Interview: The Boy With Tape On His Face
There are several possible routes to stand-up comedy success. But until now, gagging oneself with duct tape was not considered one of them. It’s worked for New Zealander Sam Wills, though. Already a multiple award winner Down Under, in August Wills’ act The Boy with the Tape on His Face became one of the hits of the Edinburgh Fringe. This silent comedy show – Wills prefers the phrase “stand-up without talking” – was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, laid on extra performances to cater for audience demand, and bagged a raft of five-star reviews.
Now he’s taking the show around Britain, on a 22-date tour. It’s quite an ascent to fame for 32-year-old Wills, who created the Tape Face character as an afterthought to his career as a street performer in Christchurch and Auckland, New Zealand. Wills has dabbled in circus and vaudeville since, as a boy, he looked up ‘clown’ in the Yellow Pages, knocked on the door of one local practitioner, and demanded an apprenticeship. “He took me on,” says Wills, “and taught me all sorts of things, from riding a unicycle, to juggling, to old traditional clown sketches.”
From this precocious beginning, Wills graduated to circus school and to a career in outdoor performance. His particular passion was “sideshow”: the tricks to be found at the dangerous end of the circus spectrum. “I got interested in the Jim Rose Circus,” he says, “in freaks and geeks. I learnt how to juggle hedge-clippers, swallow razor blades, hammer a four-inch nail up my nose.” And how does that work? “I started with spaghetti,” says Wills, with a grin. “If you put cold spaghetti up your nose, and it breaks, you just end up eating it. Then I moved on to modelling balloons. Then I put the nail inside the balloon. And then once I got used to that sensation, I lost the rubber, and went straight for the nail.” Ouch.
Wills was soon performing these hair-raising routines on TV, and at private functions for the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the King of Tonga. Then, in 2005, he won the country’s highest comedy accolade, the Billy T Award, for his show Dance Monkey Dance. This biographical set dramatised Wills’ working life in a series of death-defying stunts, and ended with Wills appearing to hang himself to satisfy the audience’s lust for sensation. It was the culmination of Wills’ career so far, and after its success, its creator was left thinking: “what do I do now? In New Zealand, you can only go so far. I was at a point where people expected me to just learn more tricks and do more talking.”
“So I thought I’d do the complete opposite.” The plan was now to go onstage and not talk – a major departure from Wills’ fairground barker persona to that point. But taciturnity didn’t come naturally. “I couldn’t help myself,” Wills recalls of those early stabs at silent comedy. “I ended up speaking. I’m so used to saying something about whoever’s sitting there in the audience: the way they’re dressed, or if someone gets up, I get distracted and have to mention it. Before I knew it, I’d completely ruined the act.” There was only one thing for it. Silence must be enforced. So Wills cut himself a rectangle of gaffer tape, and placed it over his mouth.
Success came swiftly. The Boy with the Tape on His Face started out as a five-minute act, soon extended to a full show, made waves in New Zealand and was invited to the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Five years later, the show is now winning the hearts of UK audiences. It’s an hour of irresistible visual gags, in which Wills and his, ahem, volunteers from the audience dance to Michael Jackson music, recreate a famous scene from the movie Ghost, and bring props to life in unlikely ways. It’s wordless, but not silent: the score is supplied by a series of well-loved pop tunes from the 80s and 90s. And it’s all MC’d by a man with a band of black tape across his face, whose expressive eyes denote incredulity, impatience, or approval, according to whatever antic he’s just orchestrated onstage.
The secret of the act’s success, says Wills, is his perceived vulnerability onstage. The tape on the mouth is like a clown’s red nose, he says – although he avoids using the c-word, “because it makes people think it’s a kids’ show.” In fact, clown is just another word for classic silent comedy, of the type that taps into our shared humanity, our struggle to impose ourselves on a big, scary world. “Mr Bean is a clown,” says Wills, who cites Rowan Atkinson’s alter ego as an influence, ever since “as a child, getting woken up by my dad – because Mr Bean was on late at night in New Zealand – and him saying ‘get up, you’ve got to watch this’.” The Tape Face act has also drawn comparisons with Harpo Marx and Buster Keaton. Several scenes are loveably familiar from the silent comedy canon: Wills slipping his arm into the sleeve of the red dress, and embracing himself; Wills making eyes at a female stooge, offering her a rose.
But the act has just as much in common with straight stand-up. “It’s using the same formulas – the set-up, then the punch line – that comedians use,” says Wills. In his case, the set-up is slow and intriguing, as he manipulates a punter into some inexplicable predicament. The rest of us watch, and wonder: what’s he up to? Then comes “the penny-drop moment”, in the form of a burst of music: “I’ve got a big list of tunes on my computer,” says Wills, “where I just go: that will be used, because there’s something really funny about it, but I haven’t found the right combination of things yet.” The song he’s desperate to use is 500 Miles by the Proclaimers, “because everybody loves it,” he says.
Facilitating fun is important to Wills – and he finds that, as Tape Face, he can do so while leaving most of the work to the audience. “What I really enjoy,” he says, “is just standing there doing nothing, and the audience will create their own little stories in their heads.” The Boy with the Tape on His Face can look sad, or cross, or perplexed – without Wills doing anything, he claims. “I’ve got about five major expressions that I do,” he says, and the rest is “people in the audience making up stories about what they think they see.”
That’s one of the ways audiences get involved in the Tape Face show. The other is good, old-fashioned audience participation – which can be terrifying elsewhere, but which, in Wills’ hands, is playful and un-humiliating. “I like playing with people,” says Wills. “And I make the show a safe environment to play in. My goal is to make sure people leave the stage a hero. We found by the end of the run [in Edinburgh] that there were people who really wanted to be onstage. And sometimes I had to go: ‘no, you’re going to be too full-on’.” Wills also takes requests from people who nominate their own friends as volunteers for his interactive routines.
After Edinburgh, the requests are sure to intensify. Wills is now talking to TV bosses about adapting the act to the small screen. That’s not a priority for the New Zealander, whose first love is live performance – so much so, that he continues to work in street theatre, three times a week in Covent Garden, even while touring as Tape Face. Success is unlikely to change Wills’ life, not least because, offstage, he is unrecognisable as his sticky-taped alter ego. “It’s brilliant,” he says. “I put a lip-ring in, and I put my hair to the other side, and people have no idea it’s me.”
The only changes in store are improvements to the act. “I’d like to throw more production values at it,” says Wills. “If someone with a lot of money wants to build a Tim Burton-style house for me to perform in, that’d be great.” The dream is to come up with an event to rival Slava’s Snow Show, the silent-theatre spectacular created, and repeatedly toured throughout Britain, by the Russian clown Slava Polunin. Clearly, Wills’ loyalty to his circus background – and to his origins as a clown’s apprentice – dies hard. But for now he’s happy just writing new material, including one routine in which he shoots toast with a crossbow. “People are asking me, ‘what will you do now?’” he says, and the answer is simple. “There’s the crossbow, there’s the toaster, and that’s it. Just more Tape Face gigs. Just more silly ideas.”
If you want to see The Boy With Tape On His Face live, more information on his tour can be found here. Also in December the Big Owl Comedy Club will be playing host to Wills’ act at their Hexham venue, so be sure to look out for further details on Giggle Beats.