The Boy with Tape on His Face has reinvented silent comedy for the twenty-first century. But it was all an accident, he tells Time Out
While most stand-ups are busy fiddling with the wording of their latest barbed remark, Sam Wills - aka The Boy with Tape on His Face - is more likely to be found wandering the aisles of his local discount store in search of the perfect plunger.
With a piece of duct tape restricting speech, Wills mixes prop comedy, mime, puppetry, stand-up, music and vaudeville to create an act that is truly unique - and that comedy club audiences certainly aren't used to. 'It's stand-up without talking', he tells me from his Southend home. 'You can feel the initial confusion from an audience as I walk out on stage; they tense up. It's such a good feeling.'
For Wills, overcoming the initial challenge of getting everyone on board is evidently part of the fun. But gaining the audience's trust is also crucial in order for the success of his act. A large part of a BWTOHF show is coercing audience members into becoming the punchline of his next gag. 'I treat them a wee bit like dolls,' he says, which isn't as sinister it sounds. Audience participation at a Tape Face gig is never humiliating. 'If there's too much responsibility on an audience member there's too much pressure for them to fail,' says the 32-year-old New Zealander. 'Whereas if you give them the tiniest amount of responsibility, the moment they achieve it and the audience goes crazy, they feel like a star.' Whether they're forming a makeshift Jackson 5 or being transformed into a human puppet, this gentle approach comes from years of seeing 'audience members treated badly', he says. 'I want them leave the stage a hero.'
This type of audience interaction is similar to that of street-performers and circus acts, which is where Wills's background lies. He studied at a circus school in New Zealand for two years - 'I majored in juggling and minored in acrobatic clowning' - before he discovered the sideshow acts of Coney Island and Jim Rose and became interested in 'sword swallowing and hammering nails up my nose'. In fact, the move into comedy was purely an accident. 'One night I got a phone call from [fellow Kiwi comic] Jarred Christmas,' he explains. 'One of the acts at his comedy club had cancelled at the last minute. He asked if I could come down and do some tricks to fill the slot. I threw together a little suitcase of props, did my odd sideshow things on stage, and it all seemed to go over quite well.'
From there he spent seven years on the New Zealand comedy circuit performing what he describes as 'carni-comedy'. But he grew tired of the repetition. 'Everyone expected me to just learn more tricks and do more talking. So I decided to challenge myself and do a silent character that didn't do any tricks at all.'
Initially, the radical change proved difficult to adjust to. 'At the first gig, within 30 seconds I ruined it by talking to someone in the front row,' he recalls. 'So the next night I went back and put a big hunk of tape across my mouth to completely stop me talking.'
Wills moved to the UK three years ago and took The Boy with Tape on His Face to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 garnering huge critical acclaim and receiving an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination for Best Newcomer. He returned to the festival in August, selling out one of the Fringe's biggest venues and he's now embarking on his first UK tour. Did he ever expect the character would take off in the way it has? 'Not at all. It was originally just a little joke, a five-minute sketch because I was bored.' And the success continues. Most recently he found himself accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Comedy Prom. 'How silly is that?!' Wills exclaims as I mention the gig. 'It was incredible. I was looking out at the venue, shaking two horses heads, with a full orchestra behind me, thinking: What am I doing!?'
After such a huge gig, where can he take his vaudeville-for-the-twenty-first-century character from there? 'Well, I'm working on a whole new hour of material for 2012 and I'm always trying to think of ways I can make the show a bigger experience. My influences are things like “The Muppets” and Wile E Coyote, so I think if a cartoon character can make a crossbow fire a plunger 30 feet, why can't I?' That would explain why he's shopping for plungers…