but who knows what that actually means to her. But it's kind of fun.
We have this room in the house with two connecting doors. She'd be outside the door, and I'd be on the other side talking to her like Larry. And then I'd sneak out and around and ask her, "Who are you talking to?" And she'd say, "Larry. He's in there."
Edward Gilbreath is the managing editor of Christian Reader and a Christianity Today editor at large.
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Also appearing on our site today:
Runaway Asparagus | Big Idea's Jonah is both wholesome and hip.
The Top Tomato | Phil Vischer's tenacious campaign to dominate family entertainment.
The Serious Business of Silly Songs | The director of music for the VeggieTales talks about bringing musical depth to the score.