London native John van der Put became a world-renowned magician despite suffering from an incurable and socially crippling malady. "Many of us are afflicted with resting grumpy face," says van der Put, who's better known as the gruff, fire-breathing illusionist Piff the Magic Dragon.
Piff doesn't seem to care whether his audiences are impressed with his sleight-of-hand skills. He doesn't plaster a giant smile on his face while making his adorable canine assistant Mr. Piffles disappear or finding a volunteer's card in a shuffled deck.
Instead he eats snacks and scowls during his set. Sometimes he even hits on his volunteers and then spurns them in the same fiery breath. America's Got Talent judge and supermodel Heidi Klum was once on the receiving end of this treatment.
Van der Put is a magic-performing Tupac in a dragon suit. Simply put, his persona Piff the Magic Dragon "don't give a fuck."
"[Wearing a dragon outfit is] just a way for me to make my personality socially acceptable," he says of his stage persona.
Of course, his natural shyness only makes his career, which began at 13, that much more impressive. At 18, he joined Britain's famed Magic Circle and now he has his own regular show at The Flamingo in Las Vegas. Piff will perform five shows at the Addison Improv this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Comedy wasn't always such a huge part of van der Put's stage show, but as he began to develop his signature persona, he found the traditional magician's shtick wasn't a very snug fit.
"I did a couple of kids' birthday parties and they were terrible," van der Put says. "I was very bad at it. I usually would do weddings or corporate events and they were pretty straight, but everyone thought I was really grumpy at these events. So I used to get fired everywhere. One day, I stuck with the dragon and everyone thought it was hilarious. So I started carrying on like that."
He'd bought the dragon costume to wear to a Halloween party and a friend suggested he wear it in his act, van der Put says. He's been playing a grumpy magic dragon ever since, and now he's even added a chihuahua/dragon assistant named Mr. Piffles to the act.
"Once I had the idea, I sort of did a lot of open mic nights and got as much stage time as I could, and I was convinced it was going to work out quite well," he says. "Other people weren't, but I was. It was just funny. A grumpy guy in a dragon outfit."
Van der Put began to perform his comedy and magic show across the UK and Australia, including eight memorable appearances at the esteemed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His breakout performance came in 2011 on the first season ofPenn & Teller: Fool Us
, a magic reality competition that started on Britain's ITV before moving to The CW. On the show, magicians challenge legendary Las Vegas duo Penn & Teller to figure out how they pull off their original illusions.
Piff became the show's first big star thanks to a clever card-changing trick and his sullen demeanor while interacting with the magic experts. Right in the middle of Penn's explanation of the trick, Piff hands Mr. Piffles to host Jonathan Ross and starts chomping down on a banana. The usually silent Teller laughs so hard that he lifts himself off of his chair and stomps his signature red and black shoes on the stage.
American audiences got their first live glimpse of Piff as the opening act on Mumford & Sons' 2012 tour, which earned the comedian a cameo on the cover of the band's album Babel. He also appeared on season 10 of NBC's competitive talent series America's Got Talent, where he played to judges Klum, Howard Stern and Howie Mandel.
Piff often plucked one of the celebrity panelists to serve as his assistant and he finished in the show's top 10, earning one of the esteemed "Golden Buzzers," which meant a spot in the finals at Radio City Music Hall.
At the finals, Piff performed a memorable routine with Penn & Teller, but he later stumbled a bit with a dangerous trick that appeared to put Mr. Piffles in peril. The trick wowed the crowd but Mandel complained that he couldn't hear some of the jokes and Klum said she had been genuinely concerned that Mr. Piffles would be hurt on live television.
"Sometimes people get upset but I'd just rather they think about how, on a purely financial basis, it's in my best interest to really look after that dog," van der Put says. "Training a new dog after every show would be very expensive and Mr. Piffles is a lovely dog and I love having him by my side."
Van der Put says he doesn't let the competitive nature of these reality shows or even the business get in the way of his performances. Just like his character, he's unaffected. "I'm just myself in the dragon outfit," he says.
"I just like being on stage, and for me, when I see performers, the funniest thing they do is the least intentional thing," van der Put continues. "So I think what would be the most ridiculous concern for this character right now is the fact that he's hungry. He's been given this slot on America's Got Talent and all he wants is a sandwich."
Piff the Magic Dragon will perform at the Addison Improv (4980 Belt Line Road) at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday; 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 to $35 at the box office or online at ImprovAddison.com.
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