When Ian Cognito walked on stage in Bicester, Oxfordshire, on 11 April 2019, he couldn’t have known he was about to follow in the footsteps of Tommy Cooper. Every comedian has stories of “dying” in front of an audience but few do it literally. The manner of Cognito’s death at the age of 60 seems entirely in keeping with this caustic performer, who boasted about being the most banned act in Britain, accused other comics of hypocrisy, head-butted his own manager, and took everything he did to extremes.
A new documentary, Ian Cognito: A Life and a Death on Stage, tells the story of the man born Paul Barbieri but known as “Cogs” to friends and admirers. Singing his praises in the film are the likes of James Acaster, Shaparak Khorsandi and Stewart Lee. Some are a little more equivocal. Jo Brand calls him “a loose cannon”. Bob Mills says: “Standup comedy was a weapon to Cogs. It wasn’t a nice thing.”
Those familiar with Cognito will recall that he began many of his gigs by banging a nail into the wall and then hanging his hat on it, before turning to the audience. “Now you know two things about me,” he would bark. “First, I don’t give a shit. And second, I’ve got a hammer.” He also threw a television set out of a Birmingham hotel window. His explanation? “Room service was late.” Alcoholism and mental health issues drove this sort of behaviour. Cognito rarely performed without several pints inside him and another one in his hand, and he was honest about the corrosive effects of his stage persona. “He’s in danger of killing me, my Mr Hyde,” he said.
Danny Ward and Joe Bor, the standups who directed the documentary, have fond memories of him. “Cogs and I did a festival together where he nicked a bottle of rum from the bar and then ate a chicken out of a bin,” Ward tells me. Bor chips in: “We took turns hosting one weekend at the Glee club in Cardiff. Cogs said: ‘The audience really likes you. They don’t like me.’ But then again, he had just called them all cunts, so …”
Cognito could craft an exemplary one-liner. He railed against people with disabilities “using our spaces in the car park. If you let them get away with it, they’ll be in our toilets next.” But the bracing, heady flavour of a Cognito set was never about individual gags. “No one knew what the hell he was going to do or say,” says his son, Will Barbieri. “The adrenaline was incredible. When he was on form, it was as much a theme park ride as it was a gig.”
The comic Becky Fury agrees. “Being in the room with him was electrifying,” she says. Her first encounter with Cognito was about 15 years ago, when she was 19. “My boyfriend did some comedy promoting at a theatre. Paul came on stage and started hammering a nail in the wall. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be like: ‘Don’t go anywhere near that guy.’ But I found it very attractive. He was this powerful, charismatic, sexy presence. We had a fling, so that was the end of him ever performing at that venue again!” It wasn’t the last time he helped Fury end an ailing relationship by going to bed with her. As she wrote after his death: “He had an uncanny knack of appearing when he was needed, like a swaggering cockney genie that lives in a bottle of Jameson’s.”
Though Cognito’s relationship with the audience was uniformly combative, it could sometimes seem as though women bore the brunt of his opprobrium. “I don’t think we’re gonna be seeing you in the next episode of Baywatch, are we?” he asked a woman in the front row at one gig. Fury says that audiences back then were better equipped for this abrasive approach. “They could deal with banter,” she says. “Whereas today, you’ve got a generation who didn’t play out enough as kids. They’re not exposed to that sort of thing so it seems more outrageous.”
For all that its makers admire Cognito, the documentary is no hagiography. “Cogs did alienate people,” says Ward. “He was flawed, like all of us.” The ultimate target of his comedy, though, was usually himself, as that joke about parking spaces makes clear. Lee puts it nicely in the film: Cognito, he explains, was “the person of low status” in any routine. Ward also draws a distinction between man and persona. “Paul Barbieri was playing a character called Ian Cognito who had no filter. And sometimes the things he said were quite shocking.”
Rarely more so than in his lacerating set at the Glastonbury festival in 1999. In a brazen instance of audience-baiting, he immediately insulted the Manic Street Preachers, who had played a headline set the previous evening, then silenced a heckler by explaining what happened to the last person who interrupted him: “I followed her home, waited up all night and shot her on her fucking doorstep, so bear it in mind.” No wonder the crowd gasped – the murder of Jill Dando less than two months earlier was still fresh in the memory.
Ward flinches when I mention that moment, which isn’t in the documentary. “You told me to cut that one out, Joe,” he reminds his co-director. “We didn’t want to whitewash Cogs, which is why there’s a whole section about his flaws, but that kind of clip could easily have capsized the film.”
A standup who thrived on the crackle of danger unique to live comedy was never going to be a snug fit for TV. Cognito was scathing about those who were. Will believes his father’s distaste for the medium was authentic. “He hated the idea of selling out. His anarchist, nonconformist streak wouldn’t have let him do it.”
According to Bor, this made him “even more popular among his peers. He was a God of the circuit.” Some comics, such as Daniel Kitson, have made the anti-TV angle work. “The Daniel Kitson model means having tens of thousands of fans on your mailing list,” says Ward. “If they all give you, say, £10 a year, then you’re in business. Cogs didn’t have that. He lived on a houseboat on the River Avon with his last £20 note. It wasn’t a business plan.”
I ask Will whether his father had ambitions for the future and he lets out an almighty laugh. “No, he was fucked!” he says. “He wasn’t getting a lot of gigs. We talked about him living at the end of my mum’s garden.” Tastes had changed. “He never did a Ricky Gervais, claiming he wasn’t ‘allowed’ to say certain things. But he did struggle with the sensitivity of audiences.” His material also played differently once he reached his 50s. “As you get older, you’re less able to style things out,” says Will. “You go from swashbuckling anarchist to bitter old man. I’d sometimes say: ‘Why don’t you try a more cerebral, introspective gig?’ It didn’t come naturally but he gave it a go every now and then. I’d love to have seen more of that.”
Though Cognito was often proudly out of step, Ward thinks the landscape had changed irrevocably. “Cogs was the last of a breed. He represented the wild west days. Now you’ve got people writing about comedy gigs on social media like they’re rating kettles on the Argos website.” For Fury, who is keeping the Cognito spirit alive by touring a show called C*nt!, TV is partly to blame. “Paul was all about being a road comic and not restricting his material just because there might be an exec in the audience. He had something otherworldly about him. The guy died on stage at a comedy night called Lone Wolf – how poetic is that?”
He had joked about his health that night in Bicester, telling the crowd: “Imagine if I died in front of you lot here.” Later, he sat down on stage and fell silent. Cognito had suffered an aortic dissection, a tear to the body’s main artery. As he exhaled for the last time in front of an audience convinced they were watching part of his act, I had wondered if the mythologising of Cognito’s death might have felt disrespectful to his family. (“Died with his boots on,” tweeted Jimmy Carr.) But Will is all for it. “Dad had quit drinking and he was on antidepressants,” he says. “The last time him and my mum saw one another, they went dog-walking and he told her: ‘You know what? I’m really happy.’ His arc did feel complete in a way. He had the rise, the fall, the hardships and then he’d reached this equilibrium. To go out like that, I think, was fitting.”