Piff is back.
The Magic Dragon and Mr. Piffles, a mind-reading dog and Piff’s partner in comedy, are returning to the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Albany for the first time in several years, bringing with them plenty of magic tricks and no short supply of comedy.
From Jan. 18-20, John van der Putt (otherwise known as Piff) will be taking the stage as one of the first stops on his “The Dog Who Knows” tour. The duo has been touring together for years, have a regular show in Las Vegas and have been on "America’s Got Talent" twice.
Piff combines magic and comedy in a way that makes his tricks more believable and more relatable. Here, Piff talks with The Gazette about where he got his start, what got him into the dragon suit and how his latest tour is going:
Question: How did you learn to do what you do today?
A: I was a magician when I was a kid. Then I was doing all of these weddings and corporate dinners and private parties until I was in my mid-20s. [But] I kept [getting] fired because I was too grumpy. So I was like “Well, this isn’t good because this is my job.” One day I went to a costume party as a dragon. Nobody else was in costume, it was just me. So I was stuck at this party drinking red wine and looking very, very grumpy, and my friend came up to me and she said “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’ve heard of my older brother, Steve.” So I did that and as soon as I did it, it was funny. Everyone [said] “before you were just an annoying guy. Now you’re a grumpy guy in a dragon outfit. This is hilarious.”
Q: What about Piff works?
A: Magic is very high status. It’s like “I know how to do something and you don’t.” Anytime you can change that, in this case by putting on a dragon outfit, it softens the audience. So [I’m] no longer some smart-ass magician, [I’m] an idiot in a dragon outfit.
Q: Right, so you’re humanizing magic.
A: It humanizes it, exactly.
Q: When did Mr. Piffles come along?
A: I had been doing [the act] for a while and I thought, “This is funny, but what I need is a gimmick.” So I got Mr. Piffles, and him and I have been together ever since. Comics are usually such purists, I thought it would be funny to go against everything.
Q: It seemed like your career [skyrocketed] shortly after Piff came along. You went on to "America’s Got Talent" and then did an episode of "Penn & Teller." What was being on "Penn & Teller" like?
A: Obviously, I loved their stuff as a magician. I just went on the show to try and be as entertaining as I could. Then I did the show with them and we became friends after that. Over the years we stayed in touch. I ended up being a part of a big show in Las Vegas, and then after that I ended up having my own show here. Through all those years, we’ve become really good friends. Now Penn [and I] are able to shoot our first TV special this week. Penn is going to appear in that. So things are good.
Q: Were they an inspiration growing up?
A: Yeah, certainly. They were one of the reasons why I liked magic and there weren’t many of those. I didn’t really like most of the magic that I saw.
Q: Why not?
A: Because it usually has sort of an irrelevance to anything. Somebody making tigers appear, it’s not a very useful skill. I’ve never gone out and said: “Oh, I really need a tiger right now.”
Q: What was the very first magic trick you ever learned?
A: It was a little drawer where you would open [it and there’d be something,] and then you would open it again and wouldn’t be there. Why would you ever need to do that? No reason.
Q: So how do you make your new material relevant?
A: We try and come up with a funny concept first. A dog reading minds, to me that’s already funny. The fact that a dog knows more about you than you know about yourself is hilarious. So you come up with that and then we make sure the magic is as good as it can be. We work very hard trying to bring those two things together, try to make it as funny as it can be and the magic as good as it can be.
Q: Why do you think you were first drawn into [magic]?
A: I don’t know. It’s weird because I really like 3 percent of magic. But the other 97 percent I kind of hate. I’m more surprised than anyone else that this ended up being my job. I like getting to interact with the people onstage, that’s my favorite bit. Every show, every night is different. Dealing with a late-night crowd can be hilarious, especially if they’re all a little bit drunk.
Q: What was going on "America’s Got Talent" like?
A: It was great! You know, when I was growing up, stuff like “The Tonight Show” would break people into a bigger audience. But that doesn’t really [happen] anymore. So with "America’s Got Talent," you’re in the homes of most [Americans] every week for three months and it’s a great way to get exposure. It was sort of one of the last routes to breaking through. It was a bit weird trying to compete against a 10-year-old singer. [They’d] be sobbing uncontrollably when they’d lose and I was like, “Oh God, this doesn’t feel great.”
Q: Would you ever go back on it again?
A: We’re in touch with those guys. I really like [them]. I’m sure we’ll continue to go back on it. If the idea is funny enough, then I’ll do it. That’s always how I judge things, I never really rule anything out.
Q: Tell me about this “Dog Who Knows” tour and what people can expect from it?
A: We have a show in Vegas and we take a show on the road every year. When we come back to places, we want people to come and see the show again so we load it with new tricks and we put in one or two favorites. But most of the show, 78 percent of it, is brand-new. There was a magician named Alexander in the early part of the 20 century. He used to do this act with a turban on his head and he would be “the man who knows,” so he would know everything about the audience. He also had nine wives and committed three murders, so it’s a very similar story to Mr. Piffles in many ways. So we decided that Mr. Piffles should be the dog who knows and that he not only reads the mind of [the] audience [members], he can also tell their futures and answer questions they might need answering. So if you’ve never had your mind read by a dog, this is your chance.
Piff and Mr. Piffles went on tour with Mumford and Sons shortly after performing before them at Radio City.
They tested out the tour in 2012, with a few small theaters in England. It went so well that the band asked him to come out to play in the United States to a few arenas.
“So we were playing to 20,000 people at night, Mr. Piffles and I,” Piff said. Some of the shows were fantastic, but during others, audience members were just confused and it didn’t go so well.
Regardless, Piff and Mumford and Sons are still in touch and Piff actually ended up on the cover of “Babel,” the band’s second album.
Piff the Magic Dragon
WHEN: Jan. 18-20
WHERE: Funny Bone Comedy Club, Albany
MORE INFO: albany.funnybone.com