Are you funny? Do your friends and co-workers tell you "you're hilarious! You should start doing standup comedy?" Are you starting to take them seriously? Brace yourself, it's time for tough love.
Doing standup comedy is a marathon, not a sprint. This is not a game where you become famous overnight because of your one catchphrase. Everyone wants to be Dane Cook, Dave Chappelle, and George Carlin, but it's not that easy. George Carlin was doing standup for ten years before he became George Carlin. Dane Cook was a nobody on the open mic circuit for years before he was on Comedy Central. Even Larry the Cable Guy tried several characters before settling on "Larry the Cable Guy." Larry's real name is Daniel, and he is from Nebraska.
You are not Dane Cook, and you certainly are not George Carlin. Your catch phrase that makes all your friends roll over laughing probably won't bring America to it's knees. So unless your friends and co-workers are talent scouts, you're going to have to work. Standup comedy is hard work. It is a job, not a hobby. But if you're serious about it, it can be the most rewarding job in the world. Making a room full of people laugh is the best feeling I've ever had, and I strongly endorse it for those of you who haven't tried it.
Now that the tough love is out of the way, let's talk about how to start making moves. The first step is writing jokes. Actual jokes, not inside jokes that your friends find hilarious, not long stories that involve a lot of "you had to be there" moments. Here's a tip: if you're telling a story, and your friends start laughing before you get to a funny part . . . skip that story. Then practice telling those jokes over and over again so you have them memorized. There's nothing an audience hates more than a comedian reading his jokes off of a sheet of paper onstage. Your joke could be the best thing in the world, it won't matter to an audience if you can't take them with you. It's totally okay to glance at a sheet of paper to check where you are in your set, just don't make a habit of it.
Once you have jokes written, you need to find an open mic. You can find them online, just type in your zip code and "standup comedy." If you're lucky enough to live in a big city like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, there will be several opportunities every night. In smaller cities there will be fewer opportunities, and sometimes you may even need to drive a while to get there. Remember what I said about it being work? I have driven 60 miles to get to an open mic, just because I love the venue. It's hard work, but it's worth it.
Now that you've found an open mic, go a few times just to watch. Talk to some of the comics who have been doing standup a while, and find out the specific rules for this venue, and how to sign up. Explain that you're new, and are interested in going up. For the most part, comedians are relatively kind to new people, as long as you are polite. Plus, playing to the natural vanity of a comedian can't hurt. Telling a comedian that you are new and want to learn from them is a surefire way to get information.
After watching a few times and editing your material to fit the audience, it's time get over the butterflies and actually go onstage. Follow the rules you've learned for signing up, and go to the venue. You'll be nervous, but it happens. All you have to do is force yourself to get on that stage. Trust yourself to be funny, and go. Bring your notes, and refer to them if you have to. Again, don't read the entire joke off of the paper, but go ahead and take a glance if the need strikes. All you have to do is keep doing what you're doing, and you can start calling yourself a standup comedian.
One last piece of advice, and I mean it completely sincerely. Do not beat yourself up when you don't do well. Every comedian has bad shows. I had a bad show last night. I had a few laughs, but overall I did not mesh well with the audience. It's nobody's fault, and you just have to pick yourself up and drive on. I could have done different jokes, but I didn't. I used material that has been on television and won competitions, but it wasn't right for this particular audience. Earlier I said the best feeling in the world is making a room full of people laugh.
Well a room full of people not laughing is the worst. But you get back up, and find a different stage. I'm back at that venue tonight, and I'm going to kill (that means do very, very well). Never judge yourself as a comedian based on just one show. Trust yourself to be funny, even if you have several weak shows in a row. Nobody kills every time. Not even Dave Chappelle.