SAN DIEGO — Just ayear ago, Derrick Cameron was still earning his living selling carpets in a local department store.
But now he supports himself by telling jokes in comedy nightclubs and hotel lounges all over North America--from Palm Desert to Mazatlan.
Recently, Cameron's star has been rising faster than ever. On March 31, he placed first in the Northern California Comedy Competition in Sacramento.
Two weeks later, he landed a slot in the semifinals of the third annual San Diego Laff-Off, which was won by San Diegan Russ T. Nailz.
He will be back at the Improv tonight for the weekly Best of San Diego Showcase. And after that he will be off on a national and Canadian tour.
In show business circles, Cameron's jump from the sales floor to the stage in so short a time makes him an overnight success. But even more significant is the fact that Cameron, 23, accomplished all this entirely on his own.
"I don't have an agent and I don't have a manager," said Cameron, who lives with his parents in Southeast San Diego.
"I get up early each day, no matter where I am. And then I get on the phone and hustle my tail off."
Like such established black comedians as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, Cameron frequently pokes fun at stereotypes about his own ethnic group.
"People think blacks don't like to go to the beach," he told the audience at the Improv during an appearance there recently. "But that's not true--the fact is, we just tan at night.
"You look along any beach at 12:30 at night and there are brothers all over the place, saying, 'Yo, Frankie, pass the Coppertone.' "
Cameron said later: "Stereotypes are silly, and by bringing them out into the open, people have the chance to see how stupid they really are.
"Every comedian writes material that affects him personally, and that's why making fun of yourself is the best way to win over an audience. If a white guy would tell jokes about blacks, he would come across as a racist and the crowd might find that offensive.
"But I can get away with it because I'm black myself, and I've experienced many of the stereotypes I pick on."
Unlike Pryor and Murphy, however, Cameron consciously avoids profanity or any type of blue humor.
"My act is very clean," he said. "I don't want to be pointed out as being just another stereotypical black comedian. I want to be known as me, Derrick Cameron. And to accomplish that, I have to do things differently.
"Besides, I have always felt that it takes a little more skill to write something that is funny in itself, without using dirty words as crutches.
"It presses me forward into becoming more imaginative--and more creative."
Cameron's routine includes simple observations about day-to-day life.
"I'm a people-watcher," he said. "We do so many silly things that we don't even think about, and when we do think about them, they're funny.
"For instance, people who drive convertibles will park their cars and lock their doors--but leave the top down. Or people with car phones who really can't afford them. Just the other day, I saw some guy making a call on the highway in his Pinto.
"I thought to myself, who's this guy going to call? His mechanic? 'Hello, can you come pick me up?' "
The last few months in Cameron's life have been a nonstop road trip, with occasional daylong "vacations" to compete in regional comedy contests like the one in Sacramento and the local Laff-Off.
"Wherever I go, I spend the first 10 minutes or so talking about the city I'm in," Cameron said. "That gets the crowd on my side right away, because it shows them I took the time and interest to find out about things they're familiar with.
"Like any comic, my hopes are to be known nationally. But building a national following takes time, so right now I'm trying to build as many local followings as I can.
"And watching people, and then talking about those people, is the best way to accomplish that."