WAQUOIT – Sitting in his log cabin, watching five kayakers saunter down the Moonakis River, Preston Simpson, 52, reflected on the winding path that led him to Waquoit. “When I reached 50, I thought, how much time do I have left and what do I want to do with it? It’s all about falling in love with Cape Cod.”
Simpson, a bartender at the Quarterdeck Restaurant in Falmouth, has worked as dancer, choreographer, and actor all over the world. He has been an understudy for Big Bird, and Snuffleupagus “front and back” on the traveling show, “Sesame Street Live.” And yes, he thinks he’s some kind of comedian – the kind who has appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman.
“I’m sort of reinventing myself right now,” said Simpson, who will perform a 20-minute stand-up comedy set, along with comedians Dave Russo, Dave Rattigan, and Pete Costello at the Beach House in North Falmouth on Saturday night. A portion of the proceeds are being donated to Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman.
In many ways, Simpson has been inventing and reinventing himself all of his life. “I was going to be an archeologist and find Bigfoot,” said Simpson of his earliest ambition. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh by parents who met in the theater in Philadelphia.
Simpson theorizes now that he was trying to appeal to his father, who loved the theater, when he began auditioning for plays in school. “I was one of four boys. We all played sports. To stand out to my father, I followed the path of theater,” said Simpson.
One early gig in particular stands out. “I played Santa Claus for a state hospital. There were severely mentally-challenged people in the audience who believed I was Santa Claus. I realized that I have the ability to make other people be happy and take them away from their daily lives by becoming other people and bringing them to life.”
Once Simpson connected with his first audience, there was no looking back. He also discovered he was a dancer and made the scene as a break dancer in the 1980s. He went to New York University for theater, but after two years he ran out of money.
After a trip to Europe, Simpson tried school again, this time at Park Point University in his hometown of Pittsburgh. “I put together a dance routine to Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’. I wore overalls and a bandanna, and I was break-dancing. When I finished, they said, ‘You’re accepted, and we’re going to give you a scholarship.”
After graduating, he did a lot of musical theater and he landed a gig as the tall understudy on ‘Sesame Street Live,’ where characters are put into height categories. “I never got to do Big Bird because he never got sick,” said Simpson, who also was the understudy for Guy Smiley, Cookie Monster and Snuffleupagus.
Once, he said, he had to go out as Bert because that actor was sick. The medium understudy was also sick, so Simpson was Bert for the evening. “The costume was a little small for me,” he said.
He did Sesame Street Live because it “was a way to get my equity card,” said Simpson, who said the actor’s union card is necessity in the world of professional performers.
“It’s hard work,” said Simpson of the Sesame Street show. “It’s the hardest show physically to do. It’s a heavy costume with a big head, and you have to dance.”
After that ended, he had a variety of experiences, including performing in and directing a show in Germany, taking a part in the movie “Godzilla” and performing in many television commercials. He was also married to and then divorced from a woman from Germany. When his German show and marriage ended, he told himself, “It’s my life. What do I really want to do?”
He decided upon comedy. It was the year 2000.
He took a class with comedian Tommy Koenig and then put together a 7-minute show that was taped at Caroline’s Comedy Club, said Simpson. This video is what he shows to prospective venues and for more than a decade he has been traveling the country doing shows.
He had been based in New York and regularly auditioning for parts and landing some very cool gigs such as that of a sportscaster on The Onion Sports Network. He even played in a skit as an audience member at Late Night With David Letterman.
He was also cast in many commercials and auditioned for others. “I did a lot of Viagra commercial auditions,” he said. “I auditioned for Viagra, dentures, and KY personal lubricant all in one week,” he said.
Through all of this, he has traveled performing on stage, and even as the voice of a robot for a company that brings social robots into settings as diverse as hospitals and corporations.
But on March 1 of this year, he and his wife, Andrea Kooharian-Simpson, who he actually met at NYU, moved to Cape Cod for the lifestyle. His wife is also an actress and a makeup artist, and is the owner of Face Forward Beauty. Both he and he wife, said Simpson, would like to get more involved in the creative culture of Cape Cod.
They are putting down roots, he said, and he hopes he can give back, whether in the form of organizing open mics for comics, teaching classes or ways he hasn’t thought of yet, said Simpson. For now, he is falling in love with his daily lifestyle of fishing, kayaking, and biking “without ever getting into my car.”
That lifestyle, for now, also includes bartending – something Simpson has done as a side job for years. “The thing about bartending is that there is a social aspect to it that I think everybody needs,” said Simpson.
He said he doesn’t strive to be the comedian bartender but instead said, “I try to make people have a great time and get great service. My job is to figure out what their needs are.”
In some ways, perhaps, it is the same with comedy. It was apparent as Simpson deconstructed a joke and explained the subtle yet powerful difference of using one word instead of another. His attention to detail was also clear as he explained how to deal with a heckler, and the best thing to do when his next joke disappears from his mind.
He has to know his audience and connect to his audience, and he is always prepared.
But there are moments when magic happens, said Simpson, “when you are in the zone, right there in the moment and you write a joke on stage.”
Other times, he said, a comedians confidence can be challenged. Everybody bombs, he said, and sometimes jokes don’t work But when they do, he said, he knows he brings a joy to his audience.
“I did this show outside of Binghamton. I had a really great show. And this one guy comes up to me afterward. He’s mild mannered. He’s got thick, smoked glasses, and he’s real quiet. He said, ‘I just want to shake your hand and thank you. I haven’t laughed in 14 years. I’m not going to tell you why. But thank you.’ “
“I gave someone their first laugh in 14 years,” said Simpson. “That makes it all worth it.”
Beach House Comedy Night
Featuring Preston Simpson, Dave Russo, Dave Rattigan, and Pete Costello
Saturday, September 7 at 7 p.m.
Tickets $25 to benefit Jeff Bauman, Boston Marathon bombing victim
Tickets available at thebeachhouserestaurant.com or scampscomedy.com
— Brian Tarcy