Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in his grandparents' house on 16 June 1890 in Argyll Street, Ulverston, Lancashire, to Arthur Jefferson, a theatre manager from Bishop Auckland, and Margaret (née Metcalfe), an actress from Ulverston. He was one of five children.
His parents were both active in the theatre and always very busy. In his early years, the boy spent much time living with his maternal grandmother, Sarah Metcalfe. He attended school at King James I Grammar School in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and the King's School in Tynemouth, Northumberland.
He moved with his parents to Glasgow, Scotland, where he completed his education at Rutherglen Academy. His father managed Glasgow's Metropole Theatre, where Laurel began work. His boyhood hero was Dan Leno, one of the greatest English music hall comedians. With a natural affinity for the theatre, Laurel gave his first professional performance on stage at the Panopticon in Glasgow at the age of sixteen, where he polished his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches. It was the music hall from where he drew his standard comic devices, including his bowler hat and nonsensical understatement.
He joined Fred Karno's troupe of actors in 1910 with the stage name of "Stan Jefferson"; the troupe also included a young Charlie Chaplin. The music hall nurtured him, and he acted as Chaplin's understudy for some time. Karno was a pioneer of slapstick, and in his biography Laurel stated, "Fred Karno didn't teach Charlie [Chaplin] and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it". Chaplin and Laurel arrived in the United States on the same ship from Britain with the Karno troupe and toured the country.
During the First World War, Laurel registered for military service in America on 5 June 1917, as required under the Selective Service Act. He was not called up; his registration card states resident alien and deafness as exemptions.
Laurel and Hardy appeared for the first time together in The Lucky Dog
Between 1916 and 1918, he teamed up with Alice Cooke and Baldwin Cooke, who became his lifelong friends. Amongst other performers, Laurel worked briefly alongside Oliver Hardy before the two were a team in the silent film short The Lucky Dog (1921). It was around this time that Laurel met Mae Dahlberg. Around the same time, he adopted the stage name of Laurel at Dahlberg's suggestion that his stage name Stan Jefferson was unlucky, due to it having thirteen letters.[N 1] The pair were performing together when Laurel was offered $75 a week to star in two-reel comedies. After making his first film Nuts in May, Universal offered him a contract. The contract was soon cancelled during a reorganisation at the studio. Among the films in which Dahlberg and Laurel appeared together was the 1922 parody Mud and Sand.
By 1924, Laurel had given up the stage for full-time film work, under contract with Joe Rock for 12 two-reel comedies. The contract had one unusual stipulation: that Dahlberg was not to appear in any of the films. Rock thought that her temperament was hindering Laurel's career. In 1925, she started interfering with Laurel's work, so Rock offered her a cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia, which she accepted. The 12 two-reel comedies were Mandarin Mix-Up (1924), Detained (1924), Monsieur Don't Care (1924), West of Hot Dog (1924), Somewhere in Wrong (1925), Twins (1925), Pie-Eyed (1925), The Snow Hawk (1925), Navy Blue Days (1925), The Sleuth (1925), Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925), Half a Man (1925).