By Nick A. Zaino III, Globe Correspondent
Dave Russo grew up in Malden, about as far from the glitz and bright lights of Wayne Newton's Las Vegas floor show as you can get and still be in America. Yet Vegas is where Russo has been for several months, competing with singers, magicians, and other comics on the E! Network's realty show "The Entertainer."

If he wins, Russo will become a fixture in Vegas for the next year, performing with Newton in his show at the Stardust Resort and Casino and headlining a room at the Las Vegas Hilton under a $1 million contract. Not bad for a guy who says he had never seen a reality show before he auditioned for "The Entertainer" last summer.

So how did he wind up there? A little luck and perseverance. Russo was already performing in Las Vegas, as an MC for shows at the Tropicana, when a friend told him about the auditions.

"My buddy forced me to go," he says. "I never watched a reality show, I didn't know anything about reality shows."

Russo made it through the first cut of several thousand, then to a group of 25, and finally to the group of 10 finalists that started the show. Each week, different teams have to work together at real Vegas jobs, some as entertainers, some as concierges or in other service jobs.

Newton and two assistants pick who leaves after each show, but the chosen contestant gets one last chance to stay if he or she can entertain Newton with a song or a joke on the spot.

That takes confidence, something Russo got as a regular at clubs like Giggles in Saugus.

"I always consider my act somewhat versatile, just because doing comedy for nine years, I've pretty much done and seen it all," he says, listing gigs, from bar mitzvahs to a Harlem review, that prepared him for the challenge.

Russo also credits having to work a clean, family-oriented room at Giggles with helping him relate to a Vegas audience.

His act has the feel of the good-natured guy-next-door. Despite the town's reputation for booze and sex, most rooms like their comedy clean, and Russo says he's happy to oblige.

"I like to write middle America material," he says. "I don't consider myself overly edgy at all."

The 10-week run of "The Entertainer" has already been shot, complete with five different endings. If Russo knows which one is real, he's not saying.

He has moved out to Vegas, at least temporarily, he says, to take advantage of publicity opportunities. At the very least, he hopes the TV exposure will land him a manager and some better club dates.

But Russo knows show business is rough, and he was quite happy settling into the Boston scene before he got his shot with Wayne Newton.

"I was pretty much making Boston my home," he says. "And if I didn't get the breaks, I was just going to still enjoy doing the comedy, earn a living doing that, and be a big fish in a small pond."

http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_art...newton_tryout/