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Otto Selles

What's Cooking When Martha Stewart Meets the VeggieTales?

Over the past four years Martha Stewart has carved out a place of honor in our household. At first she was but an occasional guest, arriving every month or so on the cover of the glossy Martha Stewart Living magazine. Then she became a regular member of the family, appearing from Monday to Friday on our TV. Our computer's Web browser automatically invokes marthastewart.com to appear on the screen. We have consulted "Martha Stewart" paint chips when decorating the kitchen, purchased at Kmart some "Martha Stewart" French-style bedspreads for our daughters' room, and enjoyed the results of more than a fair share of Martha's recipes.

A successful caterer, Martha has employed her entertaining skills to become the North American arbiter of what constitutes gracious living. It's true, of course, that people love to make fun of Martha. Her perfectionism and her know-it-all, do-it-all, have-it-all manner can be hard to bear and easy to mock. But after enjoying far too much of a Martha-inspired chocolate cake, I decided I could no longer hide that she has greatly enriched my life (and my waistline).

If Martha Stewart is ubiquitous in her chosen domain, so too are VeggieTales in their realm, the world of children's entertainment. Created in 1993 by Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki through their company, Big Idea Productions, the VeggieTales video series uses computer-animated characters such as Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and Junior Asparagus to illustrate biblical stories and messages through silly situations and even sillier songs.[1] On paper this doesn't sound like a formula for astonishing commercial success, but in fact the distinctive VeggieTales mixture of "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun" has sold more than 20 million videos, sprouting into a growth industry that also includes books, CDs, Vacation Bible School materials, and a panoply of plush toys, finger puppets, ties, party supplies, and key chains.

I first heard about VeggieTales just after Martha became part of our lives. A friend of mine, also a French teacher, had told me about an animated Christian video in which peas with outrageous French accents took the role of the Philistines while a large pickle played Goliath. When I responded skeptically, my friend assured me that the video was not only Christian but, surprisingly, funny and intelligent. When my eldest daughter Anna, age three at the time, began to discover our church's video collection, we took out VeggieTales' Dave and the Giant Pickle. Both Anna and I laughed as we watched the young Dave try to tend sheep that constantly fell over, and I could not help but grin when I heard the Philistine French Peas.

In the months that followed, Anna and I continued to borrow VeggieTales videos from the church library. I realized that the creators of VeggieTales grew up immersed in the same bad television shows that I used to watch as a kid. While teaching biblical values, VeggieTales often parody such TV standards as Gilligan's Island, Batman, and Star Trek. Other episodes pay tribute to the inspired silliness of British comedy, most notably when Josh looks up at Jericho's walls and the French Peas berate him and cast slushies upon him—alluding to a classic scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Some of the VeggieTales parody literature, with references to writers such as Flaubert (by way of a materialistic Madame Blueberry) and Steinbeck (through some rather wrathful grapes). The fifteenth and most recent video in the series, Lyle, the Kindly Viking, contains parodies of Masterpiece Theatre, Hamlet ("Omlet"), and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. The video also features Archibald the Asparagus, a character whose British accent and uptight manners were inspired by Monty Python's John Cleese.[2] The success of the VeggieTales videos may rest on their ability to entertain parents as well as their children.

In addition to witty dialogue, songs set the silly tone for each video. The songwriters, chiefly Vischer and Nawrocki, imitate melodies that resemble anything from Mozart to Motown, providing further appeal for adult viewers. One of the best-known Veggie songs occurs in Rack, Shack, and Benny, a video that reworks the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In this episode, the misguided Nebby K. Nezzer, the head of a chocolate factory, commands his workers to bow down before a 90-foot-tall chocolate bunny and sing the highly infectious "Bunny Song":

The bunny, the bunny—
Whoa! I love the bunny
I don't love my mom or my dad, just the bunny
The bunny, the bunny, whoa,
I love the bunny
I gave everything I had for the bunny.

I don't want no health food
when it's time to feed
A big bag o' bunnies is all that I need!
I don't want no buddies to come out and play
I'll sit on my sofa, eat bunnies all day.

I won't go to church! And I won't go to school!
That stuff is for sissies, but bunnies are cool!

Due to parents' complaints, the recent edition of Rack, Shack, and Benny now contains a "new and improved" and much tamer "Bunny Song": "soup or my bread" replaced "mom or my dad" and the penultimate line became "I won't eat no beans, and I won't eat tofu." Interestingly, the goal of creating humorous material for children carries the risk of subverting the biblical values the videos hope to transmit. The producers of VeggieTales are willing to change material in order to keep parents watching.[3]

I was keen to take out a VeggieTales video each Sunday, but Anna often found the dialogue to be too fast paced. As my wife, Rita, and I had adopted a "no regular TV" policy, Anna also wasn't used to the "Saturday morning fun" of kids' programming. Anna and her younger sister Isabelle finally began to show a real interest in VeggieTales after our church library closed for renovations. We made do with weekly rentals of educational videos from the public library, such as the modestly interesting Let's Build a Sandcastle, until my wife purchased some videos of our own, including a VeggieTales episode that our girls have since memorized.

An exception to the "no regular TV" rule arose when Rita, who was at home with our children, began to take a coffee break in the company of Martha and her television show. The girls watched as well and began to ask after breakfast, "Is it Martha Stewart time?" The mornings that I am at home, I will join them at the TV and attempt to continue my grading or course preparation. I get little done as Martha will often present an interesting report on the making of chocolate Easter bunnies and Japanese wall screens, or the harvesting of cranberries or almost any topic I have ever wondered about.

I am at heart, though, a VeggieTales fan, and it was Rita who really brought Martha home for dinner. When I asked her to summarize her interest in Martha Stewart, she replied: "creativity, quality, and curiosity." Martha gives her new ideas for projects in areas such as cooking, gardening, and home decorating. Martha's media products also provide relief from country kitchen kitsch and Christian woman cute. When I raised the charge that Martha's sort of living promotes uppity materialism and the wasting of one's life on intricate crafts, Rita replied that she leaves aside or adapts projects that are either too time-consuming or too expensive for our budget. Finally, the documentary impulse in Martha's television show satisfies my wife's desire to "learn something new," as the program's introduction declares.

I must admit that I have sometimes wondered about the long-term effects of mixing Martha Stewart and VeggieTales in our kids' heads. It would seem that, according to Big Idea's marketing strategy, VeggieTales and Martha Stewart should go together like water and wine. Indeed, Rita pointed out to me last spring that Martha Stewart Living magazine had an ad for VeggieTales.[4] Among pages and pages of ads, I found the familiar face of Larry the Cucumber, dressed in his "LarryBoy" Batman-style outfit and set against a green backdrop similar to Martha's own trademark lime green. The ad reveals Big Idea's bigger idea of growing beyond the Christian bookstore market and providing Bible-based entertainment for an audience as large as Disney's. VeggieTales videos have been for sale since 1998 at such "mass market stores" as Target, Kmart, and Wal-Mart.[5]

The ad's caption has a quaint air to it: "There's no violence in our videos. Unless you count good values beating the living tar out of bad ones." The text of the ad gets to the point and then proceeds to offer excuses: "Our stories are built around timeless lessons rooted in the Bible. But don't get the wrong idea. These shows aren't preachy—they're hilarious."

It is interesting that excuses have to be made when one speaks outside of the evangelical mainstream about a product based on biblical values. By contrast, an ad that appeared in Christianity Today for VeggieTown Values, a Vacation Bible School curriculum based on VeggieTales, openly cites the Bible and doesn't even explain what "VBS" stands for.[6] Still, the effort by the makers of VeggieTales to cross over to the secular market and speak to a new audience is admirable.

While I was proud to see Larry the Cucumber make an appearance in Martha's magazine—if you can make it here, Larry, you can make it anywhere—I had a different reaction when I noticed a host of VeggieTales toys and other ancillary products in a local children's bookstore. I immediately wondered whether Larry had sold his soul (seeds) and skin (peel) to fabricate plush toys. Big Idea is sensitive to this critique, and its Web site even has a page justifying licensed merchandising as a way, not to cash in, but to draw viewers away from toys that represent violence and materialism. Veggie toys are meant to function as sign posts, pointing the way to the "content carriers," such as books, CDs, and videos. Big Idea's goal is to convert the neighbor kids by brand recognition: buy Veggie products and grace will abound.[7]

It is true that a child or an adult who sees a Veggie-Tales wall clock may well inquire into Larry the Cucumber's identity, and then, by watching the videos, discover it's time to start thinking about God. But does spreading the gospel necessitate the perpetuating of Disney-style mass merchandising? While VeggieTales show through Madame Blueberry that buying everything available at a "Stuff-Mart" does not bring happiness, Big Idea offers enough Veggie products to stuff any kid's closet.

Through its business strategy, Big Idea Productions shows that it shares with Martha's company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the values of clever marketing and the common goal of attracting a large audience to high-quality products, available for all at K-Mart. In other words, Martha Stewart and Larry the Cucumber present two faces in search of the same coin. Whether it be the reproduction of an antique French bedspread or the retelling of a Bible story with vegetables, both repackage tradition as an "everyday," palatable product and create "consumption communities" that are beginning to overlap.[8]

A major difference between the two, oddly enough, is that Martha is very preachy while VeggieTales claim not to be so. Martha is always trying to tell you how to live your life better. From organizing your spring cleaning schedule to sanding a chair or to choosing a reference book, she is ready to dispense her wisdom and tell you about the good news of various and sundry "good things." I am not certain that her pedagogical concern is rooted in "Sunday morning values," other than—to adapt a comment Garrison Keillor once made on his radio show—the values tied to the church of cappuccinos and the Sunday New York Times. Moreover, Martha is rarely intentionally funny and promotes an existentialist seriousness whereby you must cultivate your garden in the best of all possible taste.

Contrary to Martha's media products, the principal characteristic of VeggieTales is silliness with a postmodern flavor. Almost every video based on a biblical story begins in a conventional fashion, as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber introduce the video's story as a response to a child's question concerning a moral issue. In the recent video, King George and the Rubber Ducky, two lesser characters, Jimmy and Jerry Gourd, attempt to stand in for Bob and Larry. In so doing, the Gourds provide a parody of a VeggieTales episode—a parody of a parody. Bob and Larry finally take over to offer a "lesson about selfishness" via the reworking of the David and Bathsheba story. In the King George version, Larry plays the role of a monarch who is obsessed by bathing and ends up stealing an honest Asparagus's ducky. In cleaning up King David's adulterous involvement with his "ducky" (Bath-sheba), VeggieTales parodies Sesame Street's Ernie and his somewhat narcissistic passion for bathing with his plastic pal; readers somewhat young and somewhat older probably remember Ernie singing, "Rubber Duckie, you're the one."[9]

When the conflict over the ducky is resolved, Bob and Larry return to their normal personae and discuss the meaning of the story. At that point, a rather syrupy song begins: "and so what we have learned applies to our lives today, and God has a lot to say in His Book." A computer named QWERTY, the most static character in the series, then dispenses a Scripture verse. A running joke in the videos is that Bob winces upon hearing the song, which appears from nowhere, as if from above. Bob may indeed dislike being interrupted, but his reaction signals most of all that the fun is over, that we are back to a regular church school lesson. No more hurling of slushies from the walls of Jericho, or falling sheep or rubber duckies. QWERTY brings the video back to the seriousness of chapter and verse, to a fixed image that momentarily erases the very animated Word of the previous thirty minutes. When QWERTY appears on the screen, my kids pronounce that the video is over and race to see who can turn the TV off first.

At the end of Josh and the Big Wall, Bob the Tomato assures Junior Asparagus that the Israelites had no plans of destroying Jericho with a rocket and that the walled city did not use slushies as an armament: "Those were some things we put in our story. Remember, we were using our imagination." VeggieTales videos usually have a fairly preachy ending, but they nevertheless clearly impart the overall message that it is great fun to take imaginative liberties with "his book." Through their humorous retelling of Bible stories, VeggieTales offer a new turn, or twist, to evangelical Protestantism, the doctrine of sola silly scriptura.

In a video released last fall, Esther: The Girl Who Became Queen, an attempt was made to dispense with the standard Veggie formula. Bob and QWERTY are absent, Larry has a minor role, and a narrator helps the viewer understand the "lesson in courage" right from the beginning. The biblical story, however, is still seen through silly eyes. When Queen Vashti refuses to make King Xerxes a sandwich at 3 a.m., Haman kicks her out of the palace. Chosen in a Miss America-style beauty pageant, the new queen, Esther, invites Haman and the king over for fast food and a game of Trivial Pursuit. After learning from Larry the scribe about Mordecai's uncovering of an assassination attempt by the French Peas, the sleep-deprived Xerxes wonders whether it would be enough to give Mordecai a card to show his appreciation.

King George and the Rubber Ducky successfully translated David's lustful greed into something my children could understand—the desire for someone else's toys. In VeggieTales' Esther, by contrast, the imaginative anachronisms provide humor with little substance. The threats of death and extermination that run through the biblical story take the form of a faceless Grim Reaper, who comes not with a scythe but an enormous feather to lead his prisoners to the "Island of Perpetual Tickling." Consequently, when Xerxes signs an edict banishing Mordecai and his family to the "ipt," Haman's plot becomes some sort of joke, a mere tickling feather and not a premonition of Hitlerian evil. As a biblical hermeneutic, silliness has its limits, especially when it comes to portraying our murky heart of darkness.

I'll admit I was looking forward to VeggieTales' Esther as I wondered how the main character would be presented. How could a vegetable portray the beauty, brains, and faith of Esther, the ultimate Old Testament example of girl power? Well, she's a svelte green onion with lashes, lipstick, and an annoying blunt haircut that keeps falling in her eyes. In her speech, this Veggie sounds like a pouting mall rat, a reworking of Frank Zappa's Valley Girl, who tells Mordecai that she is not "gonna tell" the king about Haman's treachery. Finally, when Esther is about to risk her own life and enter the court unannounced, she hesitates at the door and Larry the Cucumber-cum-scribe suddenly appears. A toilet flushes in the background, an anachronistic sound meant to explain his absence from the court. Larry says "Hi, Queen" and opens the door, forcing her unlawful appearance before the king. The wise-guy narrator then tries his best to emphasize Esther's courage—something the onscreen images fail to do.

Perhaps I am expecting too much from a children's video. Yet, Big Idea expects a world of difference from its products. The company's mission statement argues that "the best way to improve people's lives is to promote biblical values and encourage spiritual growth"; its core purpose is "to markedly enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our society through creative media." The tactic is to present in each video "a nugget of truth that is rooted in the Bible," and redeem the nation through wholesome animation.[10]

But if you shall be judged according to your mission statement, it is curious that VeggieTales avoids certain nuggets, especially the one dealing with the Truth. The videos focus on values without mentioning the value of Jesus. The notable exception is The Toy That Saved Christmas, a video in which a character reads the Bible instead of a computer screen and tells, but does not act out, the Christmas story.

An Amazon.com reviewer recently described Big Idea as a "groundbreaking Christianlite company."[11] VeggieTales videos are lighthearted and voluntarily lightweight theologically. Unlike many of the people who produce Christian videos, the creators of VeggieTales understand that entertainment should be truly entertaining if it is to attract a broad, non-Christian audience. In trying to draw viewers to God first, VeggieTales videos leave Jesus offscreen. (I wonder, though, if the primary reason for avoiding the Gospel story is not the fear of being too preachy, but that of causing offense to VeggieTales' Christian audience. I suspect Big Idea realizes that, while King David certainly got himself into a pickle at times, many viewers would not appreciate seeing Jesus portrayed as a crucified cucumber.)

I have another quibble: VeggieTales videos are sorely lacking in the gender equity department.[12] They present vegetable characters that are mostly guys, created in the image and vocal talents of the series' (male) creators. A green onion may make a cute Esther, but I would prefer that my children had, as a contemporary role model, a woman to whom they could look up—someone from modest means who rose to become the queen of her own media empire, someone like, say, Martha Stewart.

Perhaps a solution to my family's TV viewing policy could be found if Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber participated in Martha's show. Such an invitation is not inconceivable; Sesame Street's Cookie Monster recently helped Martha bake (cookies of course) on her show. I for one would be happy if Martha were to break into a silly song from time to time.

What is more likely is that VeggieTales will at some time parody Martha. With that hope in mind, I will no doubt line up with my kids to see Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, set for release in theaters in 2002. Judging by the preview, the movie will offer a whale of an interpretation of Jonah's life ("before Jaws, before 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, before Free Willy, the biggest fish story of all time").

All things considered, I should just sit back, relax, and let my kids enjoy the fact that Martha and VeggieTales ultimately share the same big idea: entertaining positively. And certainly that is not a bad thing?

Otto Selles is associate professor of French at Calvin College.

1. See www.bigidea.com/company/about/history.htm.

2. Interview with Phil Vischer, a bonus feature on the DVD version of Lyle, the Kindly Viking.

3. See the Big Idea Web site, "At Big Idea, customer service is a two-way conversation," www.bigidea.com/company/about/news/relationships.htm. "The Bunny Song," in its original version, can be listened to at www.ultimateveggie.com, "Junior's Sound Archive." When available, ultimateveggie.com is an excellent resource for all things Veggie.

4. April 2000, p. 177.

5. See "History," www.bigidea.com/company/about/history.htm, and "Mission Statement," www.bigidea.com/company/about/mission.htm.

6. January 10, 2000, p. 29.

7. "Product Philosophy," www.bigidea.com/products/philosophy.htm, and the comments of Phil Vischer in Louise A. Ferrebee, "What? Kids wanting more Veggies?", Christian Reader (January/February 1998), www.christianitytoday.com/cr/8r1/8r1018.html.

8. See Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (Random House, 1973), p. 89—164.

9. If your memory of the show is foggy, Ernie does indeed prefer his "duckie" over a "ducky"; see "Meet Ernie," sesamestreet.org/sesame/ggawards/ernie/0,1301,4254,00.html.

10. "Mission Statement," www.bigidea.com/company/about/mission.htm, and "Why," www.bigidea.com/why.htm.

11. Doug Thomas, editorial review of Lyle, the Kindly Viking, www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000056WR7/.

12. Interview added to the DVD of Lyle, the Kindly Viking; comments of Tim Hodge, the episode's director, on the difficulty of finding a character to play Ophelia in "Omlet."

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