Piff the Magic Dragon on his new special, “Reptile Dysfunction”
July 26, 2022 Andrew Buss Features, Interviews, News
For some performers, it takes so long to perfect one thing they’re good at, let alone two entirely different things. For Piff the Magic Dragon, he managed to strike gold. After years of doing “straight magic,” and as he says, getting fired everywhere, he finally stumbled onto the perfect blend of magic and comedy once he put on the dragon outfit.
Piff the Magic Dragon became recognizable to us here in the States from his appearances on Penn and Teller Fool Us and America’s Got Talent. And starting in 2015, Piff started a residency show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. If you’re a magician working in the U.S., Vegas is certainly the place you want to be. There really is nothing like it.
Earlier this month, Piff released his first magic/comedy special, Reptile Dysfunction. In the special, you get a good idea of what it was like to see Piff live before he changed his show recently. But he also added in some additional elements just for the special, such as doing magic on the Vegas strip and bringing out his dad onstage followed by a mini-mockumentary within the special. Naturally, his dad was played by Penn Jillette.
We recently spoke to Piff about his new special, the genesis of combining his show with street magic, how he got Penn to play his dad, his influences growing up, his early work as a straight magician, the experience of performing in Vegas, the trick-creation process, and his favorite moment from his live shows.
I’ve got to say I watch a lot of stand-up specials. But Reptile Dysfunction may be among my favorite special titles.
Well thank you. My brother came up with that line.
Tell me a bit about how it came together. How long was it in the works? Because it’s sort of a hybrid of your show and a bunch of different elements.
Right. Yeah we shot the show at the Flamingo in the old show room that we used to perform in, which is a little 200-seat room. And we shot that whole show live. And then when we watched it, I was like “It would be good if we could break out of this.” Because it would be great if we could see like behind the scenes of the live show.
So in the end, we recorded a bunch of interview stuff and me out in the streets doing magic with people. There’s a trick I do on the High Roller in the special. And that was a trick that we usually do onstage. But it just kind of made it a bit more interesting to watch.
I love that. Walk me through a little bit of some of the magic you do on the street and the interactions you had.
Well with comedy, you can’t just go onto a street and start telling jokes. Magic tricks can be small or they can be big. And when I started as a magician I would go around to parties doing magic tricks, like weddings and corporate events, doing magic tricks one on one with people. So that was a big part of my life. I did it full time for like 5 years I think. So I wanted to be able to use that in the special.
And I’m sure, because some of the tricks are more intimate, some of them might not work as well onstage because they are smaller.
Exactly. Because no one can see it.
Now there’s another element I need to ask about. Where did the idea come about for Penn to play your dad?
Yeah, that was a weird one. Penn and I have been really good friends for the past – I don’t know – 7 years or 8 years. They basically discovered me on a TV show called Penn and Teller Fool Us. That was like my first big break. Both of them said to me “Look, if there’s anything you ever need, if you want to hang out, then we’re here.” So then I became friends with them.
Then there was this – I think it was this show for NBC or something, a pilot – and they wanted me to do a trick with Penn. and then I said “What about the idea of Penn being in a dragon outfit and being my dad?” And they loved that idea, but the show never got made. But I told Penn one day, and he liked the idea so much that we went half on a dragon outfit. Because those things are expensive. They’re not cheap. So we went half on one, and we started doing it in the show. And we came up with this idea for the special. We have my father who is coming to town and will take over my life.
Which I think works perfectly. I expected it to just be a small bit for the stage show, but then you kept it going. Then all of a sudden, it turns into this mini-mockumentary in the middle of your special.
Yeah. I sort of wanted the special to be a bit like, if we ever did a scripted show, for it to be sort of a back door pilot.
And you talked about how they gave you your big break. But prior to that, I imagine they must have been a big influence on you.
Yeah. They’re the greatest of all time in magic. They’ve had such a long career, and they’ve created so much unique individual material that they’ve set the bar really.
I’m sure that must be surreal then to go from watching them do magic to getting to work with them.
Yeah, it’s been surreal the fact that they’re my mentors and friends to me. Because yeah, I watched them as a kid growing up.
Is there a specific trick you remember watching as a kid that truly wowed you? Like one where you were in complete disbelief?
I used to watch a lot of card magic. There was a show called Stuff the White Rabbit and it was close up magicians where a lot of them were doing card tricks. So I sort of fell in love with card tricks and I learned how to do them. That was my gateway drug.
Now I’ve got to ask about one of my favorite moments from the special. What is the origin of David Copperfish?
He’s gone through two incarnations. Originally he was called Darren Gold, because in England, there’s a really famous magician named Darren Brown who reads minds. And when I moved to America, he became Criss Angelfish for a bit. Then Teller did a version of that trick on their show Fool Us. So for a while it was Fin and Teller.
Before finally, there’s a rap by – god I can’t remember who it is – there’s a song about David Copperfield. And I loved the song so much that I put it in the show and started calling him David Copperfish. And weirdly again – it’s been such a strange career – but I actually know David personally. He’s a legend and he’s been great to me over the years. So that was sort of my little tribute to him, to have him in the special as David Copperfish.
Let’s talk a bit about your show in Vegas. So after all these years on the road, I imagine that must be an added perk of playing Vegas. Instead of being on the road all the time, the audience can come straight to you.
Well for the first 5 years, we would play Vegas Monday through Wednesday and we would go out and tour and hit a comedy club Thursday through Sunday. And then be back in Vegas on Monday. We did that for five years and it was exhausting. But during the pandemic, we actually moved rooms from the small show room that’s in the special into the Flamingo showroom which is where Donny and Marie Osmond were for 11 years. They ended their run, and we took over from them. Now we’re in a much bigger show room, so we don’t have to your as much.
Which I’m sure is way better.
Yeah, I love it. I love being in my own bed most of the time.
How would you say the special is as a representation of your Vegas show? Are there elements of your show that you wanted to keep special for those coming to see you?
The nice thing was, when we moved showrooms, we made up a brand new show from scratch. So the show we do in Vegas is completely different from the one we do in the special. So that’s why now was a good time to release it.
Oh wow. So you must have taped the special a while ago then.
Yeah, we shot the live portion a year or so before the pandemic. And then the stuff in the streets about 6 months later. And then the pandemic happened and we just sort of sat on it.
Well I’m glad you finally released it! Was Vegas a destination at all for you? Because obviously, that’s the place to be if you’re a magician in the States.
Right. It was never intentional. But it was just sort of the way that it worked out. And looking back, it’s kind of the perfect place to be. But when I was coming up and developing my act and my show, I never once imagined that I’d end up being a Vegas headliner. It’s incredible to be part of it.
Did it take a while to get used to seeing buses drive by with your face on it?
There’s a big laundry truck in Vegas, which is a huge semi truck, and it’s got my face all over it. And I still don’t really believe it.
Do people recognize you out of the costume?
Very occasionally. They recognize the dog a lot. Piffles gets recognized. But I manage to get away with it. It’s a little bit like Clark Kent and Superman.
I’ve always been curious with anyone that does sort of a blend of two things, such as magic and comedy. Did you ever feel yourself getting pushback from either side early on?
Yeah, of course. Comedians are always like “It’s not really comedy” and magicians are like “It’s not really magic.” But you know, I love what I do. We just put a new trick in the show where the dog pisses any drink named by an audience. And it’s like that’s the sort of material that I can do where a comedian can’t do that and a straight magician can’t do that. It’s only doing the hybrid that I get to develop this really fun material.
So you’ve got the best case scenario to do this sort of stuff.
For me. I love it for me. I’ve got friends who are comedians and they’re all about the purity of the art form and going onstage with nothing but a bottle of water. But I guess I just always thought that it’s funny to have a small dog onstage and be wearing a dragon outfit.
And I’m sure you can only get to this place after years of experience with more straight magic.
Yeah. I used to get fired everywhere. I used to do straight magic at the beginning, and I got fired because I was too grumpy. I was just too sarcastic to people all the time. So it never worked out. It was only when I got in the dragon outfit when suddenly nobody took me seriously anymore and the jokes became obvious.
And look how that worked out. You proved them all wrong! Now I’ve talked to a lot of comedians about their joke writing process, but I’ve never really got to learn much about the process of creating a trick. What is that aspect like?
Oh it’s a nightmare. Because here’s what happens. You have an idea for a trick. And for me, because I’m a comedian as well as a magician, the idea has to be really funny. So like the thing we just talked about, I had this idea where the dog pees any drink the audience names, which is based on a really old magic trick where you have a tea kettle and any drink you name, you pour out of the tea kettle. So instead of a kettle, I’ve got a dog. And instead of a spout… I think you get the idea.
But once you have an idea, you’ve got to make it happen. And it literally took 18 months and tens and thousands of dollars to make that trick work. It’s like if a comedian had to pay a thousand dollars every time they wanted to try out a joke, there would be a lot less comedians. And that’s why there’s so few good comedy magicians.
Absolutely. Also a magic trick going wrong onstage is probably a lot more noticeable than a joke not working.
Yeah. Magic’s binary. It either works or it doesn’t. So it can get pretty embarrassing at times.
What is the longest that you’ve worked on a specific trick?
We spent about three years on this sort of main trick for the new show at the Flamingo. Did you ever see that thing on The Office where they put the stapler inside the jello?
Yes of course.
So we do a version of that trick where we get somebody’s watch from the audience and it ends up inside a sealed can of peanut butter, which is inside a jello. And that took about three years to develop.
I can imagine there’s no greater feeling than finally getting that trick right after three years.
Exactly. And the fact that there’s nobody else who can do it, the fact that it’s unique. It’s great to be doing a show where that’s the only place people can come to see that material.
Totally! And despite having been in magic for so long, are you still able to get amazed by certain tricks?
Oh yeah. Yeah I go and see my buddies. I go and see David Copperfield, Penn and Teller. I go and see a guy named Mac King. And they’re all doing this great magic that I have no idea how it works. So I love it.
And because you guys are all insiders, are you able to ask them how something works and do they tell you? Or do you like the idea of not knowing?
I like the idea of not knowing. Because finding out how a trick works is usually disappointing and always boring.
Sometimes you don’t want to see how the sausage is made I guess.
Exactly. Just enjoy the sausage.
And finally, I know it’s hard to pick, but what are some of your favorite moments from doing your show?
The thing I love is, every night I use about 5 or 6 different members of the audience. Whatever they say or whatever they do, I have to improvise and find ways to make it work around it. So the show is always fresh and new to me every night.
There’s one bit where I do 3 minutes of stand-up in the show and I say the same thing night after night after night. That bit is always the same and that’s always the bit where I find my mind wandering. So that’s always the reason why I love doing magic along with the comedy. The show is fresh to me every single night.