Fred Karno was born Frederick John Westcott on 26th March 1866 in Exeter, but soon afterwards the family moved to Nottingham where he grew up.
He began his stage career as an acrobat and searching for work in London, he fell in with two other acrobats Ted Tysall and Bob Sewall. Standing in for ‘The Three Carnoes’ one night, they were a great success and, changing the C to a K, they called themselves The Three Karnos. Fred Karno was born.
They had some success in the halls with their acrobatic act until one night a performer failed to appear and Karno suggested to the manager that they cover with a sketch. They performed an old circus routine ‘Love In a Tub’ which was a great success. At this time rough circus slapstick comedy was unknown in the music halls and the audience took to it immediately. Karno then went on to develop a repertoire of sketches; ‘Hilarity’, ‘Early Birds’, ‘Jail Birds’, etc. The licensing restrictions at the time meant that dialogue was prohibited and therefore these early sketches were almost entirely mime. As a result his team of comics became extremely highly skilled in purely visual and physical comedy with a basis in acrobatics.
From these early beginnings he went on to become one of the greatest impresarios of the music hall age, with troupes touring all over the world. He is credited with inventing the custard pie in the face gag, which is of course not true, none the less it does indicate how he was perceived as the Father of slapstick by his audiences.
His name became synonymous with anything ‘chaotic’ and during World War One British Troupes frustrated with the disorganised nature of the war sang ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’ to the tune of the hymn ‘The Church’s One Foundation’. The phrase became part of the language to describe any chaotic situation.
Karno was exceptionally good at spotting young talent and bringing them on, the most notable alumni of the Karno school being Charlie Chaplin, Syd Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Albert Austin, Eric Campbell, Jimmy Nervo, Billy Ritchie, Billy Reeves and later Will Hay, Sandy Powell and Fred Emney. It was whilst on tour with Karno companies in America that some of these expert visual comics were poached by the embryonic silent film studios. As a result the early silent comedies of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy et al are full of Karno trained British comics.
Chaplin and Laurel both held Karno in high regard, Stan Laurel said:
“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.”
Perhaps his most important influence was to combine rough comedy with pathos – something Chaplin took to a supreme level. There were others doing sketch material of course but Karno’s was arguably the most influential and certainly his legacy is the greatest. He pushed the boundaries of comedy in the music hall and as time moved on his sketches introduced dialogue and became verbal as well as physical comedies. These were the first ‘comedy sketches’ as we would think of them today.
His most successful sketch was ‘Mumming Birds’ in America re-titled ‘A Night In An English Music Hall’. It was his performance as a drunken Toff in this sketch which made Chaplin’s name and bought him to the attention of Mack Sennett at Keystone studios in America.
In 1912 at the height of his fame Karno built a palatial new hotel on Tagg’s Island he called ‘Karsino’. It was the playground of Edwardian High Society but with the onset of World War One and the gradual decline of the Music Hall which followed, the hotel ultimately broke him. He was declared bankrupt in 1927.
He headed to Hollywood in 1929 where he caught up with Chaplin and Laurel. Hal Roach gave Karno a job as an assistant director and he spent six months working with Laurel and Hardy. However having spent forty years as ‘The Guv’nor’ Karno could not work within a studio system under directors and producers he felt lacked his abilities and experience. He returned to England in 1930 having made no impression on Hollywood. He then set about reinventing himself and created a new comedy troupe he called ‘Karno’s Krazy Komics’, this became the inspiration for George Black’s Crazy Shows at the London Palladium and ‘The Crazy Gang’ was born.
Later on in life he embarked on a new career as a film producer and invested in a feature film starring Rob Wilton called Don’t Rush Me.
Fred Karno was a huge influence on early comedy, slapstick and the most important comedians of the early twentieth century and as such he deserves to be remembered as ‘The Father of Slapstick’.
Fred retired from showbusiness to run a wine merchants in Lilliput, Devon.
He passed away on 17th September 1941 and was cremated at Bournemouth Crematorium on Saturday 20th September.
THE SONGS OF FRED KARNO:
THE DANDY THIEVES
THE DIVING BIRDS
THE DOSS HOUSE
THE EARLY BIRDS
THE FOOTBALL MATCH
HOME FROM HOME
HOT AND COLD
THE IMPERIAL YEOMAN
JIMMY THE FEARLESS
LOVE IN A TUB
MOSES AND SON
MR JUSTICE PERKINS
THE MUMMING BIRDSS
THE NEW WOMEN'S CLUB
PARLEZ VOUS FRANCAIS?
THE HUNTER PERKINS
SATURDAY TO MONDAY
THE SMOKING CONCERT
THE THIRSTY FIRST
TICKET OF LEAVE MAN
A TRAGEDY OF ERRORS
A STAGE UPON A STAGE
A WEEK END
THE YAP YAPS