Mike Nawrocki, VeggieTales Co-Creator, Introduces New Christmas Episode
by Angela Walker
When VeggieTales premiered its new Christmas film St. Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving for this summer's Christian retail convention, attendees were surprised to be treated not just to a great new story, but to a moving story about Samaritan's Purse's Operation Christmas Child. Mike Nawrocki, one of the creators of VeggieTales, talked with me about the partnership with Samaritan's Purse, the effect it had on him personally, and the newest vegetable in the crisper drawer.
Big Idea has partnered with Samaritan's Purse for this year's Operation Christmas Child. How did that come about?
Mike: I became involved back in February. I got to go on a distribution trip with Operation Christmas Child to Panama and give away shoe boxes. There was sort of a mutual reaching out that happened. We were working on St. Nicholas and we as parents had been involved with doing shoeboxes with our kids, so we reached out to them initially, and their response was that it was a great idea.
That started this dialogue back and forth and it culminated in them inviting us on this distribution trip. It's been amazing. They're such good people and what they do is unbelievable. Being able to go with them and witness their ministry firsthand was fantastic, so we're very excited about it.
The film is fantastic, and the accompanying videos about Samaritan's Purse and the shoeboxes with the song by Matthew Ward and Amy Grant are all terrific. But then when the woman whose story had just been told got up and told us she was the child in the video, and that she was here today because of that, it was incredible.
Mike: I know. When we all saw it, we were incredibly moved.
Why did you decide to do a Christmas story? It's the strongest foray into the New Testament that you've made.
Mike: We did The Easter Carol about five years ago, and that was a very clear presentation of the gospel where we were able to depict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in stained glass. The issue we've always had with VeggieTales is depicting Jesus as a vegetable. It's an area we've never wanted to go into. So there's that question of where is the line you draw? How do you tell stories in and around the life of Christ that are still going to be appropriate within the life of VeggieTales?
We've retold a number of parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and we have an upcoming episode of Pistachio, which folds in the parable of the lost sheep. That's a really nice story to tell that parable with. We've done two other Christmas shows; the last one was about seven years ago. So this was the perfect opportunity to lay out a very clear Gospel message in the context of Christmas, and we're talking about the historical Jesus as human character.
Every time we approach a VeggieTales episode, there are these problems we need to solve based on the fact that our characters are vegetables.
It's interesting to think of it as kind of a problem-solving exercise to approach the creation of new episodes.
Mike: Yeah, and also in dealing with biblical content, how do you sort of tell the Children's Bible version of the story? We did the episode with Abraham and Sarah, which is very PG-13, and have to think about how to tell that for children. Also, there's Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Noah's Umbrella. How do you tell the iconic story of Noah? You see arks in every children's nursery, so it's a challenge.
When you go to tell the story, it's full of death and carnage and everybody dies. So when you really tell that story, it's very difficult to tell it for a four year old. So when we approach these stories, we have to think, "What's a good way to tell these stories?"
We did Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Samson's Hairbrush as a way to retell the story of Samson and Delilah, so we thought we could retell the story of Noah in a way where it's the Children's Bible version of it and we're telling the main themes and lessons. But the way we're doing it, a four year old won't run terrified out of the room.
I think you succeed in creating humor for the four year olds, but also the 34 year olds and the 54 year olds. Most good cartoons do that.
Mike: Absolutely. Most good cartoons do. Bugs Bunny still cracks me up, and I love Dr. Seuss. When we're writing the stories, we're really writing them to make ourselves laugh and hoping other adults will laugh along with us. Kids get more than you think they do. I'm aware of that especially now that I have an 11 year old and an 8 year old. I don't need to write down to them or kids in general. We want to make the lessons appropriate to a four year old and put in the humor that makes the whole family have fun.
What do your kids think about what you do?
Mike: They love it. Of course, they're old enough now to realize that I just do the voice of Larry the Cucumber. When they were younger, I was able to get away with actually being Larry the Cucumber. That was always a fun trick to play on them. I'd stand behind the door and talk with them and they were convinced they were having a conversation with Larry. I had a little plush doll and my son would tell his troubles to Larry when he wouldn't tell them to me, so I'd encourage him to talk with Larry about what was going on.
When my friend's son Brennen saw Larry and Bob walking around the convention center, he pointed out that they had legs. It made me realize, "Oh, yeah. The Veggies never have legs." That's right, they hop around.
Mike: We have a live show where the costumes are a little different, and they do hop around. If you go up and look at them, they don't have arms, but for the performers inside of them it's very challenging because of balance.
It's interesting how you've overcome the problems of having an armless, legless vegetable do things humans would do, like grasping something or slapping someone with a fish.
Mike: We sort of have our Vegetable World rules set up. Obviously, they don't have hands so they can't hold anything. What we try to do is whenever there's an object, we try to intersect it with the character's silhouette. Then, if I'm holding this piece of paper and it's intersecting my body line, you don't really notice my hand is holding it. But if I'm holding it out away from my body, it starts to look weird. We started to notice those things earlier.
We did the story of Esther and she's singing this song and putting this crown on. We got letters back afterward telling us that her crown was floating and asking how she was holding the crown. This was our 13th or 14th show and our characters had never had hands. That made us realize we had floated her crown out too far and that we needed to bring it closer into her body.
But it's these little tricks we've developed over the years that accommodate the vegetables, and you get used to it after a while. Especially if someone has watched a lot of episodes, they've suspended that disbelief and decided to just go with it. All these rules can be tough because of the way we shoot these characters.
For example, if a person is walking, their head is pretty much staying in the same place so you can track a conversation easily. But with a vegetable, they're hopping up and down, which makes you seasick after a while, so we have to be careful.
After watching the episode last night, I was wondering if you ever considered doing fruits?
Mike: Well, we do have Madame Blueberry, and from a technical, botanical, and biological perspective, Bob and Larry are fruits. By technical definition, if the seeds are enclosed, it's a fruit. There are plenty of fruits.
You introduce a new character with this episode. How often do you add new characters?
Mike: It depends on the story. Typically, once we introduce a character, they're in the fold and show up different places as we develop more episodes. That's what happened with Madame Blueberry. We created her for this specific episode, and she turned out to be such a great character that she became part of the ensemble cast of vegetable characters. Nobody ever retires or has movie careers. They all stick around. It's great!
It sounds like when you're creating a story, you're not bound by the characters you already have. What was the inspiration to create a new character for this episode?
Mike: Typically, Larry and Junior Asparagus are our go-tos for stars. When we're drawing out a character arc, Bob is so much the teacher that it's hard to have him be the character with the problem because he's our rock. We've done a couple of shows where Bob has been the main character because it's suited his personality better. But for this one, we felt Larry was key to these flashback scenes. He's comic relief as he's inserting these Christmas elements through his imagination into Mediterranean Greece. He worked so perfectly in that role that we couldn't very well have him as St. Nick.
Junior would have made a really good St. Nick, but he would have had to grow, because Nick starts off young and then ages. We thought of giving Junior an older brother and having Junior play the young St. Nick, and then he'd have this older brother we'd call Nicholas Asparagus, which sounds really cool. So we did a couple of character designs and ended up on this Nikki Pepper. We liked the name Nikki in the Neighborhood.
The nickname sequence with Nick was so clever. I really enjoyed that. They were really brilliant.
Mike: it was fun doing those: Nick Nack, Nickelstein, etc.
You are Larry. Does his character reflect your character, and do the others reflect the people who voice them?
Mike: Definitely. Phil and I met doing in Bible College doing puppets. The natural chemistry we had based on our personalities really clicked in the puppet characters we did. When we started VeggieTales, that was the first place we went to, our own personalities. Larry is an extension of my personality and Bob is an extension of his, so it has a nice comic chemistry to it, and it's always been an easy place for us to go to. As we're writing for each other, basically, we know what the characters are like, what they'd say, and how they'd relate. It follows the adage, "Write what you know."
Then as other characters come along, they tend to be a little bit more stereotypical character actors. Jimmy and Jerry have a certain amount of range. Bob and Larry, and Junior too, have more character because they're based on real people. Junior is Phil's wife Lisa, so she has a broader personality. The other characters we voice tend to sift into more of a typical character limit.
Does your wife voice one as well? I thought I saw her name in the credits.
Mike: My wife has helped out before. I've written a couple of songs with her in Spanish because she's native Spanish-speaking. She also does the Spanish translation for us. But my daughter Ally has done some voices for us. She did Annie and a couple of other extra characters in St. Nicholas. Both of my kids have been involved. I pulled in my son to do Hoisin in Minnesota Cuke. We were a small group at Big Idea, so if anyone had kids, we asked them to bring them along.
Minnesota Cuke kind of has his own little series going like Larry Boy did. Are there other characters you might pull out for a series?
Mike: Maybe. Those two characters are examples of us creating something within a film genre, and I could see that maybe happening with Junior Asparagus. We don't have any specific plans for that, but a lot of times if we do it and it works, we say, "Oh yeah, that worked. Let's do it again."
Minnesota Cuke actually started out as an online video game that our video gaming group in Chicago came up with. They created this fun little Minnesota Cuke and the Coconut Apes. It really caught on and was a fun little character, so we decided to do a video. That was the creation of Samson's Hairbrush, and it turned out great, so we decided to do Noah's Ark with him. That character turned out to be a great way to tell Bible stories that otherwise would be kind of difficult to tell. It's a good format
You know, he's based on Indiana Jones, and the best Indiana Jones films [of the four] have been the ones where he's been looking for biblical artifacts. They're more personal and you have a greater connection to what they're looking for, so one and three were fantastic, but two and four were kind of silly.
What do you do to keep things fresh and creative? Do you have specific disciplines you follow?
Mike: It's always a challenge, and I find myself going through a little panic. I think I'm driven by the fear of things stinking. I don't know if that's healthy or not, but it's worked for us.
In those step by step decisions of writing a Silly Song or working on a story, we ask, "Is this working? Does this feel good? Is it too obvious?" it's studying those creative decisions that you make each step along the way and measuring things by that internal meter that tells you whether things feel good or not. There's always that creative charge you get when you're happy with it and you think, "This is great. This is fun."
The flip side is always that fear that says, "Oh no, this isn't working. We can't do this. It's terrible." So there's always that balance, and I think that's what keeps it challenging and fun and new. When you do make a show that people respond to well and you think they're connecting with, it's such a joy.
The way VeggieTales is structured, we have this ensemble cast, and every show they're in a different world and we're telling a different type of story. I think if they were sitting on a park bench or in this apartment every episode, then it would get old after a couple of years.
But because we're moving around and they're in different points of time, any story we tell we could tell using anything, but we're using vegetables.