Performing magic in a silly green dragon suit can get you some distance in show business, maybe even as far as the prestigious Fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
But after about a year and a half, Piff the Magic Dragon decided, “You know what? This show needs a gimmick.”
That’s the kind of slow-burn wit that helps explain the magic of Piff, the breakout star of “America’s Got Talent” this year.
This time, though, the joke has its own reality. It comes in explaining the indispensable role of Mr. Piffles, the tiny chihuahua now curled up sleepily in the lap of John Van der Put — a name the dragon will answer to offstage, even though he doesn’t really care if you call him John or Piff.
First, he borrowed a dog from a stage manager to punch up one routine in an hour of comedy magic. “He did so well, the next day I went out and bought Mr. Piffles.”
Now, the two are as inseparable to magic as Siegfried & Roy, Penn and Teller. “Over the years he’s definitely developed his own sense of comic timing, his own deadpan expression,” the magician says of his nearly 8-year-old sidekick.
Deadpan is the shared trait for the comedy magician who’s hit his stride with “Talent,” and got what he was looking for in Las Vegas: a modest, two- or three-nights-a-week gig at the Flamingo, which will allow him to fly out for one-night shows everywhere else the rest of the week.
The Piff show launched this week as a Monday, Tuesday and often Wednesday venture in Bugsy’s Cabaret, sharing its 8 p.m. time slot with “X Comedy”; its producers, Matt and Angela Stabile, are backers of the Piff show.
Piff hasn’t tried to eradicate the Internet trail of Van der Put. Search engines can still find him, just another magician out there working the cruise ships and corporate parties in conventional tuxedo-style attire. “I do interviews in and out of the dragon outfit,” he says.
But something clicked once he tried the dragon suit he first wore for a Halloween party, borrowed from his sister. “She happened to have a dragon outfit under the bed, and I didn’t question it further.”
The dragon suit gave him more room to run with the bad attitude he’d been cultivating onstage — not to mention life, he says. Better yet, it served as an extra layer of commentary on the big-hair, oh-so-serious magic he grew up watching as a kid.
“(David) Copperfield could get away with it because he was that good. But everybody wasn’t as good as Copperfield,” he says. “The interesting thing for me was by being a magic dragon, then I could push everything forward, because it was so ridiculous.”
A dragon suit framing a dour grump who acts as though he’d like to get this over with so he could get to a pub. A cute little dog for counterbalance. And still, not enough. The dragon jokes and puns just keep coming, never letting you get over the novelty of the suit.
A show for Fringe yes. But Las Vegas? Van der Put says his friends Penn and Teller tell him the same thing their friend Gilbert Gottfried tells them:
“Everyone in the audience goes, ‘Nobody else got it, but I loved it.’ Penn says it’s the same with my act. Every American says to me, ‘Americans are never going to get this dry humor, but I love it.”
And who can argue with the ultimate cross-section of American democracy, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent”? Sure, Piff got his express “ticket” to the live competition in Radio City Music Hall from avowed magic enthusiast Neil Patrick Harris. And judges Howie Mandel and Howard Stern are not men without respect for a high jokes-per-minute ratio.
But if America finally voted for a fellow Brit, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, it was only after carrying Piff all the way to the final show, and only after he performed with Penn and Teller on network TV.
“Certainly you can’t buy that advertising,” he says. “That’s what it was to me. Incredible advertising. Multi-million-dollar advertising. Obviously, if I hadn’t had the act (together), it would have been useless. Fortunately, I spent a long time getting that material in the bank.”
Those who paid attention also noticed he did the show on his terms: Never breaking character. Never seen out of the dragon suit. Never talking about trying to buy a dream house for his poor mum or that sort of thing.
They tried to talk him into that stuff, “and I just refused,” he says. “They were amazing, really. They gave me huge creative control.”
When it was all done, the staff confided: “For the first couple (of shows) you were really annoying. We were all told just to go with it, and then we loved you. Because no one else was doing it.”
Piff didn’t just land on the Strip after “Talent.” He had already decided he was a Vegas kind of dragon when he came here as one of the variety performers contracted for The Cosmopolitan’s Rose.Rabbit.Lie. club and its “Vegas Nocturne” show in early 2014.
So confused was that operation, which ended in just six months amid litigation, that most of us didn’t even know he was performing his hourlong “Breakfast at Piffany’s” inside the supper club as well.
Apparently The Cosmopolitan didn’t know it was part of his contract either. “I told them very soon after I arrived, and they were surprised to hear that.”
But once convinced to move here by his fellow magicians, he decided he loves the hot weather and plans to stay. At least part of each week.
“I’m not very good at doing the same thing over and over again,” he says. “It just takes a long time to get good at something, and I don’t think I’m anywhere near that level yet.
“Understand, you have the greatest magicians who ever lived (here), so it’s very difficult to feel good about yourself when you’re surrounded by that. But I love what I do … and the opportunity to get better at it every show.”
Very sincere for a sarcastic dragon. But Mr. Piffles, asleep in his lap, isn’t going to give him any funny looks just now.
— Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @mikeweatherford on Twitter.Like Neon Las Vegas on Facebook: