Trying to succeed as a stand-up isn't a barrel of laughs, says Hazel Davis. But hard work can sometimes pay off

So you've told a few jokes, made your mates laugh down the boozer. "You should be a comedian!" they've roared. OK then, how to go about it?

Being a stand-up isn't just about being perpetually sarcastic or being the funniest one in the pub. It's a career the same as any other and that career brings stresses and progressions like any other. The comedy circuit can be a tough place to display your heart and soul.

Stand-ups talk about events in their lives, about their own failings and personal tragedies. Standing before a microphone making people laugh is tantamount to saying, "judge my whole personality". And it's also not about lazing around all day and just working for one hour a night. Most serious comics spend their days writing new material and travelling to gigs. All of them work weekends. And any spare time, unless you have an agent, is spent securing work.

Unless you are Victoria Wood or Jimmy Carr, the likelihood of TV success is slim, and many stand-ups spend their professional life playing clubs and pubs, travelling the country performing for people who have no idea who they are and who won't remember them. And being able to make your mates laugh is a far cry from being able to make a whole pub full of people laugh for a prolonged time.

Comic Mat Reed agrees. "You've got to believe that people want to hear what you have to say but you have to have faith in your material rather than too much faith in yourself." Reed, who places himself "just one rung short of superstardom" and is a popular compere and circuit regular, says there are four tiers on the comedy circuit: "There's the bottom level of unpaid open spots, where you do your material and just concentrate on getting better, the paid spots where you start to get noticed by people, good headline gigs and superstardom." It can be an arduous road and one with initially little financial reward but if you have the right personality type, says Reed, it can be worth it. "The best thing is just the kick I get out of being on stage," he says. "If you're like me and you always need something good to look forward to then comedy is the life for you."

Then there's the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the ultimate comedy trade show. During this period TV execs and agents scout for the next big talent. By no means a month-long party, it is for many the culmination of a year's work and a lifetime's savings. But for many aspiring stars it pays off. Paul Sinha received an Eddy nomination (the industry award which this year replaced the Perrier awards) for his second solo show "Saint or Sinha" this year.

Already a successful circuit headliner, he threw his lot in with a major promoter and since his nomination last month has been inundated with offers. Time it right, says Sinha, and Edinburgh can be the best thing you do. Time it badly and it can be little more than a holiday romance. "You can be the Edinburgh Festival darling and struggle to get work for the other 11 months," he says.

A qualified GP, Sinha decided he wanted to take up stand-up comedy as a "challenging hobby". "I never expected to still be doing it now," he says. The biggest lesson to learn, he advises, is that "it's a long, long road. The growth of the Edinburgh Fringe, satellite TV and the presence of innumerable new act competitions have all improved the lot of a budding comic but learning the craft is still a painful process."

Sinha says that for him the worst thing about being a comedian is the nerves. "The terror never really seems to disappear," he says. "No matter how good you may think you are, comedy crowds are often a drunk and unforgiving bunch and you are never more than a couple of mistimed jokes away from a bad gig." But he wouldn't change it for the world. "In the last five years I have been flown to the Middle East, Shanghai, Durban, Johannesburg and Auckland. It's a wonderful experience," he says.

But the most important thing to bear in mind, warns Sinha, is "that you are being paid to entertain. If you decide to tell your favourite joke ridiculing the work of Daniel Defoe to a bunch of Saturday night hen parties, then you only have yourself to blame."