I consider myself to be a world class comedy nerd, but the limits of my otakudom were exposed when I was recently made aware of the name of Dan Leno.
Dan Leno. Does that ring a bell at all for you? Probably not, but as a comic performer, Leno was considered without peer in the British music hall of the late 19th century. He was a huge, huge massive star, both for his appearances in the “dame” role of panto comedies like Mother Goose and for his one man shows where he muttered surreal musings and observations about the mundanities of life. He is, in a sense, the actual “inventor” of stand-up comedy.
He would do a little bit of a song and then carry on, speaking in character, like in “Mrs. Kelly” which he recorded in 1901:
“You know Mrs. Kelly?... You know Mrs. Kelly?... don’t you know Mrs. Kelly? Her husband’s that little stout man, always at the corner of the street in a greasy waistcoat… good life, don’t look so stupid, don’t - you must know Mrs. Kelly!... Don’t you know Mrs. Kelly?... Well of course, if you don’t, you don’t - but I thought you did, because I thought everybody knew Mrs. Kelly. Oh, and what a woman - perhaps it’s just as well you don’t know her… oh, she’s a mean woman. Greedy. I know for a fact - her little boy, who’s got the sore eyes, he came over and told me - she had half a dozen oysters, and she ate them in front of the looking-glass, to make them look a dozen. Now that’ll give you an idea what she is.”
Leno appeared every Christmas as the star the of the panto production of the Drury Lane Theatre (where both Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The League of Gentlemen would later perform) from 1888 to 1903 and he topped the bill when he toured the American Vaudeville circuit. He was touted as “The Funniest Man on Earth” and possessed one of those faces that just caused people to laugh uncontrollably the minute he walked onstage. Up to 4000 people a night would line up to see him perform.
Leno appeared onstage before Charles Dickens (who told him “you’ll make headway!”), King Edward VII (earning him the title of “the King’s jester”) and the great British caricaturist Max Beerbohm, who was an unabashed fan. He was the young Charlie Chaplin’s hero and Stan Laurel absolutely worshipped him (and allegedly appropriated his famous dopey grin from Dan Leno as well.) “Dan Leno Walk,” in London is named for him and Peter Sellers claimed he was possessed by Dan Leno, or at least Leno was his spirit guide. Sellers based his performance in The Optimist of Nine Elms on his knowledge of Leno.
Sadly, there is very, very little we have today—save mostly for news clippings, photographs, some memorabilia and a few primitive voice recordings—that would indicate what exactly it was that made Dan Leno so beloved to audiences of the late Victorian era. Everyone who ever saw the man perform—along with their memories—is long dead. However, in the years before his death (in 1904, probably of a brain tumor), Dan Leno made several “Mutoscopes,” which were coin-operated hand-cranked animation flipbooks where metal or glass frames were rotated like a Rolodex for one person to watch at a time. (The Mutoscope was colloquially known as “What the Butler Saw” machines and could be found in British seaside resort towns until the 1960s.) Two of Leno’s Mutoscope performances—out of thirteen—have been located and are undergoing restoration in greater than HD quality due to the efforts of The Dan Leno Project of Studio 1919.
They’re hoping that by getting the word out, that Mutoscope collectors would be able to tell if they’ve got a Dan Leno short in their possession and the complete set could be assembled and a documentary eventually made about “The Funniest Man on Earth.”
Below, Dan Leno, his wife, kids and their dog in “Dessert at Dan Leno’s House” as restored by Studio 1919’s The Dan Leno Project.