The Dragons of CSICon

Rob Palmer

The associations between dragons and skepticism that I can think of are few: there is the must-read book by Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, as well as Sagan’s brilliant essay, The Dragon in My Garage (actually a chapter from The Demon-Haunted World). And more recently there was the first Skeptoid film, Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Henceforth, there will be one more association: Piff the Magic Dragon.

Why? Because this year’s CSICon attendees will be treated to a private show by the world’s one and only magic dragon (and his little dog too). Yes, a cryptid, and a magic one at that, will be among us at the conference. Accompanied by his two faithful assistants—Mr. Piffles the Chihuahua, and showgirl Jade Simone—Piff will be performing for us on Friday, October 18, at 3 p.m.

As his PR material notes, although Piff may not be as famous as his older brother Steve, his career took off following his first appearance on America’s Got Talent. In addition to touring the world and performing in iconic venues such as Radio City Music Hall, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and the Sydney Opera House, Piff is now the resident performer at the Flamingo Las Vegas, the site of this year’s CSICon.

The Flamingo even re-named its “Bugsy’s Cabaret” theater as the “Piff the Magic Dragon Theater,” bravely risking angering the ghost of Bugsy Siegel. That legendary mobster built the hotel, supposedly naming it after his gun moll, and is rumored to haunt the grounds to this day. (This sounds like an on-site investigation opportunity for Kenny Biddle, if ever I heard one! Luckily, he will be a CSICon speaker this year!)

 


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Rob Palmer: Hello Piff, and thanks for doing this Skype interview with me. Let me start by saying that since dragons are rather rare, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever interview another one. So, this is a great opportunity! First off, why are you a dragon, and not a unicorn, or Bigfoot, or some other mythological being?

Piff the Magic Dragon: The first question is, “Am I even a dragon?” Because, well I don’t have wings … I can’t even fly. So, I don’t know. What happened was: I was a regular human magician for many years. And it never really worked out for me … I had a sort of very grumpy face, and I was getting fired everywhere. And then I had to go to a costume party, and I didn’t have a costume to wear and I said to my sister, “Do you have anything to wear?” And she said, “Yes, I have a dragon outfit under my bed.”

So, the fact that it’s even a dragon outfit is solely down to my sister and her interpretation of the facts. And, I did ask her recently, ten years later, I did ask her, “Was it definitely a dragon outfit?,” and she could not authenticate that. So, it was definitely some sort of lizardy, reptile-ish creature that I prefer to look at as a dragon.

And, to be fair, who knows what a magic dragon is? Because there are all types. There’s a water dragon, a Komodo dragon, Chinese dragons, the Game of Thrones dragons. So, who’s to say a magic dragon can’t just be a grumpy English one with no wings.

Palmer: I thought maybe your wings were invisible. So, you’re just a dragon without wings at all?

Piff: Sometimes I’ve added wings. I did a thing on America’s Got Talent, and I did a thing with Cirque du Soleil when I flew in over the audience. So, I guess the wings are detachable.

Palmer: Thinking about it, it seems dragons are all over the place. There’s Puff, Smaug, Charizard, the Game of Thrones dragons … even Godzilla is sort of dragony with his fire breathing! Any idea why they always seem to have just a single name?

Piff: Yes, dragons are interesting because they’re like vampires: they exist in every culture. And I guess it’s difficult to fill out paperwork when you’ve got claws.

Palmer: So, you have joked about your brother being named Steve. But what’s your connection to Puff?

Piff: Well, I went to that costume party in the dragon outfit. And nobody else turned up in costume. It was just me. And one of my friends who knew that I was a magician said to me, “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 have heard of my older brother, Steve.” And that’s where that came from.

Palmer: I have a question about your on-stage persona, from friends of mine who are fans of yours. They told me that you always seem grumpy or even maybe depressed in your shows. So, they wanted to know if you’ve tried antidepressants, and what would be the correct dosage for a dragon anyway?

Piff: [Laughing] Oh dear. Antidepressants are the worst, because it takes so long to dial them in. When my friend became a doctor, he told me, “Oh, yeah, we’re just guessing.” At that time, I worked in IT. And when a computer would go wrong, you’d just try a few things. And he was like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what we’re doing.” The idea that doctors have it down to an exact science is deeply mythical. No, no, I mean, I’ve always felt pretty happy. And I’ve just got this sort of this resting grumpy face that people interpret as miserable. So, I decided to become a dragon and make the most of it.

Palmer: So, you did magic before you were a dragon, and you weren’t very successful. Was it also a comedy act?

Piff: Not intentionally. It was me doing magic tricks. And then sort of people would say ridiculous things, like, “Can you make my wife disappear? Can you do this? Can you do that?” And I would make a comment to them that I would think was funny, and a couple of people would think was funny, but most people would just get offended. So, the dragon outfit definitely helped make me socially acceptable.

Palmer: Your advertising flyer says you are “50% Comedian. 50% Magician. 100% Dragon.” What’s harder: doing the magic or getting the comedy right?

Piff: It is, without question, getting the magic tricks to work. That is the hardest bit. Because for the comedy, you can rewrite a joke pretty quickly, but to make a magic trick work it’s usually at least a month or two in R&D prototyping. And if it doesn’t work, then you have to really go back to the drawing board. Because now you spent all this time on something that nobody even cares about. So, you have to start again.

Palmer: So, if you had to choose to do just one or the other …  Just be a stand-up comic without magic, or to do magic without any comedy …

Piff: Oh … I don’t think I could. I mean, I haven’t been able to … it would have been much easier for me had I just been a regular magician at the beginning.

Palmer: When I watched the video of you coming out on stage for the first time on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, it looked to me from their reactions like neither of them had seen you before that moment.

Piff: Yeah, that’s correct. They had never seen me. So that’s one of the rules on that show: that they don’t know who’s coming on. And then obviously, at the beginning, they don’t know who these people are.

Palmer: So that was a real reaction! Teller was jumping out of his chair.

Piff: Yeah, that was the first time I’ve met them. And then they became good friends and even mentors over the years. I’m actually filming today with Penn because we’re just finishing off a special that I’ve made. He’s my father in the special, and he and I got the last ten or fifteen minutes. So, we’re finishing off that filming today.

Palmer: Speaking of Penn and Teller, due to your success, do you have the pair thinking about assuming dragon personas for their Vegas show?

Piff: We’ve done it! Penn has his own dragon outfit. Fool Us got taken on by an American network. And I think last season, in the first episode, it was me and Penn doing the father-son dragon act. And Teller was our faithful squire.

Palmer: Were Penn and Teller your main comedic influences early on?

Piff: It was the people who are a little more irreverent. It was people like The Amazing Johnathan, Penn and Teller, Harry Anderson … and also if you look at some of the Copperfield stuff, like with the singing tie, he’s got amazingly funny routines as well. But obviously, the other stuff that Copperfield does is very straight and serious. And that was what I was reacting against.

Palmer: I love magic shows. I’ve gone to shows to see Penn and Teller, Copperfield, and ages ago Doug Henning on Broadway. But I would not watch the Masked Magician on TV. I really don’t want to know how the magic is done. What did you think of the whole Masked Magician thing in the late 1990s?

Piff: It didn’t really bother me. Because to me, the interesting thing about the magic isn’t the secret. If I see a great trick done by another magician, I don’t really care how it was done. Because usually the secrets are terrible. And that’s often the thing … usually a secret is nothing but a disappointment. But there are occasions when it’s a really great secret. And then knowing how the trick works almost makes it better. But those are the exceptions. Usually, the secret to the magic trick is the most disappointing part of it.

Palmer: So, what was the best magic trick you’ve ever seen done by someone else?

Piff: Oh, it kind of goes without saying that almost everything that Penn and Teller have done … not only is it a great magic trick, but it also has great thought behind it. It has a great purpose, and it’s not just them doing something for the sake of it. And then there’s the other things, like I went to see Copperfield and he made a car appear on my face. And it’s just difficult to forget that. There is a car where there was no car. I really love great magic, but I definitely do not enjoy the stuff that isn’t great magic, which is a lot of things.

Palmer: Which might include Andre I presume—the guy on Russian TV who stole your entire act? I saw that video recently. How did you find out about that? And what was your reaction?

Piff: I think people tweeted me and they said, you know, have you seen this thing? And, I mean it’s kind of hilarious. Again, it’s like, when I went on America’s Got Talent, I thought it would be really funny to get to the finals and lose. Well, it was clear to me that not everyone thought that. So, I kind of love the fact that somebody in Russia spent serious time and money making an exact replica of my costume, learning my act word for word, shot for shot and then …

Palmer: Except for using a guinea pig!

Piff: Exactly! Being unable to find a Chihuahua, and having to substitute a guinea pig. To me, all of that is just hilarious. So, I was a big fan of his. I thought he got a hard deal.

Palmer: Did you ever contact him?

Piff: No, no, no. I just mocked him mercilessly online.

Palmer: All right, let’s talk about your assistant, Jade Simone. How did you get a real Las Vegas showgirl to join the show?

Piff: Actually, Jade and I did a show together when I was in poverty. I had moved to America to be in a show in Las Vegas. Six months later, it closed. And so, I was just stuck in anonymity. And during that year, I went on America’s Got Talent, but that takes like six months before it airs, and I also met Jade. We were doing a show together, and we started dating. After I went on America’s Got Talent, I started touring all over America. Jade was a comedian and dancer, and eventually I said, “Hey, you should be in the act.” Because she was doing this Las Vegas showgirl thing, and I said that’d be really funny to do in the act. So, she joined the team.

Palmer: But why as a human and not as another dragon?

Piff: That’s a good point. I guess, because she had the act already. And, to me, there was something hilarious about a dragon having a crazy over-the-top Las Vegas showgirl.

Palmer: All right, let’s talk about Mr. Piffles. Did you consider another persona for your Chihuahua assistant from the very beginning, or was it clear from the start that he was going to be a dragon too?

Piff: There was a Chihuahua when I was in Edinburgh in 2009, and I put that dog in my show. And it was so funny, I went out the next day and I got Mr. Piffles. And, so I didn’t really think about it. And then you know, eventually I started seeing dinosaur costumes for dogs. So, we put him in a dinosaur costume. And then it was just really funny to me, when people are saying “So you’re a genuine magic dragon?” And I would say “Yes.” And then they’d say, “So, is the dog a dragon too?” I’d say “No, it’s just a dog in a dragon outfit.” Having that sort of play was funny to me.

Palmer: I just recently learned there was a celebrity who snuck his pet into Australia, bypassing their rigorous quarantine. He got into all sorts of trouble on social media, if not officially. So, how does that work for Mr. Piffles? How do you manage to travel around the world with him?

Piff: Yeah, Australia and New Zealand are a problem, but most other countries are fine. He can come back and forth from America because he has a passport, and he has all his vaccines. He’s got a little blue passport. You know, the U.K. is tied to Europe so that’s fine too. Well at the moment, until Brexit, and then it’s going to get a lot more difficult. It just gets tricky when you go to [Australia and New Zealand] where they have their own wildlife. So, 99 percent of the time it’s fine. And the other 1 percent of the time I have to borrow another Chihuahua, which is always a nightmare.

Palmer: Oh, so how does that work? Because Mr. Piffles seems so well behaved.

Piff: Yeah, it pretty much doesn’t work. I mean, that’s the truth. It’s kind of a nightmare.

Palmer: But even when you’re in the United States, or someplace else where you have him, what happens if he’s sick? Does he have an understudy?

Piff: He does have an understudy who’s terrible at magic. He doesn’t really do anything in the show anyway. He just sits there. So, it’s very rare that he has an off day.

Palmer: Well, he does do something! I saw your appearance on America’s Got Talent, where he was under a cloth with a blank whiteboard and markers. And he drew a beautiful picture of a giraffe and the Eiffel Tower. So, he does do something.

Piff: He may appear to do something.

Palmer: Come on … how did you teach him to do that?

Piff: [Laughing] Especially as he doesn’t even have thumbs, so how does he hold the pen?

Palmer: Well, I assumed it was in his mouth.

Piff: That’s a good assumption.

Palmer: During your appearance on America’s Got Talent: The Champions, you talked about Mr. Piffles hating you after your first loss. So, how is he handling you losing on that show a second time?

Piff: Yeah, I mean, I think he never really let go of the pain.

Palmer: About CSICon … you’re going to perform for a group of skeptics—people who don’t believe in actual magic, or in cryptids (like dragons). How can they believe in you?

Piff: Well … I grew up as an evangelical Christian, and I did Gospel magic when I was much younger. So, Penn Jillette turned sixty a while ago, and I went to his party and I performed a Gospel magic piece for his birthday.

Palmer: Gospel magic? Can you explain that?

Piff: Gospel magic is when you use magic to spread the message of Christianity. With Gospel magic, you say things like “This red silk represents the blood of Jesus, and this white silk represents the Holy Spirit, and this green silk represents … .” And as soon as you move away from the blood of Jesus, you basically really struggling for a metaphor. You’re struggling to justify why you have another five silks. But Penn and I both love overextended metaphors.

Palmer: Knowing a bit about Penn, I’m surprised he actually appreciated you doing Gospel magic for him.

Piff: Yes … The point is I performed a Gospel magic piece for Penn’s birthday, and in that vein, well … skeptics just have to appreciate me being a genuine magical dragon.

Palmer: So, you were raised as a fundamentalist Christian. What are your thoughts on religion now?

Piff: Oh, now I don’t know. [Laughs] This is what I love saying to Penn as well. I remember when Trump was running for president, and I said to Penn, “Hey, listen. I’m a little concerned this is going to happen. You always seem to have the truth. You always seem to know the facts behind things. So, what are the facts behind this?” And he said that they had done the math, and “There’s no way that Trump can win. So, it’s not going to happen.” And then, three months later, he’s president. So, my joke with Penn is always that at some point he’s going to be renouncing his atheism and jump on the God bandwagon. [Laughs] But the truth is that … you know, it’s that thing about the older you get, the less you know.

Palmer: Did you know that some fundamentalists claim that dragons were actually fire-breathing dinosaurs? Large cavities in their heads let combustion happen or something like that. What do you think about that?

Piff: I mean, what do you do? What do you do with so many of their arguments? There are so many. I’ve got very good friends still in that world, and also, I’ve personally really benefited from it. I’ve had some very, very good friends do very great things for me in my life, from that world. So, there is definitely a big positive side. But like you say, some of it is ludicrous. And a lot of it is incredibly damaging.

Palmer: On a lighter note, (or maybe not), here is a question about an important issue to many in this country. And apparently, it’s even a trigger topic for some people, because I’ve seen arguments that go on and on and on about it. So, if you don’t feel safe taking a stand on this, I won’t blame you: Is a hotdog a sandwich?

Piff: Well, it’s a roll, isn’t it? Doesn’t it go in a roll? Is a burger a sandwich?

Palmer: That’s a parallel question. But the one that’s been all-over social media is the hotdog question.

Piff: Yeah, I would say no, because to me a sandwich is two slices of bread. A sandwich is that. A burger is in a bun, and a hotdog is in a roll. Those are the facts.

Palmer: All right. Thanks for weighing in. So last question: On the final evening of the conference, Saturday, they always have a costume party because this in late October near Halloween. The theme this year is the 1950s. Are you coming? And what costume would a magic dragon wear?

Piff: Well, I would go as Godzilla, because he’s a dinosaur. But sadly, I will not be there. I’ll be in Arizona that night. But I expect somebody to dress up as me and represent!

 


Links to some key performances:

 


 

Note that parts of this interview have been edited for continuity and clarity with the subject’s consent.

Acknowledgements: I want to thank Piff for his participation in this interview. Thank you also to my friends for contributing several of the questions: unabashed Piff-fans Bonnie Ralli and Bruce Ralli and foodie Perry An.

Photo credits:

  • Main photo: Christopher DeVargas
  • All other photos courtesy of Piff the Magic Dragon

Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer has had a diverse career in engineering, having worked as a spacecraft designer, an aerospace project engineer, a computer programmer, and a software systems engineer. Rob became a skeptical activist when he joined the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team in 2016, and began writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 2018. Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com Like Rob's Facebook page to get notified when his articles are published.