Piff the Magic Dragon breathes some comedy into his tricks
What: Piff the Magic Dragon
When: 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 22
Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
Piff the Magic Dragon, who will perform Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, doesn’t have a lot in common with “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Piff doesn’t have a friend named Jackie Paper, nor is he from a land called Honah Lee. In fact, Piff isn’t really a dragon. He’s a Londoner named James van der Put who lives in Las Vegas and dresses up in a fluffy lizard suit to perform magic and make people laugh.
The combination of natural comedy and sleight of hand landed him on the cover of Mumford and Sons’ Grammy-winning album “Babel,” as well as a spot opening for the band during its 2012 U.K. tour.
He’s also performed at the Sydney Opera House and Las Vegas’ Flamingo Casino, which is now known as the Piff the Magic Dragon Theatre.
Van der Put didn’t start off with comedy in mind. Nor did he really think he’d be a magician.
“When I was 15, I used to play cards with my friends all the time,” he said. “I was really learning how to cheat, and a lot of those techniques are the same as magic techniques.”
The comedy came in when he honed his card tricks in restaurants and at social events.
“During those performances people would ask me if I could make their wives or husbands disappear,” he said. “I would be snarky and sarcastic back, and maybe 7 out of 10 people would find what I said funny, while the other three would get massively offended.”
The laughs van der Put got from those 7 people gave him a “terrible idea.”
“I decided to develop my comedy,” van der Put said with a laugh. “So I started performing at comedy clubs. It was much better for me when 70 percent of the audience laughed at my jokes.”
Dressing up in a dragon costume came as a fluke. When van der Put attended what he thought was a costume party in 2008, he was the only one who dressed up.
“It was just me,” he said. “One of my friends who knew that I was a magician said to me, ‘You should do this in your act. You could be Puff the Magic Dragon.’ And I said, ‘Wait, I could be Piff the Magic Dragon. You might have heard of my older brother, Steve.’ And that’s where that came from.”
Piff the Magic Dragon never performs without Mr. Piffles, a rescue puppy, who fans have dubbed the “World’s Only Magic Performing Chihuahua.”
“He’s the real talent, and people usually ask me if (I’m the sidekick), but I’m the one who definitely carries the dog,” van der Put said with a laugh.
Working with Mr. Piffles is fun, except that he sometimes has a mind of his own.
“I first thought that I would train him to do a bunch of things, but he’s a living creature, and there are some nights he didn’t want to do anything, which is fair enough,” van der Put said. “So I thought it would be funnier if I just pretended that he would do all of this stuff like solving a Rubik’s Cube or whatever miracle I wanted him to do.”
Van der Put got his first break in 2011 during season one of Penn and Teller’s “Fool Us,” a magic competition that airs in England.
Wowing Penn and Teller changed van der Put’s life.
“Penn and Teller kind of adopted me after I did that show, and told me if there was anything they could do to let them know,” van der Put said. “I said, ‘Yes. You can do a lot of stuff for me.’ You can introduce me to America.”
So Penn and Teller helped van der Put land a small role in a Las Vegas magic show in 2014, but the show closed early, he said. During the run, van der Put decided he would find a way to remain in Las Vegas and the United States as long as he could.
“To do that I knew I needed people to know who I was, so I went on ‘America’s Got Talent,’” he said.
Van der Put compared “America’s Got Talent” with “The Tonight Show” of the 1960s and 1970s.
“A comedian would appear on ‘The Tonight Show’ and that would be it,” he said. “They’d end up working for a couple of years.”
So far, van der Put has been doing his “magicomedy” in the U.S. for four years. He said having a few years to come up with ideas is necessary to make sure they work in his act.
“I have to make sure the ideas are funny when I begin to think about them, because it’s going to take about two years to make them work,” he said. “I don’t want to spend all that time only to find that an idea wasn’t as good as I thought.”
Throughout his career, van der Put has been nominated for the Buxton Festival Fringe’s Best New Writing award, and won the won the festival’s Best Production award, as well as the Time Out Critics Choice award. And while those he appreciates those accolades, the comedian says there is nothing like being on stage.
“I love doing shows every night, because I make people laugh,” he said. “I’m my own boss, and I get to come up with my own ideas, including the terrible ones.”
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This weekend’s art auction will raise money for the Park City Community Foundation’s Community Response Fund.