His glorious career as Tape Face may have started as a five-minute joke that spun out of control, but Sam Wills is taking nothing for granted. The Kiwi comic explains how recent success in America has led to some curious consequences
It goes without saying that Sam Wills doesn't give much away. The 38-year-old Kiwi, better known as Tape Face, and formerly as The Boy With Tape on His Face, is instantly recognisable with that kohl-eyed make-up, striped t-shirt and signature duct across his mouth. Last year he was seen by millions globally after reaching the final of America's Got Talent, even inspiring a spate of Halloween costumes. 'I counted about 700,' says Wills. 'I reckon it keeps parents happy. It's a pretty straightforward costume and you're guaranteed a quiet night.'
Yet despite that sudden attention, the prop comic and mime phenomenon still finds it easy to peel off his Tim Burton extra look and mooch about incognito. 'I can just blend into a crowd when I need to and disappear,' he says. 'That's one of the charms of starting as a street performer; you can choose when you want to be seen.'
He won't share anything of his personal life, his marriage to burlesque performer Lili La Scala and their wonderfully named young son, Rafferty Basil Danger Wills, saying only that while he considers the UK to be home, the reality is that 'I'm mostly based at Heathrow Terminal 4'. However, speaking to me from the US before his return to Edinburgh, he belatedly reveals that he's shooting an American documentary: 'there's a camera pointed at me right now. It's another little secret project,' he laughs. 'The best thing is not to tell people what I'm doing. It frustrates everyone.'
credit: Mat Ricardo As with his polished act, Wills knows how to build anticipation by only revealing what he has to at the opportune moment. Currently writing his next live show, he discloses only that he's returning to the mantra of 'expect nothing, enjoy everything'. In the meantime, he's performing a best-of show at the Fringe. 'It's a chance to purge this material completely. Because once it's gone, it's not coming back. The trouble with prop comedy and my style of comedy is it's a bit like being in a band: people want to hear their favourite joke. I've certainly noticed in America that when I pull the oven gloves out, it often gets a spontaneous round of applause.'
He's relaxed about the chancers and plagiarists who've emerged since his US success, from brazen Luke McQueen picking up his discarded moniker to perform a show entitled The Boy With Tape on His Face at this year's Fringe to 'a guy in Benidorm doing the better part of 50 minutes of my act. If an audience is confusing me with a guy in Benidorm, then I'm clearly doing something wrong with my career.'
While that career is essentially a five-minute joke that got out of hand, Wills is much more driven than Tape Face's whimsical persona suggests. Witness his heartbreak in the documentary Not Out of Norway Yet, shot at the 2012 Fringe, in which the Edinburgh Comedy Award bosses reject his show from consideration for the main prize because he's sold too many tickets; and then enjoy his subsequent delight at being awarded the panel prize.
'There was a time when I felt that I had to win an award every single year,' he recalls. 'As a strategy, I had worked on the Edinburgh Comedy Award as a goal for the better part of eight years. So it was beyond frustrating to not be allowed to win that. To be a victim of my own success I found a wee bit ridiculous. I'm not sure if relieved is the right word for winning the panel prize. But I certainly gave up on awards after that because I realised what Jerry Seinfeld said is true: "all awards are stupid".'
A classic showman, he always strives 'to keep some surprises'. Too many comedians are too candid in interviews, he reckons, 'because they're trying to be funny. But you might as well save it for the stage because that's where it actually counts. I take inspiration from people like Radiohead and Trent Reznor, finding interesting ways to advertise and be a wee bit different rather than just your bog-standard 8 Out of 10 Cats comedian.'
Admitting he had fun making an ultimately failed BBC pilot, Wills insists that television should always remain subservient to live performance. 'Realistically that's one of the reasons why I went on America's Got Talent: TV is a giant advert for live shows. You can focus on being a great panel-show comedian and be appalling live. But live is where I want to excel. I'll never do another reality TV show. AGT was a platform because it was the exposure I wanted. To do another would be silly.'
An odd consequence of his burgeoning fame is that potential 'volunteers' plucked from his audience are now occasionally famous, which rather changes a routine's dynamic. As well as performing for New Zealand's prime minister and the King of Tonga, he famously garlanded Mel B with a toilet seat in America's Got Talent, a decision that the former Spice Girl and celebrity judge was not about to press her golden buzzer for.
'Yeah, I've done various gigs for people of high status,' Wills chuckles. 'Mel B knew I was going to choose her as a volunteer but didn't quite know what I was going to be doing with her. You can actually see in the video that she's so ticked off she takes off the toilet seat and throws it to the ground. And it broke. So I took a photo and sent her an invoice. And no, I haven't had a reply.'
The Boy with Tape on his Face is TAPE FACE, The Pleasance, Wed 2–Sun 27 Aug, 9.40pm.
It's comedy but without the chat. A chance to see the phenomenon of BWTOHF, in a show which is kinda cabaret, kinda theatre and kinda beautiful. Stand-up to make you spit out your drink then break your heart.