They Grow On Trees

Jenica Halula photo by Wes Halula

Jenica Halula photo by Wes Halula


Jenica ("Nica") Halula started her career entertaining young and old alike as a child performer, juggling on stage with The Fitz Family, a real-life family juggling act. She then toured the country with HappyFunTime, performing improv comedy shows and creating sketch videos. She has written children's curriculum for Augsburg Fortress & David C. Cook, produced Telly-award winning educational videos for Learning ZoneXpress distributed by the Discovery Channel, produced videos to tell the stories of Compassion International & Life Promotions, and currently is on staff at the Fuller Youth Institute. She co-authored  <18>: Faith for the Next Generation with authors and speakers Bob Lenz and Dr. Rich Melheim, and most recently wrote and illustrated Shep & a Hundred Sheep, a picture book that uniquely and charmingly alludes to the shepherd images in the Christian scriptures.

She and her husband Wes, a writer-director have collaborated on many projects, but none have turned out as great as their two kids. They live in southern California with their happy old dog, who has been the subject of many of Nica's sketches. 

And what does, "They Grow On Trees" Mean?

Well, seems a bit too pretentious. I mean, I know that It's what we do now, when you are someone, or when you want to be someone.

And, honestly, I've always wanted to be someone. That's the embarrassing, unifying theme to almost all of the professional aspirations I've had. In fifth grade I wrote a thank you note to my english teacher, Mrs. Obermueller, saying, "One day I'm going to send you a thank-you from Hollywood."  At the time that felt generous, but  looking back, I'm horrified. In my twenties I was horrified at the boldness of my youth, and so I tried my best to tamp all that energy down. But now I actually try to channel that inner smart aleck more often.  I realized it wasn't the brazen, loud-mouth part of me, really, that needed to grow-up. It was the content of my dreams that needed maturing. It was that my dreams weren't substantive, as much as they were about the glory that would come from whatever nameless task I'd accomplish with such cool grace. Looking so stylish and beautiful as if I don't care or even notice one bit. As I have grown, thankfully, my dreams have turned more towards the hope of accomplishing things worth doing, and less toward being awarded for it.

The dreams have even, finally, turned specific. I want to create children's stories that makes parents cry. Stories we read or view over and over. Inciting laughter in parent and child. Quietly instilling values into our hearts, through repetition: patience in trial, loyalty in friendship, mercy as you want to be shown mercy.  

I spend my time working on incredibly fun and challenging film production, and on personal writing and film projects, but there are so many beautiful, weird things that fall in between the cracks of those two arenas.  

So many little things I write down on Scraps Of Paper to save for later, to save for someone unknown time in the future when I might collect all these beautiful, insignificant things and share them instead of hoard them.  

So I wanted to have a place where I could share instead of hoard.  One of my very, very favorite things in the world is to tell people's real, honest, everyday stories, I do this in my work (film production) and my heart-work (children's stories) and my play (scraps of paper where I notice real-life things).  

While I was pondering what I should call the website last year, Wes and I watched the documentary Harmontown.  We loved Community (and we love watching TV/movies after the kids are in bed), and Harmontown was on Amazon or Netflix or something and so we both said, "Oooo.... yes! That looks really interesting!" 

And it is. I highly recommend it.

Among other things, I love it because Dan Harmon is someone who connects with the kids in the "back row."  The people on the edges, the weirdos, the misfits. I love those people. They're everywhere.  And many of us feel a kinship to the edge-dwellers in one way or another.  I certainly do. I might look like a pretty, quiet, white mom from the suburbs but I come from weird, weird stock. I juggled at a renaissance festival professionally when when I was 16. And I loved every minute of it. 

I love people who connect with the back-row kids. Lost And Found. Steiger.  The Salvage Yard.

After college (well, in a way, instead of college, honestly) I was in an improv group with my friends Mike, Nate, and my husband Wes. We were called HappyFunTime. We did improv mainly at Christian gatherings. We managed to make a living at it for a number of years, but to be honest, we were just two clicks too weird for the mainstream Christian crowd.  Many people told us HappyFunTime was not a good name.  Many  wanted us to do more on-the-nose sketches.

That just wasn't our style.  We watched Mr. Show on DVD in the van on our long rides across the midwest.  I grew up watching and rewatching a taped-from-pbs VHS of The Comedy of Errors by the juggling Karamotoz Brothers.  In our final years of doing HFT full-time, we created a sketch show called "Awesome America."  I wrote a sketch that was a series of childhood love letters between Canada and Great Britain. Perhaps it was too thoughtful and too silly all at the same time.  And on one fateful night Wes shaved his head (for real) on stage and (accidentally) bled all over. We're just a little off. Yet, we did connect deeply with a certain crowd.  Lifest. Youth Encounter. Dan Scharnhorst. 

Mostly, we connected with the kids in the back row who had their arms crossed.  Once we stood in the lobby of a gorgeous hotel talking to a student after a show. He looked like he had walked straight out of the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Not a revamped version of that show for 2003, either but straight from the original show. He was that early-teen skinny/slouchy, his hair was too big for his head, and he wore these large sports goggles.

 He stood near us, just grinning. Mike and Nate, generously joked back and forth between them and included this young Padawan in the fun. He clearly wanted to join in, but just wasn't as experienced in the ways of the Force as Mike and Nate were. One of them asked him about his goggles.

"They look great, man. You're like a super-hero. Rec-specs!" just two improv guys, ad-libbing and free-associating, as you do.

The young teen finally joined in, "They're prescription. My glasses broke right before this trip, and I can't see anything without them, so I had to bring these or not come on the trip."  Rec-Specs wasn't upset, he was just sharing.

I recall how the blood drained from both Mike and Nate's faces, and they tried to act cool, "Oh, that's awesome, man, well, new fashion statement! Well, you're ready for the 3 on 3 basketball tournament. Heh, heh."

After he left we turned to each other and they both gave me wide-eyed shrugs, looking for absolution perhaps, "How were we supposed to know?!"

My heart was only full of love and joy, though. "That is a true HappyFunTime fan." is all I could say, "That is why we are here. Those are our people."

The documentary Harmontown is, in part, a love-letter to wonderful souls like that. Dan Harmon is a flawed beacon of hope.  And, really, that's all I could ever wish to be too.  Maybe to a bit of a different crowd than Dan Harmon, but the more honest we are about ourselves, the more overlap there is between us all, I think.

At the end of the film, his friend's mom said to Dan, in a way that only a mother could, something like, "I want a Dan hug before you leave."  And Dan, who gives the impression that he is not exactly the hugging type, responded almost with a huff, but in a self-deprecating way, not in a mean way.  He shrugged, and said, "Sure... they grow on trees."  And he turned back to give her a hug, or perhaps let her hug him. 

I wanted to firmly pinch the cheek or shake the hand of whatever director or editor decided that was an important bit to include in the film.

And I thought.... "They Grow On Trees"!

That's the phrase I was looking for!

What grows on trees?  So many of the things that interest me: food, spiritual metaphors, fall and spring leaves (new life and old), beauty, shade, and in a way, so do all the useless scraps of paper I've been creating, collecting, and curating my whole life.  

And Dan Harmon hugs, of course.  

I guess that I owe Mrs. Obermeuller a thank-you note.  Because, here I am...  In Hollywood, or rather in the foothills near Hollywood, anyway.  Spending my time and energy thoughtfully crafting stories (while paying the bills, with various fun or serious work like anyone else.)  In fifth-grade I was imagining the thank-you would be from the stage of the academy awards, but who hasn't imagined what important thing they'd say from that stage with a tiny gold man in their grip?  

Standing on that stage isn't the permission I need to speak up about what I think is important.