Karno Biography

Fred Karno in the Spotlight: A Q & A with Karno biographer David Crump

Among comedy buffs, Fred Karno will be forever remembered as the man who discovered Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, but his career involved much more than this. In the days of music halls, Karno crafted a new type of sketch comedy, and remained hugely influential for a long period of time. The list of comedy talents he worked with. In later years, his status waned; subsequently, his legacy has been largely forgotten.

Today marks the publication of Fred Karno, The Legend Behind the Laughter by David Crump. This definitive biography has been ten years in the making, and is a real labour of love. Dave very kindly took time to answer a few questions about Karno, and his quest to uncover more about the man behind the laughter.

Hi, Dave. So, why Fred Karno? What led you on this mission to research and write about him?

DC: I’ve always been a huge fan of comedy and as a writer of pantomimes, the history of panto routines and gags was something I’d become increasingly interested in. However, the Karno connection was pure co-incidence. One day in my office my secretary stumbled over some random boxes which had been left where they shouldn’t and exclaimed “It’s like Fred Karno’s Army in here!”. I had never heard the expression and asked her what it meant. She just said that it meant anything chaotic, but she had no idea why people said it. I googled Fred Karno and found very little information on the internet (this was about 12 years ago) except a brief biographical paragraph which said that he had been a circus acrobat, turned impresario who was responsible for discovering Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. I was intrigued. I lodged in the back of my mind that this sounded like someone who I should know more about but didn’t do anymore about it for a year or so. Then a theatre company I was working with were deciding on their next production and were considering both Mack and Mable (the story of Mack Sennett and Keystone) or Underneath the Arches (The Crazy Gang musical), some research demonstrated that Fred Karno’s story was almost a prequel to both of these and that led ultimately to me writing a musical about Karno’s life based on a 1971 biography. We staged that in Birmingham in 2010 and as a result I was introduced to some members of the Karno family, they gave me access to a treasure trove of archive material which demonstrated to me that much of what we thought about Karno was clearly untrue. I spent the next ten years writing this new biography which I hope corrects previous errors and sets the record straight for a man who was such an extraordinary influence on comedy, film and popular culture.

Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin and many others referred to Karno as “the Guv’nor”, and acknowledged the debt they owed him. What do you think were the comic skills they learned most from working in his troupe?

DC: Karno was an acrobat by background, and had begun in circuses where he would perform on the high wire, the parallel bars and on horseback, but in those small circuses the acrobats also had to perform as clowns. He later bought this physical purely visual comedy to the music hall on a scale and with a complexity which was innovative and set him apart from his contemporaries. His headquarters at The Fun Factory became the base for his companies and he had an Alex Ferguson approach to management – find young performers and train them up, that way you keep costs down and ensure that they perform in a consistent Karno style. Well over 2000 individual comics worked with Karno during his career and many young discoveries went on to enormous success. Will Hay, Billy Bennett, The Crazy Gang, Syd Walker, Frank Randal, Fred Kitchen, Max Miller, Sandy Powell and many more. Karno trained them all in visual comedy first and foremost (especially in the early days). When Karno companies crossed the channel to tour America they turned up performing this breakneck acrobatic visual comedy just as silent films were in their infancy and studios were looking for visual comics. Karno’s comics were trained in pratfalls, custard pies, taking a punch, falling down stairs, etc etc. The Karno comics formed were quickly poached by the studios and formed a nucleus of comics which quickly became omnipotent in silent comedy: Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel are the most famous but there was also Charley Rogers, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Jimmy Aubrey, Billy Reeves, Billie Ritchie and many others.

Karno taught them not only physical comedy but also how pathos could be mixed with comedy to create tension and release, leading to bigger laughs, Stan recalled that Karno would always say “Keep it wistful gentlemen” – and Chaplin took that to the silver screen.

As well as physical comedy skills and subtleties of pathos, Karno instilled in his troops a strong work ethic, formed in his circus days, which led him to be both a perfectionist and a control freak. It is no coincidence that both Chaplin and Laurel were hands on both on and off screen, in writing, directing, editing, etc. that attention to detail was very much a Karno trait. So it wasn’t just the physical acrobatic comedy, the timing and subtleties of performance but it was also his approach to ensuring every aspect of a production was spot on.

The list of performers Karno employed is like a Comedy ‘Who’s Who’ list. Did he ever discuss his particular favourites? How did he view the meteoric rise of Chaplin?

DC: I’ve noted some of the names above, and although he was very proud of both Chaplin and Laurel’s success, the comedian he claimed ‘always did him the most credit’ was Fred Kitchen. Kitchen was a huge star of the halls in his day, but never transferred to film so is now largely forgotten. His style was a significant influence on Chaplin, so much so that Kitchen said he didn’t go into film because everyone would have assumed he was copying Chaplin when in fact the opposite was true.

When Chaplin first began making films he was just another one of Karno’s comics who had defected, he had not stood out. After he became a global superstar everyone was quick to claim the credit. Karno did so to an extent but he gave Chaplin credit for his own abilities, and they stayed on reasonable personal terms. However, in later life Karno began to resent Chaplin’s fame, feeling he’d achieved it largely off Karno’s material and Chaplin did nothing to help Karno when he desperately needed it after his bankruptcy. The story that Chaplin funded a retirement business for Karno (an off licence in Poole) is untrue. Only Stan Laurel gave Karno any sort of support or help in later life.

Karno’s career was boosted by Chaplin’s fame – and his most popular music hall sketch ‘Mumming Birds’ which had first been performed in 1904 (four years before Chaplin joined Karno) was later publicised as ‘the sketch that made Charlie Chaplin famous’. This helped keep the sketch running until well into the 1930s, supposedly the longest running music hall sketch of all time.

 Your research for the book must have led you to meet some interesting people and visit some interesting places. What were the highlights?

DC: Lunch with Richard Bann and the late Chuck McCann at the Culver City Hotel in L.A. was a great experience, to hear Chuck tell stories that Stan Laurel and told him directly, and Richard sharing his memories of Hal Roach was a privilege. Kate Guyonvarch of the Chaplin archive in Paris was amazingly helpful and I had a wonderful time rooting through archives over there. I’ve met so many people along the way and all have been lovely, helpful, interested and so generous in sharing their stories and information. Particularly Chaplin’s biographer the legendary David Robinson who also wrote a lovely foreword for the book, and A.J. Marriot who is so knowledgeable about Chaplin and Stan’s early careers and who has acted as a mentor to me throughout the experience. I’ve been in touch with literally hundreds of descendants of Karno comics, through my website, all of whom contacted me in search of information on their relatives, and most of whom told me as much as I told them, shared photographs and family anecdotes (although they couldn’t ALL have worked with Charlie Chaplin!). Finally, meeting and becoming close friends with Karno’s direct descendants has been amazing. His granddaughter Jo, great-grandaughter Louise and great-nephew Warren are now firm friends. I was lucky enough to meet Karno’s two grandsons who lived in Palm Springs and had lived interesting lives of their own in and around Hollywood, back in 2010 – they were both in their 90s by then and are now sadly no longer with us – but they were a joy and their children are still in regular touch with me.

Did you have any particular revelations about Karno or his work as a result of doing this deep dive into his life?

DC: Lots and lots. Firstly there are two previous biographies, one Karno pretty much wrote himself in 1939 – that is a sycophantic account of his career, which is full of holes and inaccuracies and says nothing about his personal life. Then in 1971 J.P. Gallagher wrote a biography which is a scandalised account of his personal life, recounted largely by friends of Karno’s ex-wife, and largely fiction. Unfortunately every subsequent biography of Chaplin and Laurel repeats these errors and takes Gallagher’s stories as fact. I have been able to fill in the blanks, correct many errors, chart his career accurately, whilst also casting significant doubt onto many of the claims made against Karno. He was no saint, but with access to his personal letters and business files it has been possible to paint a much more objective and balanced picture of this most complex character and I hope to a certain extent, repair his reputation. As well as this, and unlike the previous biographies I have tried to set the story in the context of social history at the time, for instance Karno’s wife had an involvement in the Dr Crippen Case, Karno’s company sailed across the Atlantic just a few weeks after the Titanic disaster, on the RMS Olympic (her sister ship) – how did that feel? I’ve dug up stories on how Stan Laurel avoided the draft in World War One and how a tiny mistake on Karno’s contract may well have saved Chaplin’s life. The challenge has been that everywhere I looked I found more interesting stories, everyone Karno worked with and employed could have been (and in some cases has been) the subject of a book of their own – avoiding going down too many side alleys was difficult. The book is big, over 600 pages, and yet I have spent the last three years editing down from more than double that.

Karno’s short-lived stint at the Hal Roach studios is quite infamous among comedy buffs. Were you able to find out any more about this, and why do you think he was unable to find a more permanent home there?

DC: Oh yes, and how wrong we all were. Karno wrote regularly back home from L.A. while he was there and those letters reveal for the first time what really happened at the Roach studios and why he came home with his tail between his legs after only a few months – it’s a very interesting part of the book and I think will shed fresh light on that part of Karno’s story and also on the history of Roach’s studio.

 Things went less well for Karno in later years, after the failure of the Karsino. Did you find any evidence of how he felt about the downturn of his fortunes?

DC: Yes, he was a fairly regular letter writer and I have letters to his daughter in law Queenie (Fred Karno Junior’s wife), Syd Chaplin, Con West (his first biographer) and others – they help to tell the personal story and reveal the impact of his fall from grace had on him personally and on his family. It really is a very sad story for someone who had brough so much laughter to so many people.

What do you think is Karno’s legacy to the world of entertainment?

DC: Where do I start? Imagine a world without Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel. How different would things have been in those early comedy films? Chaplin at least is seen as being hugely influential on the filmmakers and comedians that followed, and even today many many comedians still cite Laurel and Hardy as an influence. But Karno did much more than train and launch two of the most influential comedians of our time. He pioneered physical comedy in the music hall (bringing it from the circus), he pushed the boundaries of legislation which forbid speaking in the halls and effectively created sketch comedy as we know it today. He was hugely influential in establishing copyright around early film and its use of stage materials, he was a pioneer of musical accompaniment to his comedy and Chaplin credited Karno with teaching him that innovation – imagine film without a musical soundtrack? Finally his later comedians, like the Crazy Gang, were innovators in breaking the fourth wall and engaging directly with the audience – previously unheard of except amongst musicians. He even invented the idea of including a talent show in a professional show, still popular today – in a way we have Karno to thank for the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. This may all sound far fetched, and it is an oversimplification, but I think the book will support these claims. When you take these things collectively, he was quite simply the biggest single influence on comedy and popular culture we have ever known – and yet most people have never heard of him!

Thanks to Dave for his terrifically detailed answers to my questions! I’m sure, like me, you can’t wait to read the book.

Here’s more from the press release:

From his famous nursery of nonsense, the ‘Fun Factory’, the Guv’nor conquered the world, built an empire, made millions and lost the lot. In the process he discovered and trained the early twentieth century’s greatest comedians: Will Hay, Robb Wilton, Sandy Powell, Syd Walker, Frank Randle, Max Miller, Billy Bennett, the Crazy Gang, and most significantly of all Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. He pioneered physical sketch comedy and developed the raw material that Hollywood later fashioned into the finest comics of silent film. The phrase ‘It’s like Fred Karno’s Army’ entered the lexicon to describe any chaotic situation, but his extraordinary legacy is largely forgotten, lost in the mists of time and sullied by a tarnished personal reputation.

This book tells the remarkable story of the man behind the myth and reveals Karno’s huge contribution to comedy and popular culture – an impact which still resonates today.”

Fred Karno: The Legend Behind The Laughter is available now from Brewin Books, and here’s the Amazon link. For more on Karno, visit Dave’s home page ‘Khaotic’.