Consumers eat up these videos starring God, cucumbers, and tomatoes

Who knew? The ingredients for moral fiber — and video success — have been in your crisper all along. Meet Bob the Tomato, his buddy Larry the Cucumber, and the other computer-animated produce who populate VeggieTales, the video series that teaches kids to love thy neighbor even as it goofs on Batman, Star Trek, and Gilligan’s Island.

This isn’t your garden-variety religious tape. Little David slays a Giant Pickle, the Grapes of Wrath teach Jr. Asparagus about getting along with fruit, and two ravenous Gourds save the starship Apple Pie by devouring a meteor. Though they’re currently available only at religious bookstores, the nine half-hour tapes from Big Idea Productions, $14.95 each, have shipped a meaty 2.1 million copies. ”I guess people will drive an extra five miles to find videos they like,” says their creator, former puppeteer Phil Vischer, 31. One reason is the Tales‘ easy-does-it moralizing. ”Ninety-two percent of Americans say they believe in a higher power,” says Vischer, a suburban Chicago father of three, ”yet people are very uncomfortable with overly Christian products, so we’re not trying to be a Christian media company. We’re a media company with a Christian worldview.”

Corny as it seems, people relish them. ”We can’t keep them in stock,” says Gary Bibb, supervisor of Denver’s Lifeway Christian Store, who calls VeggieTales his top-selling kids’ series. ”We even have teens and adults buying them for themselves.” Loren Hall, who tracks video sales for the Christian Music Trade Association, puts the phenomenon in perspective: ”If you look at 1997 Christian-video sales, VeggieTales has sold 680,000 copies. The other 41 titles on the [top 50] chart — put together — sold 457,000.”

VeggieTales plowed through its salad days. In 1994, using $60,000 of borrowed green — and animating limbless vegetables because hands are tricky to render — Vischer (who voices Bob) tapped college buddy Mike Nawrocki (who voices Larry), formed Big Idea, and cranked out the first entry, Where’s God When I’m S-scared? Now Vischer has 38 employees playing ketchup with their unexpected success, feeding the market with ties, books, tees, and CDs. Movie studios have come knocking too — Columbia TriStar dangled a deal, says Vischer — but he’s turned away all comers rather than be ”Kricfalusied,” referring to animator John Kricfalusi, who was ousted from The Ren & Stimpy Show after he sold it to Nickelodeon. Last month’s Josh and the Big Wall shot onto the charts, and while mass market stores will begin selling the series in the spring, Vischer has his eye on the big rutabaga. ”We’re not anywhere near what I want to accomplish. We’re still not on the same shelf as Disney.” Or the same aisle.