Interview: The Boy With Tape On His Face
Sam Wills is a New Zealand-born comic who has performed under his given name, as well as performing as half of the double-act Spitroast. Today, however, he’s more widely known as The Boy With Tape On His Face. As a prop-heavy mime act, The Boy has taken Edinburgh by storm in recent years, and his latest show, More Tape, was the highest-rated show by reviewers at this year’s Fringe. James Harle managed to grab a few tape-free moments with the man himself.
JH: Hi Sam, thanks very much for taking the time to answer some of our questions.
SW: No problem, just don’t ask me whether it hurts when I take the tape off…
JH: Ouch, deal. Happy belated birthday by the way, yours was at the end of August wasn’t it?
SW: Yeah, but I spent it driving back from Edinburgh – 8 hours in the car. Celebrating at all the service stations along the way! Now I’m home, and I’ve been doing a bit of decorating, actually, before I get into the tour. It’s kind of nice to be at home for a little bit after being in Edinburgh for so long – with the spring tour before that as well I’ve been so busy. It’s nice to be at home, getting the chance to hang out with the dogs and the wife.
JH: You never miss your native New Zealand?
SW: It’s lovely over there, but our problem in New Zealand is that we only have the one comedy club, and a very limited number of places to tour. So after a number of years on the scene over there – I’ve been entertaining for 16 years or so, and I’ve done a six year residency at a casino, and I had a TV show – there was no further scope. In NZ you do the comedy club, the outskirt gigs and then television, and that’s kind of all you can do.
JH: You say that, but even before coming to the UK you were doing some pretty amazing stuff. Performing at the Lord of the Rings premiere, for example…
SW: Lord of the Rings…yeah, that was very strange, but quite good. That was my only involvement with the films; I was one of the few people to turn down the chance to be an extra in them. I just thought: I’m sick of this film trilogy, and everyone in the country is already in it. I think the whole country was sick of it, actually; somehow, Lord of the Rings came to be a bit like jury duty in New Zealand. You just had to put up with it.
JH: And you performed for the NZ prime minister, for the king of Tonga…this is amazing…
SW: I did perform for the king of Tonga, and that’s when I started to look overseas and think: where else can I do a show? I mean, you’ve got to remember that New Zealand only has 4 million people. So, to a degree, the moment you start doing your stuff on TV there you start running out of audience. They know every feature of your show, and when you write new stuff they want even newer stuff- which is a big ask. With new comedians coming through as well, you either have to move on or stop altogether. For myself, I wanted to do something new, which is why I developed the boy with tape on his face. I could’ve continued doing that in New Zealand – but I wouldn’t be talking to you now, because I’d have run out of places to do it a year or two ago.
JH: It was boredom which prompted you to come up with The Boy?
SW: Exactly. 2005 was the first time I ever performed as The Boy. It was just a five-minute gig but I really wanted to escape the boredom of doing my old shows. I’d just done it so often, I was sick of the sound of my own voice, so on went the tape.
The act works everywhere in the world, I think, because it gives you a lot of interesting things to watch. The timing of an audience might change, and how they approach the gags, but other than that. It worked in New Zealand, so I took it to Australia as well – but over here in the UK, audiences are way more comedy-savvy.
In New Zealand, we’re still very much finding our feet, finding out who our comedians actually are. We’ve got Flight of the Concords and Rhys Darby dominating stuff (myself as well), so I think we’ve got quite an alternative take on comedy. In the UK your sense of humour is so much more broad, you’ve got your stand-ups, your television shows and your incredible film history as well- so the UK audience, having had all this, is very judgemental. In other places like Scandinavia, audiences are very quiet; they actually laugh a lot quicker, because they don’t want to miss anything, and then they go quiet again. They save it all up for the end and go ballistic for five minutes. It’s a very strange pressure-cooker comedy.
JH: So given the NZ comedy scene, did you always see yourself becoming the international star you are today?
SW: No, initially it was my intention to be a juggler. That was what I really wanted to be when I was growing up: I got given a magic set as a child, and I lived in a small town and learned these magic tricks. Then I had to perform the tricks for other people in the village because my family got sick and tired of them. Then I found this local clown, went to his house and he took me on as an apprentice. He taught me all sorts of stuff, and then I went to circus school – to learn to juggle. That was the real key. Juggling took over from all my magic tricks, and I ended up getting a diploma in new circus.
JH: How has that circus schooling influenced this act? The Boy seems to be drawing on circus, vaudeville and mime all at the same time.
SW: I would definitely say I’m more on the vaudeville side of things than mime, because this is the thing: I’m not actually a very good mime. I know that I’m not talking on stage, but when you look at some of the mimes that are out there today, I don’t compare. I had the pleasure of seeing Billy the Mime in Edinburgh, for example – he’s an American guy, and he was in the film The Aristocrats. He’s as traditional mime as you can get, with the stripy top, chin-high pants and painted face. He mimes out stuff that’s just incredible – the final bath of Whitney Houston, the Michael Jackson story, very shocking stuff. It’s incredibly well done, but that’s not me: I’m about props and people. In fact, I’m closer to a prop comic than anything. I base all of my gags around an item, either an audience member or a prop.
JH: Well, most comedians see jokes everywhere; as a prop comedian, do you see props everywhere?
SW: Actually, I mostly see props in a shop near my house. It’s called Red Rocket, and it’s one of those shops that should sponsor me because I spend so much money in there. I just love these places that seem to sell everything. My thing is really everyday objects: if you can look at an everyday object and see something else- and show other people something else- then the next time they see that object, they can’t help but see what you saw. The number of people who’ve told me they can’t look at oven gloves any more, honestly. It’s things like that that I find so interesting. The moment you use a custom prop, one that’s been made specially, you cheapen it. Of course it helps me, too, because I can just land in any country and do my act.
JH: I have noticed that your style is very minimal; do you think complexity is an important factor in comedy?
SW: I think it’s childish more than minimal. I find that people love to play, and that’s something I like to remind them of. Think about your jokes as a kid: you watch someone fall over, or poke a bug, and it’s hilarious. It’s a simple kind of humour, but when that child has been inside you for so long, waiting to get back out… there’s a lot of fun to be had.
JH: You’ve had huge Edinburgh success in the last couple of years and started appearing on TV as well. How has that been?
SW: In New Zealand I’d already done a few TV spots, but this was definitely more hands-on compared with what I’d been used to. Making ‘The Tape-Face Tapes’ (a BBC Three pilot) was an interesting task because I did find it hard to collaborate with others. I think it’s because I’m a one-man show, and I’ve always got such a clear idea of what I want the show to look like – what I want the audience to see. With TV it was a bit harder because there were so many rules and regulations that they wanted me to obey, and they wanted the finished product to be funny as well, so it was hard to meet in the middle. It’s been a good project, but it’s had its share of arguments and heated conversations.
JH: You’re setting off all over the country pretty soon. If people come and see your show, what are they going to get?
SW: I’d say they’re going to get a stand-up comedian who doesn’t say a word…in fact, even better: they’re going to enjoy meeting a comedian who knows when to shut up!
The Boy with Tape on His Face will be touring his latest show, ‘More Tape’, at venues across the UK until the end of the year. For details, see: theboywithtapeonhisface.com