Sam Wills, aka Tape Face, ruined his first silent comedy show within the first 20 seconds by talking to the audience in the first row. Backstage, one of his friends jokingly suggested that he tape his mouth to keep quiet. “It helped me keep my mouth shut on stage. It became more of a necessity than a decision,” says Sam, explaining why he resorted to putting tape on his mouth for his shows.
Speaking over a video call ahead of his first show in India, Sam says he is eagerly awaiting the reaction and response to his silent act. “There could be a difference in culture and sensibilities but silent comedy transcends all, “ he says.
Sam’s silent clown acts are based on popular music tracks, generally, from the 80s and 90s chart-toppers, and he uses domestic utilitarian articles as props. Without uttering a word and no major physical movements, he unleashes crackling laughter among the audience.
In 2016, while auditioning for America’s Got Talent (AGT), he got on to the stage with his typical tape on his mouth, exaggerated eye makeup and weirdly-set hair. When the judges asked him questions, he responded with gestures and a mild shoulder shrug. He started the act by wearing two oven mitts on his hands and creating two characters who mimed the iconic Lionel Richie-Diana Ross song ‘Endless Love’. This was followed by another hilarious act where he — pretending to have a girl in a red dress in his arms — began swaying to Chris de Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ number. He received a standing ovation for that and prompted Simon Cowell, one of the judges of the show, to compare him to British actor Rowan Atkinson’s comic character Mr Bean, and Charlie Chaplin. That particular video on YouTube received 45 million views.
Recollecting what could well be described as a turning point in his career, Sam says of AGT: “The amount of exposure I got from the show is huge basically because of the video that went viral. I was pretty strategic and used shows like those to get leverage for my shows and a tradeoff to get an international audience.”
As for the comparison to Mr Bean and Charlie Chaplin, Sam says, “Rowan Atkinson has his own style and people expect me to like Charlie Chaplin but I’m more inspired by Buster Keaton. Unlike Charlie Chaplin who invariably wins at the end, Buster Keaton has always been an underdog — he starts from a low place and finishes at a low place. I enjoy that act. He shows no expressions and performs with a serious face, which works for me. His nickname was Stone Face,” points out Sam.
Clowning all the way
Growing up in a small town in Christchurch, New Zealand, 12-year-old Sam met a professional clown and joined him as an apprentice. While continuing with his clown acts, he went to a circus school and specialised in juggling. The clown performances led to Sam becoming one of the leading stand-up comics in New Zealand and, subsequently, a silent comedy performer. “The tape is similar to the red nose of the clown… my red nose has slipped a bit and become a black tape… but I still carry the essence of the clown,” says Sam.
Sam was aware of the challenge he was going to face while shifting from stand-up comedy to the silent clown act. “It was pretty scary. Tape Face was born in 2005 and I developed this off-putting quality similar to the characters from Tim Burton films for my silent comedy acts. So the audience who had watched my stand-up shows wondered how I was going to perform with the tape on my mouth. The props and the music complete my performance.”
Not a fan of modern music, Sam chooses songs from the past that are recognised and have longevity, and can stretch his imagination to generate comedy. “Modern music is rubbish. I want to hit the nostalgia factor and 80s and 90s music suits me fine,” says Sam who’s against starting a channel on YouTube. “I am a fan of live shows and don’t want to put all the material online. I write my content pretty much like a theatre production and sometimes perform the same at various venues. I don’t want an online show spoiling it for my live audience.”
Living in the UK and in Las Vegas, US, and touring across the world, Sam is not sure what to call his home. “The stage is my home at the moment,” he says.