Nipsey Russell hits the stage like a man in a time warp. He flashes the peace sign to the crowd at Harrah's Bay Cabaret Room in Atlantic City. He wears flared pants and a white double-breasted jacket. And he tells some moldy jokes: ''My idea of a beautiful girl is somebody with a Sunday-school face and a Saturday-night body''; ''Kids are something today no sooner are they off the pot than they're on the pot.'' The 70-year-old comic's retro routine gets big laughs from an audience that's too young to remember his hilarious appearances on Dean Martin's celebrity roasts.
This process of latent discovery is pre-cisely the point of The Big Room, the HA! cable channel series that teams classic comedians with somewhat avant-garde directors. The Russell show was directed by Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song). ''Nipsey and I go back 20 years,'' Van Peebles says, ''He did guest spots on my first Broadway hit (Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death), so this is like old home for me.''
Says Big Room executive producer Mary Salter: ''A show like this helps people recognize the roots of stand-up and to understand that the form didn't start with Jay Leno.''