Fred Karno’s name has entered the English language to describe any situation that is a comically chaotic, but as a music hall impresario he discovered the likes of Charlie Chaplain and Stan Laurel and is credited with inventing the custard-pie-in-the-face gag.
Karno was born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter in 1866 but his family moved to Nottingham soon afterwards which is where he grew up.
Although he initially worked as a cabinet maker, he left it behind to become an acrobat under the stage name of ‘Olvene and Leonaro’. He then joined a touring circus which is where he learned the aspects of physical comedy and slapstick that were to become his trademark.
After touring Europe, Karno found himself in London looking for work and fell in with two other acrobats. Together they put together an act they called the Three Carnoes which was a great success. Then the spelling was changed to the Three Karnos and Fred Karno was born.
One of the other acts failed to turn up one evening and Karno suggested that they fill in the spot with a sketch based on the routines he’s seen performed by the circus clowns. Slapstick was unknown in the music halls at that time but the audience took to it immediately.
He transformed himself into a comedy impresario managing a stable of slapstick comedy acts
Karno developed an entire repertoire of comedy sketches that almost entirely in mime, relying instead on purely visual and physical comedy with a basis in acrobatics. And seeing how popular the acts were received, he transformed himself into a comedy impresario managing a stable of slapstick comedy acts that toured the world.
I mentioned above that he is credited with inventing the custard-pie-in-the-face gag but that isn’t strictly true. It had been a staple of the circus clown – what Karno did was bring it to the music hall and ultimately to the silent movies. Film producer Hal Roach said of him: ‘Fred Karno is not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him.’
He branched out into theatre management and produced pantomimes and reviews as well as his sketches. He had over eighty sketches in his repertoire and worked on countless other pantomimes and productions.
Karno’s name became synonymous with anything chaotic and during World War One the British Troupes frustrated with the disorganised nature of the war called themselves ‘Fred Karno’s Army’ and sang ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’ to the tune of the hymn ‘The Church’s One Foundation’.
He was exceptionally good at spotting and developing new comedy talent. The graduates of Karno’s school of comedy included Charlie Chaplin, Syd Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Will Hay, Sandy Powell and Fred Emney and it was while on tour in America that some of them were poached by the embryonic film industry. Stan Laurel said of him:
Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy, he just taught us most of it. Above all, he taught us to be supple and precise. Out of all that endless rehearsal and performance came Charlie Chaplin, the most supple and precise comedian of our time.
At the height of his fame, Karno built a palatial houseboat on the Thames and followed this with a massive investment in a hotel that he called the Karsino. But the onset of war and the decline of the music hall eventually saw him declared bankrupt in 1927.
He headed for Hollywood and Hal Roach made an assistant director working with Laurel and Hardy, but Karno found this ‘junior’ role hard to live with and he returned to England where he set up the successful touring troupe Karno’s Krazy Komics.
In 1935, Karno embarked on a new career as a film producer investing in a feature film starring the established stage comedian Rob Wilton. The film flopped and Karno was again declared bankrupt.
Penniless, he retired to Dorset to run an off-licence bought with financial help from Charlie Chaplin. Karno died there in 1941 all but forgotten except when any of us describe a chaotic situation as ‘a right Karno’s!’