Al Porter: 'I'm further down the career path than Graham Norton was at age 24'
As he begins a new Today FM show, Al Porter hopes to go from panto dame to king of the airwaves. But it's just one step of a plan to take him to the very top - as the openly ambitious and admirably authentic comedian tells our reporter. Photography by Naomi Gaffey
'I've never received a Valentine's Day card. Ever," says Al Porter. "And I'm someone who really doesn't mind Hallmark holidays. I love to celebrate - I'll throw a party at the drop of a hat."
Having just landed his own national lunchtime radio show - which begins this Monday, February 13 - Porter has every reason to celebrate. If he feels any pressure about being seen to be the man to turn Today FM's fortunes around, he's doing a very good job of not showing it.
The commercial station has had a rough time of it of late thanks to relentlessly declining listenership and controversy surrounding the departure of Anton Savage, who helmed its mid-morning show for two years. Now, Dermot Whelan and Dave Moore move their double act to the 9am slot, and radio bosses will be hoping that their latest signing - a larger-than-life 24-year-old Dublin comedian - might be the one to return the station to the glory days of a decade ago when Ray D'Arcy was pulling in the sort of figures to keep RTÉ executives awake at night.
"I don't feel the burden of it," Porter says with a smile about his new show, simply titled Al Porter. "I don't even think about ratings at all. It's a very selfish thing, but I do things for me. I'm very happy to be part of the Today FM family and, as glib as it sounds, I've always gotten on with Dermot and Dave personally, and with Ian [Dempsey] and Matt [Cooper], but I'm doing this because I want to do radio and it's the right fit right now."
Porter sits down with Weekend on the top floor of a Dublin photography studio. He's enjoyed donning shiny suits and playing around for our Valentine's-themed cover shoot for the past couple of hours, but he's in the mood for a long, searching conversation too. Although he's been around the block, showbiz-wise, there's none of the self-censorship common to so many of his peers.
He's got a gift for soundbites, but perhaps not the ones his new bosses might have being hoping for. "I'm not doing it to swoop in and be some sort of ratings hero," he says. "I've never cared about YouTube hits, Twitter followers, Instagram followers, you name it. I would suspect it's natural to shed listeners to begin with because if you're a radio listener you're loyal and you become accustomed to a certain thing. It's comfortable, y'know? If you don't like Al Porter, you're just going to turn the dial.
"But I do want people to give it a chance and I think I'll surprise them. I would get upset if someone came back and said, 'This has been a bad booking for Today FM' and I knew, deep down, I hadn't tried my best.
"You can't just sit back on your laurels and think, 'The power of personality will get you through this'. And I certainly don't want to go, 'Ah f***, I should have done more'. But if Today FM aren't happy in a year, I won't take it personally - the world is bigger than that."
Porter, who still lives with his parents, Marian and Mick, in Springfield, Tallaght, has plenty of fish to fry - and he's happy to reel them off: a TV development deal with RTÉ, regular TV appearances on BBC comedy shows, sold-out stand-up shows around Ireland, and some high-profile gigs in Britain, a fixture on the annual panto circuit… Oh, and he's written a play too.
"I'm very aware that the stand-up, for instance, could be a flash-in-the-pan thing. I don't want to put all my eggs in the one basket and I really admire people who do lots of different things well."
He makes no secret of the fact that Graham Norton is a hero. "He's got the TV show, the radio show, the critically acclaimed novel - there's an awful lot going on there. But, you know, I'm just 24 and as far as I know Graham has talked about being frustrated by the way his career was that age. I'm further down the road."
He's talked in the past of his desire to host The Late Late Show in the future and says he's always been content to wear his ambitions on his sleeve. "Maybe I should be playing it cool - I know others do - but that's not who I am. I say it as it is."
Just five years ago, Porter was an unhappy student at Trinity College Dublin, who had started to dabble in stand-up. Now, he seems to be ubiquitous and few would argue that he has crammed an awful lot into his early 20s.
He's become a Late Late regular (including last night's instalment) where, he quips, he's booked "to do c**k jokes", he has the distinction of being the youngest comedian to sell out Vicar Street, and he provided the standout moment of the last series of RTÉ's Cutting Edge when he talked about the pills he took to combat depression.
"That was a side of me that people wouldn't have seen before," he says. "I got offered a number of different things out of it, but turned most down because I don't want to be defined by it. I've been told that knowing when to say 'no' is one of the most important things in this industry."
The soul-baring of that Cutting Edge appearance may have taken his mother by surprise - he told her what he planned to say a mere hours before it aired - but he admits that it was part of a wider plan to reinvent himself. He had become slightly disillusioned with how the "Al Porter persona" had managed to successfully hide the real him, and around this time last year he actively decided to do something about it.
"I had a really s****y start to last year," he confides. "I was so depressed, I didn't want to work. I wanted to grow a beard and move to Australia. I wanted to give up comedy. A chasm had grown between who I am and the persona that I had created. I was starting to go, 'Oh f*** - these don't actually match any more'.
"When I was 19, I went, 'Who do I want to be?' I'll wear bright suits, and be a little bit '70s, and a little bit Carry On, and a little bit outrageous. You create that domino, and then you tip over that domino and there's this domino effect."
He gazes out the window at the fading daylight, lost in thought. "I remember saying to a psychoanalyst that I had at the time, that I found myself at 23 years of age still pretending to be the character I had invented when I was 19, and it was getting to me.
"Then, I met with different people and I started rethinking my life, and I decided I just had to be myself. I didn't want to fall into that trap where I'm myself for the 20 minutes before I go to bed and the rest of the day is a performance - I just won't f***ing do it. So I started doing honest interviews, and taking authenticity into things… but not becoming too serious."
There's a mischievous side to Porter that's hard to dislike, not least when he recounts a tale of going wildly off script on The Late Late to deliver a none-too-subtle and X-rated dig at an ex-boyfriend. "They said to me afterwards, 'If you're going to do that again, could you please let us know?'"
He says he's made up stuff in the past "for the hell of it" including the tale of a brother who was planning on following him into stand-up. The story is still online, but in fact, "Nathan" was someone he met in Montrose that he passed off as a sibling to an entertainment reporter.
He's close to his parents but enjoys embarrassing them on air, not least when talking lasciviously about his sex life. He lost his virginity at 15 "at a local GAA pitch" and enjoyed a number of years of promiscuous sex. "Never anything too risky," he says, "but I was lucky that the people I was with were careful with protection. I don't know if I always would have been."
Now, at the ripe old age of 24, he says he's happy to settle down. He says he's in love - and suggests the days of cruising in the Phoenix Park are behind him.
Porter is very funny when talking about his sexual exploits - and one can see why he has become one of Ireland's most in-demand comedians.
Such smut, he reasons, is part of a grand tradition of comedy and carried on today by the likes of Brendan O'Carroll. "Not everyone might like it, and that's fine, but I don't think my routine is nasty - I really don't."
Porter says that some of those who dislike his stand-up are other gay men. "I think they look at me camping it up and think, 'They're f***ing laughing at us'. But I genuinely don't think that's the case. I think those days are long past. I say, 'They're laughing with us'.
"It reminds me of something [American comedian] Louis CK said. He saw a gay man going by in hot pants and laughed and then asked if that made him homophobic or if he had just seen something really funny."
He was born in 1993, the year homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland. "It used to be one of my early jokes," he says, "my parents waited until the law was changed before they had me." He says 2015's marriage equality vote was a game-changer and notes that it's helped make gay people feel more comfortable about public displays of affection. And yet, he argues the result wasn't quite as rosy as we've been led to believe.
"Nearly 40pc of the population voted against it," he says. "That's a lot of people."
He is proud of his Tallaght roots and irked that, for some, it's a shorthand to describe all that's undesirable about urban living. "There's so much that's good there," he says, "so many people who've helped me along my way. It doesn't have 200-year-old trees or Georgian houses or f***ing tennis courts, but it does have love and community.
"But it's important not to gloss over the fact that Tallaght is a place of single mothers and unemployed people and troubled teenagers and joyriders and graffiti artists and drug dealers and estranged fathers and alcoholics… and, you know what? I love them all too."
Tallaght has fuelled much of his routine - "it's the well from which I've drawn so much" - much to the irritation of some locals. "I don't want to pretend there aren't problems there," he says. "I don't want to be all po-faced about it. I remember being guest of honour at Tallaght Person of the Year and I gave a speech that wasn't very well received when I started talking about that very stuff. I just don't want to sweep it under the carpet and, that night, I had grown tired of how 'pat on the back' it was."
Porter believes his working-class background has helped fuel his work ethic - and a desire for security. He plans to buy a house this summer "so," he says, "I'll have somewhere in years to come if the work dries up. I think it's normal to be plagued by insecurities when you're an entertainer. Even Billy Connolly used to say, 'What will I do when they find me out?'"
If Porter comes across in person as far older than his years, it could be that many of the people he has worked with - and takes advice from - are old enough to be his grandparents. He has a lot of time for veteran funnyman Noel V Ginnity and businessman Harry Crosbie, and says both have looked out for him in the past.
"Those sort of people can teach you an awful lot and it's wise, when you're starting off, to pay attention. You might get a bit of success early on and think you know it all, but you know what? You're really just learning."
Al Porter airs on Today FM on Monday from 12pm-2.30pm
Photography: Naomi Gaffey
Styling: Bairbre Power
Grooming: Hair by Christian, make-up by Rachel from Brown Sugar, South William Street, Dublin 2, brownsugar.ie
Al wears: Left: Blue Canali suit, €1,195, shirt, tie, pocket square, all from Louis Copeland, 39-41 Wicklow Street, Dublin 2.
Cover: Pink silk suit, courtesy of Brendan Courtney; shirt and tie from Louis Copeland.
With thanks to: Butlers chocolates. Red velvet keepsake heart box with 16 chocolates, €16, stores nationwide and butlerschocolates.com