John van der Put, better known as the costumed magician Piff the Magic Dragon, is much friendlier than his surly persona would have you believe, but he does insist that during our interview I refer to him by his onstage moniker.
“There are a lot of people named John in the world,” he quips.
Music fans may recognize Piff donning his dragon suit on the cover of Mumford and Sons’ album Babel. He opened for the band during their 2012 tour. He is better known for his appearance on the 10th season of America’s Got Talent. While he didn’t win the reality competition, his hilarious appearance on the program breathed fire into his career and earned him the support of the show’s judges Howard Stern and actor/illusionist Neil Patrick Harris.
The illusionist grew up in London, and at the age of 18, became a member of The Magic Circle, the esteemed British organization devoted to learning and promoting magic. The former actor and IT worker discovered his character by accident when he was the only one who showed up in costume to a party. He says being irritable comes very naturally to him.
“I have resting grumpy face,” he says. “It’s part of being English."
Piff has a podcast titled The Piff Pod and a residency at The Flamingo in Las Vegas. He is currently touring the country with his adorable magic Chihuahua Mr. Piffles, who he rescued nearly a decade ago, and flies to Stand Up Live on September 28 and 29.
He spoke to Phoenix New Times over the phone from Dallas, where he talked about life before Piff and how America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon never got his act. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
New Times: What do you like most about touring?
Piff: I moved to America in 2014 to do a show at The Cosmopolitan. After six months, that show crashed and burned and I was stranded in Vegas. I was there for a year. Eventually, I found my way onto America’s Got Talent, and the very next day we went on the road and toured America. I spent three years touring all over America, and it has been amazing, because I had never really been here. Now I have seen almost every state. I loved it so much I decided to stay.
Was trying out for America’s Got Talent your attempt to do something for your career?
It was my last attempt to make it in America. I spent a year trying a ton of things and none of them had worked. America’s Got Talent was the last gasp, really. I have done shows long enough in Vegas to know that the people of America really liked my act. I knew if I could get out there and be seen, people would react to it and they did. It was crazy how much people fell in love with the act on America’s Got Talent.
I’ve watched those clips and I can’t help thinking how incredible it is to get such high praise from not only Howie Mandel and Howard Stern, but also Neil Patrick Harris, who is a trained magician.
When I think of the first round when Howard Stern was saying all these amazing things, that was pretty special. Even in the U.K., I was a huge Stern fan. It was tops to go on the next time and Neil Patrick Harris gave me the Golden Buzzer and said all this crazy stuff. The whole thing was a pretty amazing experience.
Is there any part of that experience, either in front of the camera or behind the scenes, that stands out to you?
The whole thing was really fun because they never really had someone go onstage and mess with the format. As soon as they realized they had someone different, they were great. They had done the same thing for 10 years. It was really great to work with them behind the scenes.
It’s funny because the scenes with Nick Cannon seem so rehearsed…
Let me tell you about Nick Cannon. He never, ever, ever, ever understood [the act] and I never really understood him. Throughout the whole thing, the two of us were completely mystified by each other. I never heard of him when I went on the show. I had flown from Vegas to New York City and had to be on a plane to London. I had literally two hours to do the audition. I had not eaten. I was grumpy. So Nick Cannon says to me before I go on, “Are you excited to be here?” I said, “I’m hungry. I’m tired. I just want to get this over with and get on the plane.” So I go on and I get this crazy standing ovation from Howard Stern. It was amazing. I go backstage and Nick Cannon is there. He says, “Oh my God, that was great! You must be so happy!” I said, “I’m tired. I’m hungry. I just want to get on the plane.” After that, he was like, “I don’t know who this guy is and what’s going on with him.” It was a lot of fun.
If what the internet says is true, you were an actor before you became a magician. Do you ever get the bug to act again?
Nah. I can play some funny character parts, but I know I’m no Hamlet. I prefer to be a magic dragon. I’m pretty good at it, so I’m going to stay in my lane.
You were performing magic before you discovered Piff, correct?
I was a magician for 10 years, and that was my full-time job. I was getting fired everywhere for being too grumpy.
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I was wondering about what things were like before Piff.
It was the same act, but with different clothes. I did a wedding once. This guy came up to me and said, “What is your problem? You are the Eeyore of magic.” He fired me. Becoming a dragon saved my career.
I read the story about how you rescued your Chihuahua, Mr. Piffles. Have you always been an animal lover?
I grew up with family pets, but I didn’t have time to worry about a dog. Suddenly, I had this idea to put a dog in my act and I did it. I woke up for about a month to six weeks wondering what the hell had I done. I thought it was a terrible idea. A year later, I realized this is the greatest decision I made. Mr. Piffles is with me 24/7. He is a great companion. They give dogs to people to alter their moods. He’s made such a positive impact on my life.
It seems like Mr. Piffles lightened you up a little bit.
It’s difficult to be grumpy when you walk in the door and a dog is bouncing around and over the moon to see you. It definitely cheers you up. Performing is usually a very solitary thing. You spend your time on airplanes and going into hotel rooms late at night. It is great having Mr. Piffles around. It was one of the smartest things I ever did and one of the things that makes me happy.
Piff the Magic Dragon. Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29, at Stand Up Live, 50 West Jefferson Street; 480-719-6100; phoenix.standuplive.com. Tickets are $27 via phoenix.standuplive.com.