This all started with a costume party, where John van der Put was the only one to arrive in costume. He wore a green-satin dragon outfit, a full-body suit of the type where once you zip it on, it’s on for the night.
“I walk in, and nobody was in costume. Even the host had changed. I said, ‘Well, I can’t change. I’m stuck in this,’” van der Put says today, smirking at the memory. “So I went to a corner in my costume, grumpy and drinking red wine.”
Van der Put was already working as a comic magician in those early days, when he lived in London and struggled to find regular work. His magic was a fine act, but his grumpiness wore thin, and he became the type of performer not likely to be invited to the same club twice. But that night, the party’s host took note of van der Put’s peeved expression and cocked eyebrow and told him, “You should work that costume into your act.” Van der Put answered, “I could be Piff the Magic Dragon. You might have heard of my older brother ... Steve.”
“I had that line, straightaway,” the 35-year-old van der Put says. “It worked because the dragon character is just me in a dragon suit, but as soon as I tried it, it was funny. The idea of a magic dragon who uses his magic to do card tricks, instead of fighting crime or somehow helping society, is funny.”
The act was incomplete, though. Van der Put was able to work a solid 20-minute set but wanted more substance in his onstage role. Soon after donning the dragon suit onstage, he was working the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and noticed that one of the organizers had brought her Chihuahua to the performance.
“I was thinking, ‘This character needs a gimmick,’ so I used her Chihuahua, and it got a lot of laughs,” van der Put says. “So the next day I went out and adopted this scraggly dog, not in a good state, to use in the act. I felt if it didn’t work onstage, at least it would have a good home.”
The combination of Piff and Mr. Piffles is an artistic, broadcast and box-office hit—van der Put jokes that Mr. Piffles can’t walk the streets without being mobbed—largely as a result of their long run on America’s Got Talent. Piff reached the finals of that show, only to fall short of winning the title (British ventriloquist Paul Zerdin took the top prize). The exposure has led Piff to his own open-ended residency at the Flamingo, where he’ll star in Piff the Magic Dragon, Monday through Wednesday beginning November 9. Also scheduled is Piff’s Piffmas Piff-Tacular, running nightly December 21-30.
Van der Put came to be known in Las Vegas as a featured performer in Vegas Nocturne, the Spiegelworld production at the Cosmopolitan’s Rose. Rabbit. Lie. When that show closed after a largely applauded but highly unprofitable run of seven months, van der Put showcased his act around the city. He also performed at the Flamingo room, long the home of insult comic Vinnie Favorito. Van der Put drew the attention of Matt and Angela Stabile, who produce X Burlesque at the hotel. The Stabiles launched the X Comedy Show, with Piff joining hosts Nancy Ryan and John Bizarre and comic Joe Trammel (and later Todd Paul). As Piff performed in that show, he auditioned for AGT, wowing the judges and national TV audience and embarking (as Mr. Piffles would say) on a run that nearly led to him winning the championship.
Much to his chagrin. “My whole plan was not to win,” van der Put says. “There is nothing funny about winning. I should never be the winner. It’s not good on a character level.”
Yet Piff kept advancing, his blend of pithy comedy and close-up magic, incorporating the panting distraction of Mr. Piffles, resonating with the national TV audience. He made the finals at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, performing for a national TV audience of many millions and a live audience of 6,000. The audience didn't respond well to the act where Piff fires Mr. Piffles from a cannon—which he accurately felt would also not play well in front of a live TV audience. Thus, Piff got his wish but not winning.
“I just printed some posters, ‘Loser of America’s Got Talent’,” van der Put says. “But the whole experience of AGT was great. We’re selling out everywhere. We did 2,000 in Denver and did 12 shows in Edmonton in a week. We just sold out in Tampa. Believe me, before America’s Got Talent, we were not selling out.”
The popularity is evident on social media, where van der Put is especially appealing for his deadpan demeanor. His own website accurately describes Piff’s disposition as, “Larry David in a dragon suit.” His Twitter account has grown organically from 20,000 followers to more than 80,000, his Instagram from seven followers (“I never used it,” he says) to more than 68,000. His YouTube hits have surpassed 12 million.
Van der Put has continued to work with his friends Penn & Teller on their stage show, having appeared on the duo’s contest show Fool Us before arriving in the U.S. He hopes to use Las Vegas and the Flamingo as a base for his national and even international performing career.
“I have several hours of material I can use, that I’ve developed over the years,” van der Put says, “and Mr. Piffles has a lot of time left. He’ll be 8 in November … He has his own security now. I just hope he doesn’t get too big.”
Piff the Magic Dragon Begins November 9, Monday-Wednesday, 8 p.m., $50-$70. Bugsy’s Cabaret, Flamingo, 702-733-3333.