RIP Cogs

One day the world will be a better place, we will love each other and share things together. It wont be a something for nothing world or everything for some, but fair shares for all. We will live in a world where there is nothing to be gained from making people look small and putting others down, and when that day comes, I’m fucked.

Ian Cognito

This week Bristol lost a legend. Ian Cognito, a.k.a. Paul Barbieri, died as he’d predicted, on stage. He was a hugely influential and iconic member of the UK circuit for over 30 years.

There’s been an outpouring of memories and reflections on Twitter in the past couple days, from comics who’d known him, or punters who’d witnessed his act and never forgotten it. But for many Bristol-area comedians there was a connection with the man that makes this an especially difficult loss. He took new comics aside, out for a drink―more likely several―and he represented a commitment to the purity of the art and a refusal to compromise that will serve as a guide to those he inspired for a long, long time.

This quote from comedian Nick Page stood out:

A poet’s soul in the body of a stunt man, the comedy circuit’s Oliver Reed, our Autolycus, our Faust, our Falstaff. Our comic, not the public’s not television’s. Ours.

We asked Bristol comedian Angie Belcher to share a few memories:

There’s a hole left in comedy, and a hole in many hearts. I can hear him now though, wondering why, on his rock ‘n roll trajectory, did it have to end in Bicester. Maybe they could put a coat hook up somewhere to remember: That’s the place where Ian Cognito climbed onto a bar stool and put the world to rights.

I’d love to watch Cogs as a raconteur as well as a comic. Punters couldn’t wait to meet him after a gig. They were both equally curious and terrified of his character in stage, but afterwards, the civvie Cogs would love to tell stories, drink and chat shop till the early hours.

Cog’s shambolic anger on stage was actually a studied art, and his writing managed to work on so many levels, it was difficult to know whether to be offended or not. While other comedians were wrestling with which political theme to open with, Cogs employed legendary slapstick gags. His now-famous antics had kind of tamed a little by the time I saw him live, but my more experienced comedic friends regaled me with whispered excitement of drilling holes in stage walls, body parts in pints, and drunken falls off stages.

The first time I met Cogs still sticks in my mind. All the way in the car to the gig I’d had a fuzzy tenseness as Pat Gallagher explained the significance of the gig. He was excited that I’d never seen him live before and was almost jealous that I was about to have an experience he could never have again: my first time seeing Ian Cognito live.

A strange bloke bounced into the front seat and starting telling stories. I didn’t know it then, but this cross between Oliver Reed and Delboy was about to become one of my comedy heroes. I wanted to be like him, to demand the audience’s attention in a way that the 90’s comedians I’d grown up with had shied away from.

The chaos and urgency of Cognito’s work also always had a message. His desire for us to love one another and his endearing interest in his fellow human beings was always at the forefront. He loved to talk others up-defending his fellow comedians on stage, throwing misogynist hecklers out the fire escape. He always had complimentary words for new acts, often purposefully and ruefully disguised as faint bitterness, when in fact he was a wonderful and whole-hearted supporter of new talent.

Sharing a stage with Cognito could be both thrilling and scary. Cogs wasn’t without those detractors that couldn’t handle his raw and rebellious choice of challenging material. I remember a man bigger than both of us combined once offering him out on stage. As the compere, I pondered on whether it was my job to get between Cogs and this giant of a man. But before I had a chance to put on my best teacher voice, Cogs had managed to sing his detractor out the building. I can’t remember what the song was about, but if I ever had a super power, I’d want the ability to subdue a 20-stone bodybuilder with just a guitar and a snazzy chorus.

As a promoter it was a joy to book Cogs. I love the crackle of anticipation at every gig, but Cogs was the headliner you knew was gonna stay in people’s minds for a long time. For him the fourth wall wasn’t a constraint, but a place where chaos met comedy. You never left the gig not knowing what Cogs opinion was; you had the spittle on your face and the Guinness on your coat to prove it.

There’s a vacuum for his kind of emotive performance, his technically perfect gags and his hunt for humanity amongst the everyday. In later years his antics, though now whispered about on the circuit, had softened, his writing seemed more relevant and his performance was different since his forced embargo on alcohol.

The most he could muster at my club was punching the disco ball, though admittedly he did drop a baby on the stage at my Christmas AfterMirth show which made me worry for my insurance level. No real harm was ever done, much like with his audiences. If you were on the right side at a Cogs gig, no real harm would come.

Angie Belcher