Once upon a time, in a land known as New Zealand, a small boy with big green eyes knocked on the door of the local clown. This was the beginning of Sam Willis’s clown apprenticeship that would eventually lead to the creation of the world famous ‘Boy With Tape On His Face.’
On meeting Sam Willis, you are naturally taken aback that the mute staring ‘Boy’ is actually a loud, friendly Kiwi who is constantly smiling. His arms are covered in tattoos and he has a massive lip piercing, which I image makes putting the thick black strip of gaffa tape on his face that little bit more interesting.
After finishing his informal clown education in Timaru, he moved to Christchurch to attended Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology get his degree in New Cirrus. That’s right, this boy ran away to join the Clown College, majoring in Juggling and minored in Acrobatics.
Acrobatics in the morning, juggling in the afternoon and classes on theory, dissecting classic clown routines- doing cabernet to street performing scattered between, “It was pretty full on” as Sam describes it. There was even a small business module teaching “you have your skills, now sell it!” Willis enjoyed it so much at the Institute that he stayed on for another two and a half years to teach Juggling. It was while there that his passion and fascination with sideshow vaudeville and freak shows grew.
After being a street performer in for Christ Church for some time, Sam got his introduction to comedy. He recalls that “Jarred Christmas is the only reason I’m in Comedy.” Having called him up in a panic as an act dropped out. Sam managed to turn dislocating his arm, pushing himself through a tennis racket and getting a power drill up his nose into pure hilarity. And his popularity grew from there. He attributes part of his success to do with the years he spent street performing.
By the time his won the Billy T James Comedy award (New Zealand’s premier comedy award) in 2007 with his show ‘Dance Monkey Dance’, he had been performing on the streets since 1999. This experience meant that he could handle anything. “No matter where, I can do a show. I could even do a show here if you give me an amp” he says as he gestures to the subdued City Screen Bar. “I’m not fazed by any environment.”
When asked if he thought his formal training helped him when it came to performing comedy on stage, he said “I don’t know what I got from it, but I got a lot of time to do what I wanted to do.” When asked about some of the qualifications and comedy schools now available he admitted that “I’m no certain how much of them do any good… you still end up having to cut your teeth.”
His vaudevillian style was born from an interest in the sideshow and Jim Rose Freak Shows. He went from glitzy Las Vegas Juggling routines to this darker style. “I wanted to be with the cool kids doing the darker dirtier stuff”. However after the success of ‘Dance Monkey Dance,’ Sam grew tired of feeling like a performing chimp. He swapped his attention seeking clowning and for a silent, goggled eyes mime. The ‘Boy’ was born. However old habits die hard. “I ruined it by taking to the front row. Within the first minute or thirty seconds or so I had that panic, and went back to the old ‘Hey how you doing’”. The tape was just a simple way of Sam keeping the gabble internal. It was a stroke of genius
‘Boy With Tape On His Face’ has won the Chortle’s Breakthrough Act 2011, the NZ Comedy Guild’s Kevin Smith Artistic Achievement, and was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2010. The mixture of an absolute control of the crowd without speaking a word, as well as performing comedy which is unlike anything one on the circuit at the moment has won him this acclaim.
He has taken his strip of black tape all over the world, but he has also performed in York several times, always appearing at the Basement at York’s City Screen. He appeared as the headline act at this week’s Hyena Lounge. He went down a storm with the audience. The turned the uses of the audience into an art form. When you dress a man in waders, shirt, florescent jacket and hard hat, walk off stage and play Tommy Jones’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and he willing strips, no not willingly, enthusiastically, the you know have created something special. I won’t go into too much detail about the actual performance, as have the job of the dumb show is not know what is coming. I will say that the genius behind his silence is that the audience read what they want into his facial expressions.
I asked Sam how he felt about performing in York. “It’s nice. It closes early,” Was his immediate reaction. He recalls most vividly a show he did during one of York famous floods. “Nothing more terrifying than doing a comedy show and seeing a wave lapping at the window.”
The skill Sam exhibits as a mime is often read into as assign of some great Drama School training. When I posed him the question, he laughed and said “That would probably ruin me. That kind of training would completely break the characters and make it the biggest pile of art wank ever.” Already suspecting I knew the answer I asked him if his comedy had any underlying message, or he had a motivation when devising his set, like Simon Amstell striving to convey the truth, or like Bill Hicks trying to change the way we think. Once again, he laughed, shook his head. He said that there were too many messages. He either wants to forget thing, ignore things or just switch off. There is enough content being spilled out into the world. He summarised his stance on comedy succinctly.“Just be funny for fuck sake.”
Sam Willis will be performing his second show ‘Boy With Tape on His Face – More Tape’ in Edinburgh this year. For more information click here .