A Talk With Mike Nawrocki
What's the Big Idea™?

From the first time that I (rather skeptically) sat down to watch a Veggietales program, I was captivated by the very sophisticated—and yet simple—sense of humor they exhibited.  Very clearly, Phil Vischer, Mike Nawrocki, and Kurt Heinecke—the three minds seemingly behind the vast majority of the good-natured insanity—were inventive souls whose commercial success was both warranted and deserved.

Later offshoots I was not so impressed with.  Nawrocki’s central character, Larry the Cucumber, became the focus of an entire series of “Larry-Boy” episodes, comic books, and even a cartoon, for instance.  Also, the death of “Silly Songs With Larry”—while no doubt a commercial necessity because the segments were chewing up far too many resources—signaled a business shift that was none too pleasing to my critical and comedic palate.

But then the first 3-2-1 Penguins! episode, Trouble on Planet Wait-Your-Turn, came along, the wacky tale of two human kids commandeered by a crew of tiny penguins to help a planet full of vacuum cleaners get over their pushiness.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen and had me almost literally rolling on the floor it was so doggone funny.

Penguins co-creator Mike NawrockiMore Penguins episodes followed—and then, unceremoniously, with the burst of Big Idea’s bubble due to legal problems and bankruptcy, the series of DVDs came to an end.  The program was just too expensive to produce, according to Vischer, and needed to be revamped if it were to survive.

I was thrilled to find out from Vischer last year that new episodes had been commissioned and aired on ABC TV, among other places… and even more excited when I stumbled across the first of these new episodes on DVD in a Christian bookstore.  On September 2, Save the Planets! is being released on DVD, a collection of three of these twenty new Penguins episodes.

As part of the promotional push for the release, and courtesy of a national publicist, I had an opportunity to spend half an hour on the phone talking with Mike Nawrocki.

GW: It’s got to be pretty interesting for you to see where Veggietales and Big Idea have gone over the years, and to find yourself now in a position where, as Larry the Cucumber, you’ve done things like inspire people’s Internet passwords for over a decade.

Mike Nawrocki: Well, I’ve never thought of password inspiration before!  But that is cool.  You know what?  I brought my kids to summer camp a few weeks ago, and it blew me away because, by the end of the week, my son had given up the fact that his dad was Larry the Cucumber—and so many of the camp counselors had grown up on Veggietales.  These are kids who are now in their twenties!  And it just blew me away, thinking, “Wow! You watched Veggietales when you were my son’s age, and grew up on it, and now you’re a counselor at his camp!”  It was just a cool experience, but very strange at the same time.

What is the strangest thing about that for you?

MN: One is just the amount of time, I think.  We’re going on fifteen years—and in some ways to me, it feels longer than that, and in others it feels like we just got started.  But Where’s God When I’m Scared? was 1993, and my memories of putting that together and what it took to get that video done are all very sharp in my mind—probably because it was just so much work, and such a hurdle to overcome.  And knowing everything we’ve done since then, and the influence that we’ve had, and the kids that have grown up on Veggietales—we stay in the studio and we make our videos, and they go out to people… now, we don’t have that direct interaction with people on a day to day basis, but just to know what the property has done over the years and how it has influenced and touched people’s lives, it’s just amazing to me.  And it’s so much beyond us and beyond our own capabilities; and I just feel really blessed and honored to have been a part of it all.

So what do you think it’s like for a person who’s in similar position, but isn’t a person of faith?  How do you think the response would be different?

MN: For me, being a person of faith, I want to use my gifts in a way that is going to point people toward God.  I feel like everything that we are doing here has a purpose, and that God is using what we are doing to touch other people’s lives.  And there’s a sense of God leading the process in what we do.  So I think if you don’t have that element of faith in it… I think that there are a lot of people in media who do want to help others and who do want to entertain, but that “mission” aspect of changing people’s lives and having a message to share that will point people to God is unique to a person of faith who gets involved in media.

Now, there are a lot of people of faith working in media who are, shall we say, still on the struggling end of things.  For you, you’ve managed to work your passion into an artistry that’s not only a job, but a really good job, and one with almost limitless potential.  How does it feel to have that sense of security attached to it?

MN: Wow.  Well, it’s interesting, because I’ve been on both sides of it.  With Big Idea, during the first ten years our destiny was more under our own control.  We owned the company, we owned the rights to the characters; and losing that was a hard struggle.  I know it was for me, and I know it was for Phil, too; he wrote about it in his book—about losing that control.  And for me, it was that sense of security—of knowing how successful Veggietales had become, and knowing what I could count on and not having to worry about certain things—that went away in the bankruptcy.  We lost control of the characters, we lost the company; and for me that was a lot of lessons learned and a lot of soul-searching about, “Where do I find my security?  And am I looking to myself?  Am I looking to my work to take care of me and my family?  Or am I looking to God for that?”  So that was a big lesson for me, going through all of that—and really being to the point where I didn’t know how much we would lose.  We obviously lost control, but I didn’t know if I was going to lose my job and my ability to earn a living.  So that was a really tough time; but being able to come out of that, and remain with the company and have the company be successful over these last four or five years, and be able to continue telling stories in the same way that we did even before the bankruptcy, I feel very fortunate to be able to do that.  I’m just thankful that I’ve gotten the opportunity.  I look around and I see very talented people trying to do similar things in entertainment, and am at a loss to explain why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  And so for myself, I just feel very fortunate to be a part of it—and a sense of responsibility that God has given me gifts to use to point people toward Him, and to try to do the best every day that I can to do that.

Success is a funny thing, because you never know where it’s going to strike, or how or why.  And then when it comes to success in ministry, there is a certain tension about what a successful ministry is going to become—because it always leads to incorporation, and businesses, whether it’s a church or a film studio.  What advice do you have for people who are involved in ministry and find themselves on the cusp of success?

MN: I’d say some of that depends on how you measure success.  Particularly in America, our default measurement of success is measuring against business and sales and awareness, and all that sort of thing.  And I think the measure of success in ministry is in the lives that you touch, and the people that you affect with what you do.  It’s more an eternal goal, and sometimes you can’t measure that, and you can’t see it.  With Veggietales, if you look at the business and the number of the videos that have sold over time, that always goes up and down.  And for me, the biggest motivator for me is when I run into kids or when I talk to people who talk about how the shows have affected their lives—what they’ve gotten out of them, and how they’ve learned a lesson or been drawn to God or even going to church as the result of watching a Veggietales video.  And so it’s just that personal relationship and how the work has affected people on an individual basis that is more the measure of success in ministry.

Yeah, it’s interesting to look at the American notion of success in the context of Jesus’ ministry.  It’d be pretty hard to argue that he had success as we think of it.  While he was incredibly effective at touching people’s lives—the aspect of success that you’re talking about—it’s hard to argue that he had commercial success.

MN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you’re going to look at the near-term chart over the coming year, it would be pretty hard to argue that.  But if you look at the whole revelation of God’s plan—the start, the middle, and the end, and how it’s going to end up—that’s obviously a huge success.

Yes.  Jesus’ business model seemed to be built on the idea of not a five year plan, but maybe a three year plan—and the end of the three year plan is to dissolve the corporation and the work over to the next generation. 

MN: There you go.

But that doesn’t fly too well in American business circles.

MN: No.  And that’s the trick.  And the line that I sort of walk through that is wanting to make sure that the stories that we tell have biblically-grounded messages in them, so they can be a resource for their parents to pass values along to their kids.  That’s at the core.  And then we’ve got to be really funny, really entertaining, and have really great music.  And then just hope that people are going to want to see them.  And keep enabling us to keep doing that—with Veggietales, and with 3-2-1 Penguins!  It’s a tricky thing.  Entertainment itself is a very tricky business, and then when you add the ministry aspect to it—the faith aspect—it gets even trickier.  But for me, just resting in the fact that I’m doing what God has gifted me to do, I’ll keep doing it as long as He allows me to do it.

At the end of last year, in an interview with Catholic Digest about The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, you talked about tension between Christianity and consumerism.  You mentioned that one of your objectives with that film was to get people to think a little bit about why we’re here, and, as you put it, to “get off the couch.” 

MN: Yes—this idea that God has called us to a purpose, a greater purpose.  It’s our job to engage with that call, and to get up and do something.  That was part of the theme of the Pirates movie—heeding that call and realizing that God equips us with everything that we need to heed his call.  It’s ultimately not about us, but about God, and about us allowing God to work through us to accomplish His goals.

Along those lines, it’s interesting that one of the episodes that’s on the new Penguins Save the Planets! compilation DVD is thematically very similar to the film WALL-E, which I presume that you’ve seen.

MN: Oh, yeah.  Yeah, that’s a wonderful film. 

So that had to have kind of resonated with you there, the vision in WALL-E of consumerism and couch-potatodom, I guess.

MN: Yes, exactly.  I read an interview with Andrew Stanton, about his original intent not being for that to be any kind of political statement, or anything about Americans and consumerism—its intention just being about what would happen to a group of people if they were stuck in space for 700 years, allowing technology to take of them.  But then in many ways it just became a reflection of our culture. 

Yes—the Penguins episode about “Planet Gutt” seemed a little more pointed in that regard.

MN: Yes, exactly.  The whole idea of moderation and gluttony—I think it was the Frosted Black Holes cereal, creating an insatiable appetite for everything. 

That was quite funny.

MN: Yeah, yeah. Just funny little scenarios that are set up on all these planets.

I would call the series inspired zaniness, in the tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan, Spike Jones, and Monty Python.

MN: Well, we’ll take that.  Sure!

And here’s the thing.  From an artistic standpoint, the real tough question I have for you is this: For you, as one of the key creators behind Big Idea, where is the line between true creativity, in your mind, and things that are more parody and homage?  And at what point does parody and homage almost turn into “rip-off”?

MN: Oh, man.  You know, I don’t know how to quantify that.  It’s just a little bell that you trust to go off in your head.  Sometimes I look at things that we did—you, Lord of the Beans, for instance—and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s so funny!  Look at the jokes that we’re doing!”  And at other times I’ll think, “Doesn’t that storyline follow a little too closely?  Couldn’t we have done something different there?”  As I’m going through a script, as a writer, there’s just a little bell that goes off when you come to that line that says, “This works really great,” or “AAAA!  Do it again. There’s something that’s not working.”  It’s the same way with doing a parody.  Is there something clever enough about it to make it fresh and new and funny, or are we just reusing the storyline?  We definitely want to stay away from that, and add something new and fresh, and make it entertaining in a way that will allow people to recognize what we’re pointing to and be a source of “funny” to them, to be worth watching.

And how much of that is just gut instinct, and how much of that these days is the hard reality of legal clearances and things like that?

MN: Oh, yeah.  Well, like when we did Lord of the Beans, we had to do an agreement with the owners of that copyright, and the same with The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s.  We had to work with Warner Bros. on that—a license to do something so close to The Wizard of Oz.  Especially when you’re talking about doing a parody of modern works.  In the case of Wizard, we could have gone back and done a parody of the book, which is in the public domain.  But most people don’t know about the book.  Most people know about the movie, so the parody would have been lost on people who hadn’t read the original book.  Recently we’ve done a version of Huckleberry Finn, but that’s in the public domain; the same with Madame Bovary and Madame Blueberry—so you can do those sorts of parodies.  But yeah—it is always a tricky legal issue, and if you go too far you’ve just got to call people and make some sort of a deal.

I read in another interview that someone had pressed you about the use of the tune to the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” in Pirates, and you replied that you’d gone the clearance route with that one for the song “Rock Monster.”

MN: Oh, yeah, definitely—because we were using that melody straight up.  We just did a rewrite of the lyrics.  Anybody can record any song that they want to if they record it in its original state; then they just have to pay a royalty.  But when you’re talking about re-writing somebody’s song, using the same melody but rewriting the lyrics, you definitely need permission for that.  So that’s the route that we went.

One Veggietales episode in particular that I’ve always had a question about—and I can ask that question now, because you’re Larry the Cucumber, and it was a Larry-Boy episode—was Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed.

MN: Okay.

The “Alfred is a robot” story thread.  I have to suspect that that’s a direct reference to a Ben Stiller Show episode from a few years before that? 

MN: I’m not sure about that.  A robot.  You know, Phil directed The Rumor Weed.  The original idea came from an outside writer—I can’t remember who that was—and then Phil wrote the script.  I have to plead ignorance on that one.

You might be interested to look that up on YouTube.  I can’t remember the search I did to find it, but it’s up there—and the start of the program is a segment about a rumor that Vaughn is a robot.  The similarities are just uncanny.  I have to imagine that whoever originated that story idea had been watching Ben Stiller.  And that’s one of the interesting thing about Veggietales: the pop culture influences are just all over the map.

MN: Yes; and some of those things, you’re just influenced by the world around you.  And with that, maybe something got stuck in somebody’s mind.  So like with Monty Python, when you watch it so much, those homages are just going to naturally come out it what we do.

So how did you come to be the official spokesman for 3-2-1 Penguins! program?

MN: Well, Tim Hodge, who is the Executive Producer for the series, came back to do these programs on a special project basis, having earlier left Big Idea to pursue his own interests and develop some of his own stuff; and so I’m here, and “official,” and full-time Big Idea, and have done Veggietales spokesperson things before.  And I was also involved in the original development of Penguins, as well—those first three episodes.

And that was Ron Smith’s baby to start with, right?

MN: Yes, Ron directed those.  The series itself came to us via Jeff Parker and Nathan Lawler.  They did Little Dogs on the Prairie, and also Jungle Jam—radio plays that were pretty popular back in the 1980s.  But they pitched the idea, and then we took it and developed it.  I think it was originally “Jason and the Penguinauts.”  And then we took it internally and developed it into what would end up being 3-2-1 Penguins!  And then I wrote the first three scripts that Ron directed.

Oh, you wrote those!  I’d forgotten that.  That’s fantastic—because one of the things that, to me, characterizes 3-2-1 Penguins! is the absolute, sheer originality of it.  Where Veggietales was always so clearly full of homages to other things, Penguins just seemed so wholly original—particularly those earliest episodes.

MN: Well, thank you!  But I’ll credit Jeff and Nathan, too.  “Planet Wait-Your-Turn”—that existed in one of the original scripts that they submitted to us; and we took that and integrated it into the world of Jason and Michelle and Grandmum’s cottage and the whole idea of going away for the summer.  And that was actually taken from my childhood: I spent a lot of my summers in a cabin in the Poconos that my grandfather had built; and he had passed away, and I spent the summers going up there with my grandmother.  So that kind of came from personal experience.  But it was just a really neat melding.  Those guys kind of had a great initial idea, and a fun initial script that we were able to take and develop and have a lot of fun with.  And that sort of set us on course for the next two shows, which were The Carnival of Complaining and The Cheating Scales of Bullamanka.

Oh, some of those characters are so memorable: Uncle Blob, and President No-I’m-The-President.  Those are hysterical things.

MN: Oh, yeah.  They’re a lot of fun.  We just had a lot of fun from a development standpoint. Like with Uncle Blob, one of our character artists, Daniel Lopez—who is actually now a designer at Pixar, an incredibly talented guy—would do these sketches of these fun, zany characters.  And that’s one that I really clicked with: Uncle Blob.  And then I wrote a story around Uncle Blob.  I just thought he was such a funny character.  And then his character design ended up changing in the course of production and scripting.  He was just too hard to model and rig, the original character.  But he was just one of those ideas that then spur on other creative ideas—and that was one of the great things about working at Big Idea, and the creative people that it has attracted over the years.  It just spurs people on, and iron sharpens iron.  It aids in the overall creativity.

Well, I told Phil when I talked with him last year that I’m just thrilled to see Penguins back in production—particularly glad that they’re coming out on DVD, because I never get a chance to watch television.  So thanks to you for your role in bringing that to life, and to Big Idea for keeping after it.  It’s a great series.

MN: Thank you Greg, so much.