Comedy Interview: Piff the Magic Dragon
The two-time "America's Got Talent" contestant and Las Vegas comedy stalwart kicks off "The Lucky Dragon" tour with a sold out show tonight at the Lincoln Theatre
“Hello. This is Piff,” says the voice on the other end of the call I received last week on my cell phone.
For the unenlightened, Piff, or more properly, Piff the Magic Dragon, is the stage name of acclaimed British magician and comedian John van der Put, who is now synonymous with his green satin spike-embellished suit, and his identically garbed assistant – a Chihuahua named Mr. Piffles. Expertly mixing satisfyingly dour wit with wizardry, he’s spent more than a decade building an award-winning international following.
Piff began his entertainment career as a student at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (who also claims Laurence Olivier, Dame Judi Dench, Martin Freeman, and Harold Pinter as alumnae), and was a working actor and magician in sundry productions and jobs for several years.
His now ubiquitous persona was born unexpectedly during a costume party where he showed up as the lone bedecked guest, dressed, natch, in a dragon outfit he’d borrowed from his sister for the occasion.
By the end of the evening, his chagrin in being the odd man out presented an opportunity that would, ironically, make him beloved.
“I spent the whole night getting more and more grumpy,” he recalls in a 2013 conversation with UK’s Independent. “And then my friend said, ‘you should do this in your act.’”
Six months later, Piff made his debut at Edinburgh’s Free Fringe. His first show broke a single-night ticket sales record. Before long, he was filling rooms around the Commonwealth. In 2012, he was asked to be the opening act for alt-rockers Mumford & Sons on their Tour of Two Halves (and also appears on the cover of the band’s sophomore album, Babel).
Piff began to expand his reach to the United States, appearing on his eventual friends’ Penn & Teller: Fool Us. In 2015, he was a contestant and finalist on the 10th season of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, and reprised his competitive stint last month on America’s Got Talent: The Champions. He was eliminated in week two of the series.
His four-year-long residency at Las Vegas’ The Flamingo Hotel and Casino has now been extended through the end of 2019. The room that houses Piff’s show, which had originally bore the name of one of the casino’s co-founders and legendary mobster, Bugsy Siegel, was recently rebranded as the Piff the Magic Dragon Theatre in his honor of its star.
“I love it,” he says of his demanding show schedule during a phone interview last week. “We do about 250 shows in Las Vegas a year, and then we tour all over North America on most weekends. People come to Vegas and they find out about the show, and, hopefully, when they go home we eventually end up in their hometown. It’s been a great way for me to get to know America a bit more, and vice-versa.”
Tonight, Piff will kick off The Lucky Dragon Tour here in Columbus with a sold out show at the Lincoln Theatre. The tour’s poster proudly touts him as ‘The Loser of America’s Got Talent’ – a fabulously sarcastic nod to his double-ouster that proves winning on a reality show is completely relative.
Congratulations on your residency being extended! I’m sure you have a lot of support, but what’s it like to sustain a performing schedule where you’re constantly flying back and forth between tour stops and Las Vegas every week?
“I like performing live – it’s my favorite thing about what I do. It’s given me a chance to do shows almost every night, and to work at what I do and to improve it night by night. And we get to run a lot of material that way. So, that means when we go out on the road, we can do tricks that people haven’t seen before and constantly work on new material.”
When did you remember being first enchanted by magic?
“There was Stuff The White Rabbit, which was a TV show [on BBC in the UK] with close-up magicians on it doing card tricks and coin tricks. The first time I saw that, they had all these magicians who were funny, and the magic was unbelievable as well. So, that was the first thing I saw and thought, ‘that’s something I want to do – I want to find out how to do this stuff.’”
What magic tricks did you learn in the beginning?
“Yeah, I started learning card tricks when I started out, and I would learn how to cheat card games and how to do all the sleight-of-hand stuff. So, that was the thing that really got me into magic.”
I appreciate that you constantly walk this fine line between having the focus and discipline to perform magic well, and engaging your audience with humor where you’re clearly not taking yourself too seriously. How do you negotiate those two aspects of your work?
“I work as hard as I can on the material part of things, on the magic tricks and the jokes. But, then…you know, magic as an occupation is a fundamentally ludicrous vocation, because it’s just lying for a living. If you really had magical powers, the last thing you’d be doing is finding the four of diamonds. You’d be curing AIDS, or at least printing money. So, I always try and remember that about what I’m doing, and that sort of opens up the path to finding the comedy in the situation as well.”
You mention the sort of absurdity of magic, and as people watch you, they’re really buying into the illusion of it and the thrill of seeing a trick they can’t explain or resolve unless they perform it. Besides that, what do you think is most misunderstood about magic to someone who’s not a magician?
“I think it takes a long time to get something really good. You know, it’s not like comedy – and comedy takes long enough. There are some moments in the show when I’ll do just, like, five minutes of stand-up, and that takes me about three to six months to sort of get really tight. But, the magic takes two years, because it can take six months to just get a magic trick working in the first place. And then you get on stage, and you find out no-one cares – so then you just have to throw away thousands of dollars and countless hours of time and effort and start again.
So, once you finally get it to the point when it’s a good routine structurally, then you have to actually make it funny, and edit it and tighten it. That thing we just did on America’s Got Talent: The Champions recently – I’d been working on that for about eighteen months.”
Wow. That’s an incredible amount of investment.
“And then you do it, and somebody commented on an Instagram picture, or something, ‘oh, I saw you do that a couple of months ago. You need new material!’ [laughs] It’s like, my God, you saw that because you came to a show, and then you just happened to be watching TV! It definitely takes a long time to develop material. But, I mean, the nice thing now is that we have a large collection of tricks, so we can sort of do a ‘best-of’ show, so we’ll have new material in the show – always – and we have a few old favorites, because people want…it’s almost like going to see your favorite band. You want to hear your favorite songs as well as the newer stuff.
The other thing with magic, is that every time you get somebody on stage – which is most every trick – that makes it different every night, because people are chaos and they ruin my life on a nightly basis. On America’s Got Talent when Heidi Klum nearly threw the egg at Simon, I was just, like, ‘what are you doing?! I clearly need that egg! I went to all this trouble for a dog to shit out an egg, and now you’re going to throw it at Simon’s face!’ Not helpful.”
You’ve discussed being a consultant to other magicians. What exactly does that entail?
“It’s not really glamorous, because with magic you’re dealing with something you can’t do. So, often, there are long periods of time when nobody has any answers. And all you’re really doing is pointing out the flaws in something. When somebody’s working with me, they’re telling me why everything’s wrong. And when I’m working with other people, I’m telling them why everything’s wrong. And, eventually, one of you will have a good idea and you solve it and the trick works.
Magic is pretty brutal because it’s long periods of despair, followed by [laughs] fixing the trick and immediately having to retire it from your repertoire when you put it on television.”
There is a relatively small circle of magicians you’ve claimed to follow and enjoy. What else do you fill yourself up with that entertains you?
“I watch a lot of comedy – I really love comedy. There’s a comedian called James Acaster who put a special out on Netflix – there’s about three or four of them. Those are really good. I spend quite a lot of time with Penn [Jillette] of Penn & Teller, and I’m always inspired by what those two are doing. Penn and I sort of share what we’re watching back and forth. So, yeah, a lot in the world of comedy, film, and magic as well. That’s what I enjoy.”
Piff the Magic Dragon opens “The Lucky Dragon Tour” tonight with a sold out show at the Lincoln Theatre (resale tickets may be available via Ticketmaster). Visiting Las Vegas? Piff is playing more than 250 shows in 2019 during his extended residency at The Flamingo Hotel and Casino – tickets are available here. For more tour dates, merchandise, and other information, visit his official website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.