Piff the Magic Dragon performs sold-out Valentine’s Day show in Silverthorne
SILVERTHORNE — Piff the Magic Dragon knows he’s gimmicky. It doesn’t bother him. He wears a green dragon costume and has Mr. Piffles — a 12-year-old, long-hair Chihuahua — as a sidekick. He’ll keep using both as long as they continue to work in his routine.
“Gimmicks are only bad when they’re crutches, when they’re there to support something that doesn’t work,” said John van der Put, the magician and comedian inside the suit.
The costume was an accident, and van der Put had no idea it would last a decade more than a five-minute bit. He went to a costume party but didn’t have anything to wear, so he borrowed the outfit from under his sister’s bed. Piff the Magic Dragon, the younger brother of Steve, was born and became a surprise hit.
“I always thought I would stop doing it when I run out of ideas, but every day I wake up with new ideas for it,” he said.
The deadpan comedy, however, was more intentional. First came the magic. Van der Put grew up in London watching “Stuff the White Rabbit” with Jerry Sadowitz and was inspired to do close-up, sleight-of-hand magic. He never connected with big, illusionist-style magic and saw card tricks as more affordable and accessible. Then van der Put found he could improve his act by telling jokes to clear the air and lighten the mood.
“I was doing magic for groups of like five or 10 people,” van der Put said. “When five people are laughing out of 10, that’s pretty awkward, but when you’re on stage and half the room is laughing, that’s a big laugh. I realized what I was doing was much more suited to comedy clubs.”
Mr. Piffles, alongside van der Put’s assistants Jade Simone and Brett Alter aka Francis the Squire, will be making an appearance in Silverthorne for the town’s annual Valentine’s Day comedy show. In addition to Sadowitz, van der Put is inspired by magicians Mac King, David Copperfield and Penn & Teller. On the comedy side, he appreciates the work of Jerry Seinfeld, Demetri Martin, Chris Rock, Steve Martin and Las Vegas-based comedians like Carrot Top and Brad Garrett.
“Most people associate (Copperfield) with bigger, more serious magic, but if you look back, he’s also got some of the funniest set pieces,” van der Put said. “His singing tie and his routines with a duck, those are great. He’s always an inspiration.”
What: Magic & Comedy Show with Piff the Magic Dragon
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14.
Where: Silverthorne Pavilion, 400 Blue River Parkway, Silverthorne
Cost: The event is sold out.
A resident of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas for about four years, van der Put got his start at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 2009, Piff debuted there with a rescued Mr. Piffles after van der Put saw a different Chihuahua at the venue.
The 5-pound dog turned out to be a good addition and straightforward to incorporate into his act with tricks that involve shooting him out of a canon or guessing what box he’s in.
“You can smuggle him in almost any venue or any hotel,” van der Put said. “He sleeps 25 hours a day, and he’s hilarious.”
The rest of the Piff crew doesn’t get jealous of the popular pup, but van der Put joked that they do get tired with having to clean up after him. Only a few times did it happen on stage, however.
“There have been three dark days,” van der Put said. “One of them was in Denver, actually, at the Comedy Works. I don’t think they’ve ever forgiven me.”
His initial big break came with his television appearance on the first season of “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.” The reality show tasks magicians from all over the world to perform a trick that the legendary Penn Jillette and Teller can’t deduce how it’s executed. The competitors who are successful get the honor of opening for the two.
He didn’t officially fool them, yet it started a long-lasting relationship. Van der Put has come back on the show multiple times — even with Jillette donning the persona of Piff’s bass-playing dad, Pop — and consulted for the magicians. The three have appeared on “America’s Got Talent” though van der Put lost to magician Mat Franco in 2015. The exposure on NBC is what led to the Las Vegas residency, where he’s performed 250 shows a year.
Van der Put has been able to hone his craft staying at one venue, working on tricks and business in the morning and performing at night.
“I count doing this show as my relaxation time,” he said.
In 2017, van der Put started a podcast, which allows him to unwind post-show even more as he documents the experience with his team. They take the tapings on the road as well when they escape the Las Vegas bubble and interview other people in show business.
Recently, Teller had back surgery, so Jillette invited van der Put, King and Matt Donnelly the Mind Noodler for a “Penn & Friends” show instead of canceling performances as Teller recovered.
A more unusual professional pairing, however, was when van der Put opened for the indie-folk band Mumford & Sons during its 2012 tour. It might have been awkward or unusual, but he loved it.
“No one expects it, hardly anyone wants it, and you get to win over the audience each night, which is fine with me,” van der Put said.
Van der Put likes the challenge and figures that there’s rarely a night when 100% of the audience is happy to be there in the crowd watching him.
“There’s usually a small handful that’s been dragged along by either their partner or children, and those are the people I like winning over still. … I just batter them down over an hour and a half,” van der Put said. “It’s like Stockholm syndrome.”
There’s a chance he could encounter a similar group on Valentine’s Day as he performs tricks both old and new. Feeding off everyone’s energy live on stage is a delight, he said, and he is looking forward to possibly lightly ribbing couples on a date.
“That’s the nice thing is that the show is different every night,” he said. “It’s based around not only the tricks but also the audience there and my interactions with them.”
The show is sold out, but chances are van der Put has at least another decade of entertaining before him — though he said Mr. Piffles wanted to go off into the sunset three years ago. Only time will tell when Piff the Magic Dragon will be retired.
“Is a 60-year-old man in a dragon outfit still funny? We’ll find out over the years. We’ll find out when that starts becoming no longer funny but more poignant,” van der Put said, laughing.
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