The Psychology of Comedy in Magic: A Case Study on Piff the Magic Dragon

Updated: Jul 14, 2019


This thesis is an independent case study on the design of Piff the Magic Dragon’s presentation style. I have never attended any of Piff’s live lectures so I cannot be certain if he's explained the composition of his funny scripts to his followers or not. If my observations indeed matches his teaching, which he might have done, spare me - for I’m about to explain to you how I arrived on my conclusion so that you'll know I’m not plagiarizing from his close associates. By no means I want to reveal his secret to potential hecklers for malicious purposes but I wish to encourage you to improve as a comedy magician, or a magic comedian, by developing your own insights.


I started out my research on feasible strategies that could be used by magicians in creating humorous gags on stage by tapping into political theories, which later led me towards a more abstract, in-depth inquiry in psychologists’ attempts to thoroughly unveil humor. The possibility of constructing a magician’s patter and their image out of the cognitive elements that lead us towards laughter will then be explored.

Before we can fully unleash the power of psychology, let me remind you not to deviate from our goal as magicians, which isn't merely to entertain with puns and jokes but to design funny moments for our magic performances. We don't just put together a funny face and some strong magic and walk onto the stage but aim at joining everything to form a unity with the necessary simplicity, complexity and structural integrity.

So I'll do a few things before the case study begins: 1) explain briefly what psychologists have to offer; 2) explore how these experimental results could be used by comedy magicians; and 3) analyze the components of a comedy magician. You'll see how my third step is a necessary complement to a theatrical theory magicians are already familiar with. At last, we'll test the explanatory power of my theory by analyzing the magic dragon who took the world by storm a few years ago. In fact, it was him who got me into completing this framework.

First Stop: The Skill Used by Both Politicians and Comedians

My first stop on the study of humor is on political humor. Most politicians have poker faces, and yet the best ones are capable of ridiculing their opponents with wittiness. The roots of their humor are so powerful to an extent that they don't have to move a single facial muscle to make their humor work. By outsmarting their opponents, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln often put shouting battles to their ends with ease. I would say they did so by "regulating face" because politicians take reputation as valuable as their lives. Since face is the bitcoin of credibility, it is also the root of all drama, including comedy.

Churchill, on the one hand, is famous for his funny insults. He’s often known for the instance that a female politician accused him of being "disgustingly drunk", in which he responded that the lady was "disgustingly ugly" and that even though he would turn sober the other day, the lady would remain as ugly as she always was.

On the other hand, Lincoln’s funniest response to an insult was the exact opposite of stepping on his rival. When he was confronted and was called "two-faced", he disproved the statement by admitting he had only one face to pick from, which was the ugly one he was always wearing.

In the above examples, Churchill outsmarted his antagonist by poking fun at her while Lincoln resolved the confrontation by making people in the room laugh at him. In both cases, they created a hilarious moment within a remarkably brief exchange of words. This technique is worth magicians’ attention as we intend to create a playful ambience efficiently. To further understand their formulas, I need to borrow another trick frequently performed by politicians - expectation management.

The lady who challenged Churchill first established the expectation for the audience that Churchill was going to have a credibility issue to deal with; and yet Churchill brought out the problem that woman also had to face. By portraying the lady’s ugliness, he brought her image to a new low. Politicians call this distraction; magicians call this misdirection; ugly people call this reality.

We may view face as a scale with two ends: looking good vs looking ugly. Lincoln solved his problem not by apologizing because that would lower people’s expectation for him. Neither did he explained himself elaborately because that wouldn’t be economical. He did it by word play - taking advantage of the two meanings of "face". He sacrificed his self-image to defend his ethical reputation, meanwhile, brought laughter to his audience. The ethics of politicians isn't my focal point; on the contrary, I would like to borrow their face-gaining and face-losing tactics to comedy magic.

In magic glossary, Churchill’s character is close to a murderer and Lincoln's is close to a victim. TOPAS, in Presentation Secrets, suggested that magicians employ the combination of both. Understanding that it is the management of audience expectation and the revelation of the rest of reality that are the keys, we now know how to combine the two personas and when to switch from one to another: you can either elevate and become smarter through achieving magic or you can make yourself look dumber in your performance. As you succeed in your magic, a following dumb act will make you look cute; as you appear dumb in your sucker effect, you may overcome - or you may fail even more miserably. Leave the fun of predicting the direction of the face-struggle to your audience.

Second Stop: Tapping into Psychology

A search of psychologists' attempts in explaining humor led me to the confirmation of my approach of putting a link between expectation management and humor. In 1970s, Professor Lambert Deckers, PhD from Ball State University concluded that it is the degree of incongruity between expectation and the later revealed reality that contributes to laughter. His experiment of asking participants to estimate the weight of an object and letting them feel the real weight that surprised them later on coincides with funny magic presentations, such as Issy Simpson's.

So I had a look into articles related to this theory and found a few essential elements proven to be contributing factors to humor in encompassing psychological experiments. The first element is the degree (and direction) of incongruity between audience expectation and reality. There are two types of such: you can either activate two very different but compatible schemas; or you may bring up a new reality that surpasses the previous condition. For standup comedians, the example of the former type is puns in which two meanings of a word work in harmony; and the latter type is an ending that puts a twist to the garden-path joke. For magicians, we have more options than phrases and facial expressions to choose from to create funny moments. (I'll get into that in the third stop.)

The second element for something funny to resonate is that it should indeed reflect the reality. An unspoken truth that does not exceed audience experiences works effectively. You can look up for magicians' portrayals of their daily encounters on Facebook fairly conveniently. The last factor is a playful environment. And "playful" means the absence of perceived real threat. When you tell a joke, therefore, you can deliberately inject some threatening mood into the plot until everything else is set up and lift the threat when you intend to so as to trigger an outburst of laughter in a split-second after its charging.

Third Stop: What Does a Comedy Magician Consist of?

This is the part I developed after being profoundly inspired by watching Piff the Magic Dragon repeatedly. In addition to my flat smart-vs-dumb spectrum theory which has only a single scale, there is also a vertical structure and a time shift.

On the tip of the iceberg, the audience sees a comedy magician's appearance, facial expressions, their posture, grooming and costume. Next, the audience will judge them by listening to what the magician says and watching the way they say it. Under the sea level, the audience will form the impression of the magician's character, persona, roles and identities. These four can be separate items and the audience will judge whether the items match with one another. Jumping from one level to another can also work magically in creating funny moments as efficiently as moving along one single pole. On a deeper level, by "time shift", I meant a particular established funny moment could also lead to an expectation for which the magician can create another funny moment by paving a different path.

To illustrate the above framework, I'll give you some simple examples. In the 2014 Hindi film PK, a reporter in a brown suit, after finishing his broadcast, stands up and walks off the stage to chat. We would expect to see his full smart outfit but it is revealed that he has been wearing sports pants which make him appear dumb or less smart. This is a horizontal shift along the scale of appearance.

An example for a vertical displacement is a punchline I used when a spectator with a higher social status who was invited to be my helper trying to take the lead. I acted nervous and grumbled, "But I didn't sign up for this!" or "I don't remember that line being in our rehearsal." The second response contradicts with the claim that we hadn't prearranged anything so it made me look dumb. Both lines show that I had gone out of my character and persona as I was jumping to the negotiation of my working terms with the host, asking them to spare me.

Final Destination: The Case Study

Piff, in his magic dragon costume, enters the stage with his cynical look. He appears as a weary businessman who's tired of his job, walking into a nightclub with a handful of customers. But there's definitely a mismatch within his appearance - something strange about an unshaven, grumpy square face wrapped in a shiny, metallic green dragon suit. He's not dumb; he's sad.

The intelligent audience immediately judged Piff by interpreting his look and implied that he was a failure in terms of a performer for children's parties because he had wasted the chance to impress kids in the first place. Not knowing he had a plot to play, viewers were disappointed. But certain things were already set up: failing the audience's expectation of his composing a consistent look, the incongruity between his character (Piff the Magic Dragon) he was supposed to play and his persona (the magician who was playing the character of Piff the Magic Dragon) as well as the suppression of the outburst of amusement by hinting his possible hostility towards the crowd. This allowed him to trigger the moment of the outburst with a punch-word.

"My name is Piff the Magic Dragon. (Pause) You might have heard of my older brother, (pause) Steve."

Piff subtly brought up his another identity - Steve's little brother. And the audience were led to noticing his role as a family member and a member of the society who has his duty to fulfill (and probably not being able to fulfill it). His failing to play his character, his persona of a loser and the mismatch between his outfit and his presentation suddenly worked together to shape a vivid image of the type of little brother and citizenship he has. Viewers and judges were brought back to reality when they realized they were the fools who expected him to say "Puff". His older brother's name "Steve" became the cue for the audience to laugh together. His lack of professionalism made sense as he wasn't trying to be an imaginary character anymore but admitted his failure bluntly. The incompatible difference among all levels became compatible. He utilized the best of both types of incongruity - incompatible schemas and compatible schemas.

In his second debut on America's Got Talent, Piff introduced his fancy folding busking table as "500 dollars". Though the judges had seen him presenting his character and persona, they finally discovered his switching to his smart collector mode. He then pointed his finger to his dog, Mr Piffles. That implied his role as a loving pet owner. But then he introduced Mr Piffles as "1,200 dollars", turning him into a less loving pet owner but a profit-seeking magician. Expectations went low for his magician's role so he impressed the audience by coughing fire. Right after the garden path was twisted, he got us once again by mentioning "74 dollars" after getting rid of his hidden gimmick.

A Few More Words

Take this framework, develop your own insights, write you own scripts, and even improvise with it. Let me know how it goes.

If you're not a comedy magician but a comedian doing some magic, your choice of magic may not be the strongest kind. However, we can already see that what made Piff stand out wasn't just strong magic. A clown who understands audience psychology and is capable of audience management can indeed bring joy and amazement to the crowd with strong presentation and interacting skills. Have fun!

since 2018 by Calvin Sze