'I was just too hungry and too obsessed' - Al Porter on burnout, feel-good comedy, and conquering the UK
Arriving late, apologetic and breathless, comedian Al Porter heads straight to the bar to order a cappuccino and a gin and tonic. It’s 11.30am.
The immaculate coiffed hair; the sharply tailored suit; the tumble of theatrical monologues: there is an old-school aura to the 24-year-old Dubliner, who has the ability to turn any room into a stage. Now, his fame is spreading beyond Irish shores; having appeared on stage in Britain last year, critics there are tipping him as the successor to Michael McIntyre — one of the highest grossing comedians in the world.
As an entertainer, Porter says he is “at home in the British tradition”. True, he has more in common with flamboyant British oldies such as Larry Grayson and Leslie Crowther than his compatriots Tommy Tiernan and Dara Ó Briain, and he knows it.
“Camp comedy isn’t a big Irish thing,” he says. “Britain produces them by the dozen.”
When he performed in Edinburgh last year, his show was a slick, crowd-pleasing reincarnation of old-fashioned variety, complete with a Frankie Howerd overture from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and laden with tart innuendo.
One critic described him as “a hurricane of camp comedy” who “is going to be huge”. And thanks to a self-assured appearance on Michael McIntyre’s Big Show last December, his stock has risen even further.
Now he has travelled to London to make his debut recording for Radio 4’s The Now Show. When we meet, he’s still buzzing from the experience the night before. Pulling out his phone to show me a group photo of himself and fellow panellists Lucy Porter, Steve Punt and Pippa Evans, he says: “I’m doing full ‘TV presenter from the Seventies’.”
He was in his element. “Everything about me says that I love old stuff. So I was delighted to be recording in the old BBC building where Frankie Howerd might have recorded, or Kenneth Williams.
“From the time I was a kid, it was always waistcoats and bow ties, swing albums and Bobby Darin. I believe in Tarantino’s thing of wearing your influences on your sleeve.”
Such self-conscious nostalgia could seem a little starry-eyed, but there’s an authentically world-weary edge to Porter too. A theatre performer since the age of eight, he is a veteran of stage and screen. He also has a newspaper column, a radio show and myriad plays and TV shows on his CV.
Trying to dip his toe into another pond, he says, is a good exercise for him. “It keeps you grounded. I’d say my mother’s f***ing delighted.
‘That’ll teach you!’,” he mimicks with a laugh.
“‘You’re not Graham Norton yet, you little bitch!’”
Staying grounded does sound like a challenge given that, in his home town of Tallaght in South Dublin, he jokes that he’s treated like the mayor: “I’m basically walking round and shaking hands and kissing babies.”
Porter’s stand-up was honed on the streets of Tallaght, and he plunders local characters with regularity and affection. References to Sarah Ward, a teenage mum nicknamed “Maternity Ward”, and Snap Crackle (no Pop), a boy who doesn’t know who his dad is, are his versions of Larry Grayson’s imaginary friend Slack Alice, he explains.
Porter’s father Mick features regularly: a chain-smoking, retired flight sergeant who “has a moustache and his face is hanging off it”, and is all about the “bahnter”.
Porter likes to say he never had to come out, “because I was so fab”. But he admits his father did somewhat withdraw from him during his childhood, when he realised his son liked to dress up in his mother’s clothes.
“He was a bit like, ‘I have nothing to do here. That is your mother’s son’, and focused perhaps more on my older brother, who was sporty,” he says. “But now I’m making money, he loves me. I know that’s really harsh, but it’s kind of true. He would have loved me either way, but it’s definitely helped that I’m successful. When his friends say, ‘Your son’s that gay fella’, he can be like, ‘Sorry what? You mean the TV presenter?’ ”
While his comic sensibility was forged largely from watching feel-good films such as Father of the Bride and The First Wives Club, Porter says that his parents’ often strained finances provided him with the motivation to be an entertainer.
“That’s not ‘Woe is me’; I’ve had a grand upbringing — certainly no money, but I did try and cheer up my parents a lot. I remember making light of a really s**t dinner, because we didn’t have money.”
It’s stayed with him. “People mistake feel-good comedy for shallow, but sometimes people who create feel-good stuff are the most aware about how difficult the world is.”
His parents found an outlet for his extrovert behaviour by introducing him to the theatre. A career in the priesthood beckoned briefly before he won a place to read English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, and he left as an atheist. “They drill too much logic into you.”
Just four months into the course, he dropped out (without telling his parents) and decided to try his hand at stand-up. He was soon earning €30 a night, at the local working men’s club.
“I’d seen the greats like Billy Connolly and Peter Kay,” he says, “but I was doing it in the only way I knew how, which was over the top. Lots of older comedians were like, ‘Oh, you must love Frankie Howerd’. Same goes for the Carry On movies — they saw it in me but I didn’t. Then I started to watch them all. It was like I was a child who’d been adopted, meeting his birth family.”
Porter is a camp comedian making fabulous jokes, which, he hopes, will be received with post-gay political correctness.
“I can see how, if you’re a gay comedian in your 30s, you might want to avoid being defined [as being gay]. I understand why you’d think camping up is caricature and practically blackface to you. But if you’re 24, and no one really cares any more if you’re gay, it just comes down to personality: are you over the top and camp, or are you not?”
Porter clearly falls into the OTT category — after all, he has been known, on stage, to proffer his backside to audience members. Does he want to make people uncomfortable?
“Just a tiny bit,” he says, with an immoderate laugh.
It’s this naughtiness that, he thinks, ultimately differentiates him from the affable humour of Michael McIntyre.
In fact, I soon get my own Porter whiplash moment when he shows me a naked photograph of himself.
“How unreal am I? Right?”
The dangers of not taking time out from being an entertainer is something he has learnt to his own detriment. Last year, Porter spoke about how his own ambition had driven him to near burn-out.
“I was just too hungry and too obsessed,” he says. “I had this intense knot in my stomach with a magnetic force-field dragging me towards the next gig: to be the next big thing.”
His ambition remains, but he has accepted he won’t be selling out the O2 at 25, like Kevin Bridges. “I still want it all but now I want it all in good time, and with patience, and only if I’m happy.”
Porter’s groundedness stems largely from the fact that he’s still living at home in his parents’ council house in Tallaght — although, he says, his suits take up three rooms. He has a boyfriend of nine months (“three years in gay terms”), who also lives at home, and the pair often cook together at each other’s houses and watch Netflix. Getting out of Tallaght is not one of his many ambitions.
“I’m very conscious that a trend when I was growing up was that only the successful got out. It was the Billy Elliot story. But I always wanted to show people that you don’t have to leave to better yourself.”
That doesn’t mean Porter isn’t living the high life: he talks of first-class flights, yachts and parties with Colin Farrell.
“I don’t feel any less working-class for enjoying the fruits of my labour,” he says. And then it’s time for another gin.