Phil Vischer, the madcap mind that brought you VeggieTales, talks like a man who’s been, well, reborn. After surviving the bankruptcy and sale of a Christian entertainment empire that came to include Bible-based feature films, morning cartoon shows and children’s videos, Vischer has invented JellyTellly, a website where a few felt puppets do the work of a crowd of vegetables.
But if JellyTelly goes as Vischer plans, it won’t be just an outlet for moral Muppets; it will foster a new crop of Christian filmmakers like him, while, as he says, “raising a new generation of Christian kids.” I talked with Vischer this week about how he envisions success after VeggieTales.
What did you bring to JellyTelly from VeggieTales?
As people can see, JellyTelly has the same mix of humor, to draw them in, and teaching. What people can’t see is the relationships I have thanks to VeggieTales. the favors I’m calling in from all over the world. That’s the only way this can work on this budget. I’m even calling mission families and asking them to send us video of their kids. They do because they know VeggieTales, they trust us.
It seems like, after the VeggieTales collapse, you’ve started over, going back to your roots.
Big Idea was the most fun when we were in a storefront. When it became massively expensive, with massive amounts of money, it became terrifying. There was so much at risk. At JellyTelly there are five of us. We’re shooting puppets in front of a green screen in an office–we don’t even have a studio. We have collaborators working out of their bedrooms. We don’t have to go through legal or marketing to see if a joke is funny. It’s a garage-band mentality, which is how I work best. I’m not trying to come up with a hit property, but the context that will enable the creation of hit properties, from me or from kids I can give a platform to.
How will Christian filmmakers find you?
The first thing we did was start a separate community site where we gave access to the JellyTelly logo and asked a bunch of filmmakers to animate bumpers and trailers for us. We’ve had about 500 people sign up, and about 120 submissions. Every day we air 2 or 3 of the animated trailers they came up with. And on the community site, those artists are asking each other questions. So there is mentoring going on already.
Children’s pastors are also doing their own productions. As megachurches have grown, they have more resources and they are shooting their own stuff. We’re trying to make it easy for children’s pastors and customize JelllyTelly with their own content. We’ll let them upload their own stuff and program their own schedule. If it’s good stuff, it will bubble up to the top of the site.
For example, we have a new show starting on April 21 called “Fantastic world,” which is done by twin brothers down in Marietta, Ga. It was a Sunday school effort that they had being doing down there. They came through my blog, and asked If I would take a look. Not everything that comes in like that is great, but this was funny stuff. We give them feedback, and as we get more funding we’ll help fund them.
Speaking of zany brothers, where did the faux-Elvis Bentley Brothers come from?
They met in first grade, when they were both sent to detention for writing bad words on their desks. But when we found them they were on staff with Campus Crusade, hosting comedy shows and doing stuff online. They contacted [VeggieTales co-founder] Mike Nawrocki for career advice, and he sent their email on to me. They came up with this idea, what if we were folk-singing brothers on the Sullivan show? This is me and Mike 15 years ago.
JellyTelly seems to move at a slower pace than most kids’ programming these days. Was that intentional?
I am trying to slow it down. There is a hyperactivity on Disney and Nickelodeon that is almost numbing. It is scripted so tight and laugh-tracked to within an inch of its life. You can laugh at my puppet if you find it funny. It hearkens back to my inner Mr. Rogers, which is who Bob the Tomato really was–though a frustrated Mr. Rogers, because he couldn’t get things to go as smoothly.
What did you learn from working in the mainstream media culture the past few years?
Well, in the mainstream media culture, I mostly met sales people. But one thing that I am trying to do is present both sides of issues. There’s a tendency among conservative Christians to exclude any opposing voices. Within science there are these factions, and kids are usually only presented one side. One thing I want to do is present-when it’s not the core of the gospel, when there is genuine disagreement–more than one side. A lot of conservative Christians get cranky when you don’t agree with them, but really what it is, they are uncomfortable with uncertainty. I want to see if we can be more comfortable, because otherwise there’s a toxicity to our conversations. I mean, [JellyTelly newscaster] Buck Denver could end up talking with Jon Stewart, and it would be a great opportunity to soften the dialogue between the evangelical world and the mainstream.
Whatever the future holds, you seem happier than you’ve been in a few years.
I’ve learned to hold things very loosely. With VeggieTales I ended up holding onto my dream more tightly than I was holding onto God. That’s when you’re in trouble. JellyTelly is not my dream, it’s a fun idea. It will work out because I’m holding onto God. I’m letting His will be done–in my feeble efforts with felt puppets.