Malden native masters the art of mirth

Substitute teacher is a rising star in comedy firmament

…By Rob Azevedo, Globe Correspondent

SAUGUS – There’s nothing worse than watching a comic performing in front of a frigid audience. Stand on your face. Play the kazoo. Hang a burning clothespin from your bottom lip. A comedian will do just about anything to warm the veins of an uneasy crowd.

And on a recent cold and damp Friday night at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Saugus, one comedian, Dave Russo, said he was happy he wasn’t the first comic taking the stage.

“Placement is very important in this business,” said Russo, a lifelong resident of Malden. “Nobody wants to go on first.” Comics want the crowd warmed up before they do their thing.

After a long week of selling mortgages, hauling feathers, cutting steel of fighting madness on the Tobin Bridge, the people in attendance were banking on some comic relief in return for the $12 they just shelled out at the door.

“You got to take the people and punch ‘em right in the side of the head,” said Russo, sipping a Coke as he surveyed the crowd from the back of the room at Nick’s inside the Kowloon Restaurant on Route 1. Placement and reaction are just two of the many lessons Russo has learned over the past three years, since he decided to hang up his headset at Nabisco, where he worked as an accounts representative, to become a standup comedian.

Russo has been learning the ropes on the local comedy circuit since 1997, when he walked into Remington’s on Boylston Street for an open-mic night.

Since then he has performed at just about every established comedy venue in the area, including The Comedy Connection, The Comedy Palace, Giggles, and Nick’s Comedy Stop.

Last spring, Russo beat out 75 contestants and won the 2000 Boston Comedy Festival.

Recently Russo spent 10 days hustling his act in Los Angeles. There he worked every night for more than a week, competing with established West Coast jesters. One night Russo even performed behind the legendary Rodney Dangerfield.

“It’s different out there, thought” said Russo, who will only say that he is in his mid-20s. “They didn’t get a lot of my jokes. Everybody’s an actor, you know?”

But make no bones about it; Russo’s a rookie in the business. Each night he performs is more than just barreling through a handful of jokes, he says. It’s a test of mental durability and creative persistence.

All the lights in LA and all the awards in the world don’t add up to much when the audience is looking up at you stone-faced and weary.

“You have to get the crowd to trust you,” Russo said. “You have to get the audience on your side.”

By the time Russo took the stage at Nick’s the beef-and-oyster-sauce dinner plates had been disposed of. Warm hands were now wrapped around frosty Fog Cutters and Pi Yis.

The crowd was ready to laugh. Bellies were full, throats were wet, and they wanted to be entertained. And here came Russo, all 5 feet 6 inches of him. He takes the stage wearing jeans, a black sweater and a black jacket. A thick vein ran down the side of this neck.

During a performance Russo likes to get right up in the face of the crowd. For this night, he said, he’d hit them with some new material on family values, home schooling and the absurdity of cellular phone mania.

On stage Russo became wound up tight. He’s constantly sliced into the air. His eyes bounced around. His body shook as he walked the stage looking possessed by life’s riddles.

His humor is tasteful. Rarely does Russo let an “F-bomb” fly. There’s no crotch grabbing or finger waving, either. He doesn’t do cheap gender jokes, and he steadfastly refuses to touch on racism or skits about sexually deviant acts.

“My humor is like, well, everyday-type stuff,” Russo said.

Three minutes into his set the crowd was responding. People were laughing, connecting with his humor. The cell phone bit was a killer. His Robert DeNiro impression hit the crowd between the eyes. Russo looked pleased.

“I told you I’d punch them in the face!” Russo said after his performance. “Damn, that’s a great crowd!”

Mike Clarke, booking agent for Nick’s Comedy Stop and Giggles, said Russo had plenty of potential in stand-up comedy.

“I consider him to be the rookie of the year,” said Clarke, citing Russo’s recent third-place finish at the San Francisco Comedy Competition as a big step in the right direction. He’s young, and he’s constantly doing fresh stuff. A lot of people have expressed interest in him.”

Ron Sava, owner of the Comedy Palace in Andover, agreed with Clarke.

“He’s probably going to be the next Jim Carrey,” Sava said. “He works very hard and he deserves everything he gets.”

It was at a public speaking class at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, where Russo majored in business management, that he noticed he had talent for being center stage. But it was years earlier that Russo came to appreciate being on the receiving end of a crowd’s loud applause.

During his senior year at Malden High School, Russo became the Massachusetts state wresting champion in the 136-pound weight division – after just two years in the sport. His junior year he finished second overall.

Through his wrestling success, Russo won a scholarship to Wiles University.

Soon after graduating, Russo said, he realized he missed performing, even if only at a podium or on a wrestling mat.

Not long after Russo quit his sales job, he got on the list to be a substitute teacher in the Malden public schools. The job, he says, enables him to put more time into his routine, practicing timing and delivery. He tries to perform every night in one of the local comedy shops around Boston and the North Shore.

Russo says he also has more time for writing material. “I write all the time – night, day, all the time.”

Twenty-four hours after performing at Nick’s, Russo was back on Route 1, but this time he’s at Giggles in the Prince Pizza Restaurant in Saugus.

This would be a big night for Russo. Hometown workhorse Lenny Clarke was hosting the nights’ events, and the place was packed. Pitchers of beer and carafes of wine seemed to be everywhere. Panned pizzas covered red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. The crowd is getting loose on grated cheese, black olives and hops.

When it came Russo’s turn to perform, Clark introduced him as “a kid who’s starting to make a name for himself.”

Then from out of the kitchen came Captain Ritalin himself, bounding onstage in manic fashion, his hands still chopping the air as he delivered his jokes with perfect timing and pitch.

The crowd seemed to love the energy level of the stocky kid in jeans and a black V-neck sweater.

His biggest applause followed this line: “If I invented the bra, there’s no way it would have taken me 50 years to bring the hook to the front.”

Steve Spinosa from Saugus said he really enjoyed Russo. “The kid had a lot of energy,” he said. “Yeah I liked him. He was good.”

After the show, Russo is still buzzing. He shakes hands with people, and considers heading in town to see if he can land a six-minute guest spot at one of the clubs.

Wherever he goes, Russo seems willing to do stand-up to the end.

“I’ve got something,” he said. “I just don’t want to be a wasted talent.”