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Piff the Magic Dragon captures ‘Tournament of Laughs’ title

Updated August 3, 2020 - 4:02 pm

Whether his face is being licked by flames or a costumed chihuahua, Piff the Magic Dragon is up for the task.

The satin-suited Flamingo Las Vegas headliner survived a flaming finale to win the TBS “Tournament of Laughs” on Sunday night. Piff’s fiery spectacular, introduced by “Master Magician” Lance Burton, topped a clip from Jim Norton in his Chip Chipperson alter ego in Sunday’s finale.

The dispatched comics themselves voted on the series champ. Fans had voted online throughout the competition. Piff took his video production seriously, recruiting David Copperfield, Penn Jillette and Burton, in his championship run. Copperfield joined Piff’s video of the Eiffel Tower vanishing. Jillette co-starred in an action-adventure trailer. Both were winners.

“They immediately said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it, I’m happy to help,’ ” Piff, whose legal name is John van der Put, said Monday, basking in his unlikely victory. “I would say the same to them, too. But they are Copperfield and Penn and Lance Burton. I am Piff the Magic Dragon.”

Burton said, “Honestly, I didn’t know anything about the show. I just got a call from Piff asking to be in this video, and I said, ‘Sure? Do you have a script?’ He says, ‘Yes, we’ll have one the day of the shoot!’ I was just trying to learn my lines.”

Burton dug out of the wardrobe a trenchcoat he’d worn while making a UFO disappear in the 1998 Fox Family special “The Encounter.”

“I’d asked him to wear black leather, and he shows up in this trenchcoat,” Piff said. “How cool is that?”

A total of 32 comics entered the “Laughs” competition, hosted by former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Jason Sudeikis. The veteran comic actor is also an alum of “The Second City” revue in the same Bugsy’s Cabaret room where Piff has headlined for the past five years. By Sunday’s finals, the field was cloven to Piff, Norton, Natasha Leggero and Tim Dillon.

Piff brought the heat. He and Las Vegas brothers Jerry, Mike and Scott Thompson of Light Forge Studios, with editing from Nick Byer and Todd Hailstone, produced the outdoor event for a handful of masked onlookers. Nailing the clip in a single take, Piff was chained to a stake, set aflame, feverishly attempted to escape from a pair of padlocks, and (spoiler alert) reappeared as a broiled chicken.

“I don’t work with fire,” Piff said. “And I can tell you why, because it is very hot and very uncomfortable. It is incredible how hot flames are when they are licking at your face. I had to wear three fire suits, be covered in a protective gel — and I was happy to pay for all of it.”

Mr. Piffles, showgirl Jade Simone, daredevil performer Jonathan Goodwin (who has reached the TV round of “America’s Got Talent”) and Stuart MacLeod of “Magic for Humans” on Netflix all appeared in the fire video. The filming took twice as long as its scheduled four-hour shoot. Piff had to make an emergency call on a fake, cooked turkey, which was used in place of a fake chicken in the closing scene.

Seems the website that furnishes fake food for such shoots was out of chickens.

“A real cooked chicken couldn’t withstand the heat,” Piff said. “Imagine that.”

Until given the go-ahead to plan for his return to the Flamingo, Piff is next focusing on his virtual shows, live performances strictly for online viewing at passportshows.com. The next is 4 p.m. Wednesday.

As his fans know, the “Tournament of Laughs” championship runs counter to Piff’s underdog, or under-dragon, image. He has reminded he is the “loser” of “America’s Got Talent,” despite reaching the finals in Season 10 in 2015, won by ventriloquist Paul Zerdin.

Piff jokes that he’s burying his victory in the outskirts of Las Vegas. “I’m going to take it out and 86 it, in the desert,” he said.

But in fact, the magic dragon is dedicating the title to his longtime canine sidekick.

“Mr. Piffles will be 13 in November, and he’s had enough,” Piff said. “This is for him. It’s good to win something for a change.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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