COMEDY / As not likely to be seen on television

Ian Cognito; Lighten Up Tour; Dave Chappelle; Stu Kamens; Red Johnny an d the Round Guy
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two inflatable bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale on either side of the stage. People sit, tackily candle-lit, at plastic patio tables and chairs. The compere does not know when to stop. This is the reality of college comedy in this country. But through the dank, beery air of the University of London Union there comes a foul-mouthed ray of hope. Ladies and gentle-scientists, I give you Mr Ian Cognito.

He might sound like a bad magician, and look - with his pointy beard and billowing, white lace-up shirt tucked in at the waist - like an extra from Fiddler on the Roof, but this Italian-Irish son of Walthamstow is a rough-house comic moralist of rare distinction. There is a theatrical element to Cognito's intensity - all popping eyes and flushed cheeks - but it feels real, too. He maintains an aggrieved potency worthy of a character in a Thomas Hardy novel, and has a sharp eye for hypocrisy in all its forms. ``Spare a thought for the homeless people in winter, because it's easy to trip over them when they're covered in snow.''

Unwilling, or unable, to make the compromises upon which TV exposure and voice-over remuneration depend, Cognito uses the resultant bitterness in his work. He has not allowed being a father of two to blunt his edge (''I hit my kids, it's never done me any harm''); and even his lighter moments, ``Bar-code roulette'' for example, have a darkness about them (''Take a felt-tip into the supermarket, add another stripe and see what you get charged for''). But he rarely forgets to be funny, and has a devastating way with dissenters: ``I don't turn up when you're working and say, `Do you really think that windscreen's clean?'.''

The young Americans of the Lighten Up Tour have a hard time making themselves heard above the suited-up Friday-night hubbub of the Camden Jongleurs. The venue's motto - ``Eat, laugh, dance, drink'' - has a brutal, almost bestial, simplicity to it. And despite the comedians' valiant efforts to communicate what they have learnt about British culture - ``If you're in Newcastle, don't ask people if they're Scottish'' - the hum of conversation rises, all too often, to a roar.

Sweetmeats, in the form of well-rehearsed ``spontaneous'' references to David Mellor or Trevor McDonald, are placed nervously in the crowd's gaping maw. Dave Chappelle observes why of all the super-heroes he favours the Incredible Hulk (''He's green, I'm black - that's close enough''); Stu Kamens wonders what would happen if visitors to his city did the things real New Yorkers do - ``We shot a cop, we hated people just because they were different from us, and then we saw Cats''; but only the broader-than-Broadway musical parodies of Red Johnny and the Round Guy strike a chord with tonight's multiple posses of unruly birthday celebrants. Their fellow comics and countrymen stand and watch them from the bar at the back, looking extremely homesick.

Ian Cognito: Exeter Arts Centre, 0392 421111, Fri; Durham University, 091-374 3310, Sat; then touring. Lighten Up Tour: Brighton Crocodile Club, 0273 60646, tonight; Cardiff Coal Exchange, 0222 452557, Tues; then touring.