Develop Your Character
It sounds like a cliché, but it's true with stand-up — in order to be successful, you need to find yourself and know who you are on stage. In the beginning of their careers, comedians can struggle to find their voice and stage persona. It takes a while, and there's no easy way to do it. Mostly you'll learn from mistakes: you'll try a joke or a style that doesn't work, and that helps steer you toward something that does. You might also make the mistake of sounding too much like the comedians you admire — more on that later.
Here's the good news: once you figure out who you are and what you're supposed to do on stage, it gets easy — really easy. It can take a while before you get there, but once you do you're all set. Once you define your own individual comedy universe, you have an unlimited amount of material at your disposal. It's only when you're grasping at different paths that you are truly limited.
Let the Material Guide You
When you first start performing, you should put more emphasis on your material than your character. Your jokes will help you define your character. Work hard and write good jokes, and the rest will fall into place. Look at where the material that works is taking you. If you get a good laugh with a particular joke, ask yourself some questions. Why is that working for me? What does that joke say about me? Would that joke work for anyone, or is it funnier because it's coming from me?
Once you know what you're supposed to do, you'll stop pulling material out of the same pool as everyone else. You'll have your own unlimited source at your disposal. You'll know what you can and can't do on stage, what works and what doesn't.
Don't let your mistakes distract you from your successes. The mistakes happen for a reason. If a joke doesn't work, try to fix it. Flip it around; try a different phrasing or word choice; make it longer or shorter — anything that might help it work. If your attempts to fix it fail, put it aside and move onto the next joke. But remember to keep it in your notebook. You will probably be able to use it eventually.
Just because a joke doesn't work doesn't mean it's not funny. It might be that you don't have the performing skill to make it work. This may sound weird, but the joke might be too good for you right now, and you just need to improve to make it work. Once you gain some experience, you'll be able to look over your notebook with a new perspective and take on all those old ideas that didn't have a place in your act. Remember, if it's in the notebook, it's not going anywhere. You'll only get frustrated spending too much time on one joke. It will keep you from finding all the other jokes that are out there, waiting to be discovered.
Set Your Standards
Before you attempt to get your first gig, go to shows and observe. Go to lots of shows as often as you can and watch every comedian carefully to see what you can learn. If you see a novice, watch for his performance mistakes to help you avoid making the same mistakes yourself. Watch the good comedians and take note of what you like about them. More importantly, watch the comedians you don't like because you can learn a lot more from them.
Never sit in the audience and take notes during a show; it will look like you are stealing jokes. Only take mental notes. Comedians get very paranoid (and rightfully so) when seeing an audience member with a notebook or a voice recorder. You don't want to get a bad reputation before you've even started your stand-up career!
Watch comedians with a hyper-critical eye. When you see something you don't like, remember it. It could be that the comedian picks on an audience member for no reason, or his sense of humor is really dirty and he makes the audience so uncomfortable that they only laugh from nervousness or shock. Tell yourself, “I never want to do that. I never want to have someone else see me doing what I am watching right now.” Even if the comic is popular, successful, and experienced, that doesn't mean you have to like what he does. It certainly doesn't mean you have to do the same things to be successful.
Let someone else make mistakes for you. The more you discover through a critical eye, the faster you set your own standards. Having a clear set of personal standards will help make you a good comic. Other comics might have completely different standards that work for them, but you need to find what works best for you. Setting your standards also acts as a filter for material that you know is beneath you.
When you watch other acts, be polite and professional. Keep your opinions to yourself and remember that you have a lot to learn. When you go to a club, be prepared to see someone who is very good. Just be warned: watching a really good act — someone who knows exactly what he's doing, has great jokes, connects with the audience, and makes it all look absolutely effortless — can be depressing for the aspiring comic.
Don't get discouraged; seeing someone really good makes even seasoned comics feel like amateurs. Instead, have faith that with time and work, you will be just as good someday, depressing and encouraging a whole new generation of comedians yourself.