The first thing you need to do before even considering a career as a stand-up comic is be brutally honest with yourself. Before you subject yourself to the potential humiliation of heckling audiences or chirping crickets, do a little soul searching and ask yourself a few questions:
• Do I have a track record of making my friends, family and co-workers laugh (or does stand-up comedy just seem like it would be a cool job)?
• Am I prepared to sacrifice financially and support myself with the dreaded day job for months or even years while I'm getting started in stand-up comedy?
• Am I thick-skinned enough to tolerate unanswered phone calls from booking agents, unresponsive (or even hostile) audiences, and the grueling rigors of life on the road?
If you managed to answer "yes" to most or all of these questions, it's probably a sign that you're in serious need of some therapy. But it's also your green light to put the pedal to the metal and take the stand-up comedy on-ramp. And now that you've gotten this far, let's look at some of the more practical ins and outs of breaking into the stand-up biz.
It all starts with the material (or the "bits" as they're commonly called in the business). Write your own stuff, no matter how bad it may be at first, and practice each joke relentlessly, until you can do it in your sleep, without thinking about it. And kids, never steal another comic's material. It's an unwritten rule, and breaking it will quickly turn you into a joke in your own right. You'll develop a reputation as a thief and a hack. Clubs won't want to hire you, and other comics won't want to work with you. Trust me. It's better to stink with your own material than to get standing ovations with someone else's.
More importantly, getting started in stand-up requires actually putting yourself on a stage, in front of an audience. If you live in or near a city of any sizable population, chances are there's a part-time or full-time comedy club in your area that hosts an open-mic night once a week. If so, take your best five minutes of material (along with a good deep breath) and sign up. If there's not an established club, look for a restaurant, bar or nightclub that hosts a special comedy night once a week and see if you can talk your way onto their stage. Whatever the venue, the key is to rack up stage time in front of people. That's what it's all about—repetition, repetition, repetition.
Manage your expectations early on. Let's face it; you'll probably suck. If you've never been on stage or if you're not used to public speaking, that experience alone—hearing your voice through a PA system, having bright lights in your face, trying to be funny while small monkeys do the mambo inside your stomach—requires some acclimation. But stick with it. Keep the bits that consistently get laughs and hone and refine them. Scrap the ones that don't work. Pretty soon, you'll have 10 or 15 minutes of decent material that consistently works.
Then it's time to market yourself. You're a product now and a funny one at that. Many comedy clubs book their own acts in house, but others are booked by comedy agents who might supply talent for several clubs. Some agencies also offer strings of one-night gigs that can often add up to weeks worth of work. Network with professional comedians you meet to find out who's booking what and how to get in touch with them. Get a hold of trade publications or scour the Internet for contact info for comedy clubs.
Next, get some head shots made, put together a representative video of your act and disseminate your press kit to clubs and booking agents. Then start doing the leg work of following up and calling and e-mailing until you're able to contact the powers that be at each club or agency. Club owners and booking agents are notoriously hard to reach, so be persistent. Some clubs may want you to come in and do a live audition. If it's financially practical to do so, do it.
Getting started in stand-up comedy doesn't happen overnight. You might start out snagging a random club gig or one-nighter here and there, but if you act professionally, make audiences laugh and manage not to run up your bar tab, they'll probably have you back. And you can use those early victories as a springboard to even more work. In the meantime, listen to that sage old advice and don't quit your day job. At least not until the income from your comedy bookings is enough to live on.