Anarchic comedian who died on stage

Born: 1958;

Died: April 11, 2019

IAN Cognito, who has died aged 60, was a British comedian whose regular and reliably committed appearances on the UK club circuit belied a talented stand-up who was held in high regard by his peers in the business. Upon his sadly premature death, the names who lined up to fete him included Jack Whitehall, Katy Brand, Shappi Khorsandi and Matt Lucas.

What separates those luminaries and Cognito was their television fame in comparison to his lack of it. Bursting onto the scene as the alternative comedy boom of the 1980s fed into a whole new generation of artists in the 1990s, Cognito’s lack of small-screen activity came not through a lack of effort, but a lack of compromise.

His shows were notable for their unpredictability and lack of what might be termed political correctness, although he was no bland contrarian looking to score points by causing easy offence. Cognito’s shows were about something subtler than that, much like his Scottish colleague Jerry Sadowitz. He was supposedly the most banned comedian in Britain, or perhaps he played this image up himself, in the knowledge that he had simply outstayed his welcome with some venues and producers.

Both the Comedy Store and the Jongleurs chain reportedly stopped employing him early in his career, after emphatic disagreements with management, while his near-two-decade absence from the Edinburgh Fringe from 1995 apparently began after he was punched by another comedian in the Gilded Balloon bar while drunk. Elsewhere, the attention-grabbing stunts he pulled during his regular compering sessions did for him. "I'm not really built for that commercial type of thing," he told the Guardian in 2002. "I'm self-destructive... I'm angry in real life.”

“I’d do anything for a laugh,” he further explained in his e-book memoir A Comedian’s Tale, first published through his website in 1995 and since reissued. Keen to make an impression while compering, he would take to the stage and hammer a coat hook into the venue wall or throw a convincing-looking brown papier mâché into an electric fan to see what happens when “the shit hits the fan”, as he had it.

“I was stupid and, in retrospect, lucky with these stunts,” he continued. “I’m thinking in particular of juggling bottles over the front row and setting fire to my pubes.”

“Died with his boots on, that’s commitment to comedy,” said Jimmy Carr of Cognito’s death. “I’ll never forget his kindness when I started out and how goddamn funny he was.” Carr’s comments speak specifically to the manner of Cognito’s death, with which his name is now bound to be linked. Performing a gig at the Lone Wolf Comedy Club in Bicester’s Atic club, he suffered a stroke and died. Unaware this fatal illness wasn’t part of the act, the audience reportedly applauded, until the promoter attempted unsuccessfully to rouse him a few minutes later.

Complaining of feeling ill earlier, Cognito joked about it in his set; “imagine having a stroke and waking up speaking Welsh”, he reportedly teased, a most typical line from one of his shows. The night’s promoter Andrew Bird said afterwards it was how he “would have wanted to go, except he’d want more money and a bigger venue.”

Born Paul Barbieri in London in 1958, Ian ‘Cogsy’ Cognito came from an Irish-Italian family and settled in Bristol. He took up stand-up in 1985, played rock music in his band Telling Lies prior to comedy (he often played ukulele as part of his set), and won the Time Out award for stand-up comedy in 1999. His intensity was what made his comedy work.

“Cogsy has long been willing to do anything for adrenaline, anything for a laugh,” said Matthew Alford in his 2013 introduction to Cognito’s book. “He really has thrown his TV out of a hotel window, he really has wrecked his life through booze… no doubt Ian Cognito will die on stage doing what he loves the most.”

DAVID POLLOCK