Piff the Magic Dragon looks a little like a particularly bad imitiation of Barney the purple dinosaur and a little like Grumpy Cat.
That makes John van der Put a memorable presence on stage. It’s there that his talent takes off, propelling Piff through routines that include card tricks and visual illusions such as “shooting” his dog, Mr. Piffles, out of a cannon. Note: It’s not a live dog being shot out, but a toy. Mr. Piffles, an 8-year-old rescue chihuahua, is very much alive.
Piff became a finalist on the 2015 season of America’s Got Talent; the season was won by British comedian and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin. Piff also was seen at the 2016 Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival in Tennessee, where his act was described thus: “Think Larry David in a dragon suit ... who performs jaw-dropping magic tricks, and you’re on the right track.”
Van der Put also has a Las Vegas show.
He grew up in London loving magic, but his parents didn’t see it as a career path. So he went to school to study computer science to be employable, and then he got a job.
“I started doing that, and I wasn’t very employable because I wanted to go do magic all the time,” van der Put said.
This made him a shade irritable, which carried over to a day when he donned a dragon costume for a party: “I’m naturally grumpy, so it was a great contrast.”
“One of my friends said, ‘You could do that in your act,’” van der Put said.
But something was missing from the show, and that turned out to be Mr. Piffles, an extraordinarily placid long-haired chihuahua.
“He was in the show within a couple of months, but it really took a year for him to get his confidence back,” van der Put said.
Van der Put described Mr. Piffles as “an amazing deadpan animal. ... There are 2,000 people screaming (at a show), and he’s fallen asleep.”
Between the costume and the dog, van der Put said, it’s an act “that suits me perfectly.”
Van der Put said he loves audience input, that it creates a twist in every show and assures that no two are exactly alike.
Despite being dressed as a dragon, Piff is definitely for adults. The Comedy Off Broadway show comes with an age 18-and-older restriction, although van der Put said his routines are probably safe for older children who could watch, say, Rowan Atkinson in Black Adder, where the jokes are sophisticated but with a nod to raunch.
“As a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old, I loved it, that sense of sarcasm and irony, and you start seeing that things are not as straightforward as you thought they are,” van der Put said.
He enjoys smaller venues such as Comedy Off Broadway for their intimacy and the audience participation opportunities they bring.
“Magic takes a very long time to develop,” he said. “It takes two years to develop a trick. ... If you’ve got something in the show that changes every night, then even if you’ve been performing these tricks for a year, two years, then it’s different every night. That’s what I love about the show.”
Potential fans can follow Piff and Mr. Piffles via the website Piffthemagicdragon.com and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Of his social media presence, van der Put said, “We have to. It’s a Piff the Magic Dragon industry now.”