In 1992, Mark Pahlow stood in a Chinese factory assembling the punching nun he wanted to manufacture. The founder of novelty warehouse Archie McPhee fished around in a barrel of assorted female doll parts until he plucked a Margaret Thatcher head, then added the habit and boxing gloves. The pious pugilist became a best seller (and beloved by clergy). Pahlow, born in sleepy small-town Ohio, has always trafficked in bizarre humor; his first gag product was a shirt that said “Shazam” in Hebrew, a language he didn’t speak. After selling wares like rubber chickens wholesale, he opened a retail storefront in Fremont in 1983, naming it after his then-wife’s late uncle, the family joker. Today the Archie McPhee shop (currently in Wallingford) and catalog are crammed with monster finger puppets, unicorn masks, and 15 sizes of rubber chickens. And, oh yes, the punching nun, still made to Pahlow’s exacting specifications because “our cheap stuff is to be treasured and respected for decades.” —AW
Ohio was a pretty boring place. It was Velveeta cheese and I was a curious guy looking for truth and treasure.
One of my best businesses was an electric chair. I ran wires from an electric train transformer to an aluminum folding chair and charged neighborhood kids five cents to be electrocuted. I was eight.
I just love goofy, funny things—the X-ray specs, the rubber chickens. I love the absurdity of it all. This is like paradise as opposed to, like, being a life insurance salesman.
We sell souvenirs of modern life. And it’s things nobody needs. Some of them are nostalgic, some of them are retro, some of them are new.
Whatever 90 percent of the public likes, we’re not going to sell that. We sell what we know a small group of people like.
Many of our products have a juxtaposition, like a nun that punches. What’s the right level of absurdity and contrariness that might make something work?
One of our first viral items was the Nancy Pearl action figure; she used to be a librarian in [the] Seattle Public Library. There was a huge amount of unexpressed love of old-school librarians.
One of the best products that we developed and still sell to this day, which helps us fund all of these other useless products that don’t sell, is the rubber chicken.
To see a chicken that looks like it’s been plucked is kind of jarring. And it reminds us, Oh, yeah, we eat real creatures. We like to reveal the uncomfortable truth.
I’m working with the grandchildren of a lot of the old men that I met in the ’80s in China. We have personal relationships, and I think that we get really good products that are safe and well-made.
If you’re going to make a silly little thing, we think it should be made really well and not be some disposable piece of crap.
The company’s subtext is—I don’t know how to put this—the inevitability of death and impermanence in life.
I’ve got two angles on immortality. The first one is the traditional way: I have two daughters and they’ve both had babies. The other one is this, McPhee products and the ethos and the vibe we put out.
My estate plan contains funds to take some of my ashes to China, to surreptitiously visit the rubber chicken factory. They’re going to sprinkle my ashes into the rubber chicken molds. That’s the third leg of immortality for me.
No, I don’t get tired of people calling me Archie.