It’s not difficult to find funny T-shirts on the Internet. But it is difficult to find funny T-shirts on the Internet whose purchase goes toward a cause worthier than lining the coffers of a humor website or a cabal of smartass pop-culture geeks. (Or, better yet, a cabal of smartass pop-culture geeks employed by a humor website.) Enter Punchy Tee, a local, philanthropically geared website that gives comedy enthusiasts the chance to buy limited-edition T-shirts designed by some of their favorite stand-ups—all the while donating part of the proceeds to charities chosen by the comedians. The website’s initial offering came courtesy of twitchy storyteller/occasional Target pitchwoman Maria Bamford; currently, fans of Todd Glass can help promote Glass and support the Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA). The A.V. Club met up with Punchy Tee co-founder Joel Usher to discuss the business’ inspiration, dealing with the unexpected challenges of pitching T-shirts to comedians, and his dream roster of Punchy Tee collaborators.
The A.V. Club: What was the impetus for founding Punchy Tee?
Joel Usher: My family wanted to start a socially responsible business. I was talking to my parents about what kind of business would be good for that, and they suggested creating T-shirts and donating a portion of the proceeds to charity. And since I am involved in comedy in Austin I thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could get well-known comedians to design a T-shirt? And let them tailor the shirt to something that resonates with them, and also let them choose the charity they want to donate to?” It seemed like everyone’s interests come together with this sort of idea: It benefited the charity a great deal, we got to start a family business that met our goals, and a comedian got to donate to charity and promote themselves.
AVC: What was it about T-shirts specifically that set off the lightbulb?
JU: There’s sort of a blank slate. It’s a great product that everyone has a familiarity with and a relationship to. Graphic T-shirts, they’re very popular in indie-rock circuits, and that’s a big promotional and merchandise avenue. I didn’t see a lot of that on the comedy side. I couldn’t find T-shirts by comedians on websites that I searched. You can find funny shirts, but not something like, “Oh, I loved Maria Bamford’s last album. If I saw her at a show, I might want a T-shirt.”
AVC: How did you go about contacting comedians? So far, you’ve put out T-shirts with Maria Bamford and Todd Glass.
JU: We owe a lot of that to Maria. I approached her after a show at Capitol City Comedy Club and gave her a five-minute spiel on it—and it just clicked with her. Having her [involved] helped us start conversations with other comedians. People are naturally skeptical of untested businesses, and Maria’s enthusiasm gave us an “in” with other comedians.
AVC: And obviously she’s a good person to start with, given her visibility within and without comedy circles.
JU: Yeah. She’s been on Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. Her face has been on TV a lot. I think the Target commercials helped a great deal. And she was so excited about doing this for charity. She chose the Austin Children’s Shelter, which I thought was really nice because the money is coming to a local charity—local to Punchy Tee.
AVC: Do you have any design prerequisites for the comedians? Do they need to know their way around the Adobe Creative Suite or something?
JU: Well we actually have two options: If they have a designer or if they want to do it themselves, that’s great. But that hasn’t been the case so far. We have a graphic designer that we contract out.
AVC: Do you have a laundry list of comedians that you’re looking to contact for Punchy Tee?
JU: We’ve contacted between 30 to 50 comedians. It’s a lot of scheduling. I’ve learned a lot about working with agents and people who have TV schedules and movie schedules that are crazy.
AVC: What has it been like to navigate around that stuff?
JU: We’re an auxiliary thing for comedians, so we’re very flexible. We have to be very flexible. One thing we thought would be pretty straightforward would be getting the picture of the comedian with the T-shirt on. But that’s ended up being something that’s pretty chaotic, because one week a comedian’s in L.A., and the next week they’re in Australia or the East Coast. Trying to find a physical address to mail something to somebody by a deadline is a gamble, because if it fails, if it doesn’t get there on time, it’s just your loss. It’s been a learning process just for contracting negotiations. I’m calling people who are negotiating contracts for major TV deals and that kind of thing, and I’m like “Hey, I’ve got this T-shirt. Would that be interesting?”
AVC: “I know you’re orchestrating a 24-episode deal with a cable network now, but…”
JU: I’ve definitely had to get over my nerves on the phone a little bit. I feel like if I move to L.A. now, I would totally know how to navigate a portion of show business. Maybe I could swing this thing into a career as an agent.
AVC: Is that your suggestion to anyone who wants to make it in showbiz? Start your own small, socially conscious business?
JU: And then swing it into a major movie deal, or the start of a talent agency.
AVC: What’s kind of feedback have you received from the charities?
JU: They’ve been really excited about it. Austin Children’s Shelter and spcaLA have been great. They’ve given us, like, front-page links on their websites. I think next week we’re going to be presenting the check from Maria’s sales to the Austin Children’s Shelter. There may be a giant check involved; I’m not sure.
AVC: Who would be your dream “get” in terms of comedians?
JU: Maria’s one of my personal favorite comedians anyway, so that was like, right off the bat, “Boom.” One of my favorite comedians—he does a lot of T-shirts anyway, so I’m not sure if this is going to happen, but—is Jimmy Pardo. He has his Pardcast empire, though, so I’m not sure about that. If we could get someone like Sarah Silverman or David Cross, that would be amazing. Honestly, I’m just excited to be working with comedians in general.
AVC: Are there any comedians for whom you would break the T-shirt format, perhaps? Maybe a suit for Paul F. Tompkins?
JU: Yeah, naturally. We’d have to get maybe a bow tie. That’s what he wears right? Bow ties? We could do, like, a tattooed watermelon for Gallagher.
AVC: But then he would destroy it, or walk out angrily during the negotiations.
JU: That would be a short-lived product, I feel like. There’s a natural shelf life on a tattooed watermelon.