Saturday 20 July 2019

A pint of Al Porter is your only man

At 22, Al Porter's brand of irreverent comedy regularly strays into dangerous territory. Sometimes this can burn him, but performing on the wild side will always be his drug of choice, he tells Andrea Smith

Al Porter at House in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Al Porter at House in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Comedian Al Porter as the Olympia's dame Lolly Polly.

Andrea Smith

Anarchic, cheeky, outrageous, risque - these are just some of the terms used to describe 22-year-old Al Porter. In an increasingly litigious world where fear of retribution forces many comedians to dilute their more biting observations, rising star Porter is refreshingly fearless and delivers his strikes with impunity. "I've been a fan of yours since you were doing the Rose of Tralee," he announced to Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show last week. "And you hosted it as well."

Many, myself included, believe that Porter is on the brink of becoming the next big thing in comedy internationally, but recent events have brought the swift, sharp realisation that taking risks can come back to bite you. He's full of joie de vivre and sparkling good humour when we meet for coffee in House, but when I ask about the defamation case taken by David Norris, the cheeky grin temporarily vanishes. The senator is suing him and RTE over a joke he made aged 19 on RTE Two's New Comedy Awards Show, centred on Norris's criticism of the TV3 reality show Tallafornia, which he called, "a seriously drink-sodden programme where young people are exploited."

"Ah I don't mind saying it's disappointing," reveals Al, who says that as a young, gay man, he admires the flamboyant senator and views him as a hero for the things he did in the early days for the gay community. "It's big man versus little man, because he lives in a huge house and I live with my mam in Tallaght. People are so entitled to their good name, and I've never set out to hurt anyone's feelings, but I've disengaged from what's going on because worrying about where I'll get the money from makes me feel ill. I love and respect Norris, and wrote e-mails to him when I was younger, especially when he was ill, so yeah, it's disappointing. I don't hold it against him though, as I don't have the energy to be annoyed at him, and I don't know where he's getting the energy to be annoyed at me."

With that, just as things turned serious for a moment, the saucy twinkle returns to Porter's eye and he's back to his irrepressible, audacious self. "I don't have the money to hire big lawyers, so friends of friends are looking after my legal work," he explains. "They're both called William, so I can picture myself on the steps of the High Court saying, 'Senator Norris has put up a tough case, but I will take him on with my two Willies by my side!'"

He may be young, but there's a real old-school charm about the handsome Porter. With his impeccable three-piece suit from Louis Copeland and carefully-coiffed dark hair, he has the look of a young Leslie Crowther about him. Born Alan Kavanagh, he admits that his parents often didn't know what to make of their youngest child with the dazzlingly camp demeanour. He's from an ordinary, unshowbizzy family, with dad Mick, a caretaker and a former sergeant in the Air Corps, mum Marian, the parish secretary, sister Aisling, a special needs assistant, and brother Niall, who is "something in the finance world but no one has any idea what."

He reckons his theatrical side came from his late grandmother, who was extremely dramatic and a huge character. "She was very glam and wore the leopardskins and pearls, so you didn't know if she was out to be pulled or poached," he laughs. "Nana had a great accent that I call 'aristocratic Ballyfermot,' where she would over-enunciate all of the words, but still managed to pronounce them wrong. Her favourite word was 'bitch' and she knew how to have a good fight, but she was really religious too and sang at mass."

So what does this family of nice, regular people from Tallaght make of Al's searing honesty, given that most people wouldn't describe their own sexual antics in graphic detail, as he is wont to do. "I'm sure my parents hear the stories about my sex life and think, is that real?" he says. "Obviously, with entertainment, there's a bit of embroidery, so it's good that they don't know how much is actually true. I don't think you can go astray in sex - well, maybe Hugh Grant overdid it a little bit. I wouldn't be bothered with orgies because I like to keep everyone happy, and have had threesomes but was terrible at them. It was like the other two were on tandem bicycles and I was a unicyclist trying to keep up. I've had threesomes with male and female couples, but I always wished they were like wrestling, and the woman was the referee just there to pull myself and the man apart occasionally."

Al has never experimented with dating women because he knew he was gay when he was 10. He had a gay friend and they got up to all sorts of madcap things together, like dressing up as the Spice Girls and being cheerleaders for the boys' football team. One Hallowe'en, Al dressed as a pregnant nun, and he and his friend knocked on the door of the local priest's house, where Al pretended to give birth to a doll. They were mad about WWE wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, and while Al's dad thought this meant his camp son liked traditional boys' sports, it was more that he liked oily men in feather boas.

Comedian Al Porter as the Olympia's dame Lolly Polly.
Comedian Al Porter as the Olympia's dame Lolly Polly.

There were bits of bullying at school, but Al managed to deflect most trouble with his peculiar blend of loud entertainment, well-placed flirting, and naked honesty. 'While any lad I ever fancied never reciprocated it, they were always very nice to me," he says. "I was a mix of being vulnerable, so I would openly tell guys I liked them, and brash, so if they said anything negative, I would say, 'F**k off, you're probably gay anyway." I was funny and loud, so people weren't mean to me, and I used to tease my teachers too and got on great with them."

Prior to the passing of the marriage equality referendum, the young comic felt there was a subtle sense that being gay was something you didn't discuss in Ireland. He worried about telling his parents, but when he came out at 19, they were very supportive. "They were like, 'Obviously!" he guffaws. "They said, 'You need to come in, not out, as you've been in drag since you were 11.' I had myself in a knot about how I was going to tell them, but I was flaming and they knew all along."

Al was a member of the Independent Theatre Workshop as a youngster, and worked in professional theatre on productions like Bugsy Malone and I, Keano. He will play Dame Lolly Polly in Freezin' - The Story of the Snow Queen, at the Olympia from December 18, his 12th Christmas panto at that theatre.

Recently broken up with his boyfriend, Al says that he adored a guy he worked with in shows, and considers him his first love. "It wasn't the person I was recently going out with - he can f**k off, I didn't love him," he says, fiercely. "I wrote the other guy an embarrassingly romantic letter one Valentine's Day, but I think he really likes me as a close friend and nothing more. I always felt unrequited love was better in ways because it was never tainted by reality. If you actually got together, you'd realise the person farts in bed, is moody in the afternoon and your family hates him. I preferred the perfect fantasy, so the guy I refer to as my first love is still like the sun to me, and I act like a gobshite when I see him. He's with someone else now, so good luck to them."

For all the messing, Al was very academic at school. He got 10 As in his Junior Cert and 575 points in the Leaving and went on to study English and philosophy at Trinity. He found Trinity 'weird' and dropped out after four months. "The class divide was still there, and people were like, 'Oh you're from Tallaght? I've never been there,'" he says. "Everyone had more discretionary income than I did and was partying the whole time, but I didn't like that scene. I was never attracted to drugs, although I've smoked weed with friends, of course, but I get my highs from performance. I'm mad fond of a drink and have been drinking since I was 14. I'm out every night of the week, but I'm more about the banter than the drink, and think that some of the best stories are told over a pint."

After he dropped out of college, Al embarked on his comedy career, and quickly made a name for himself. Aside from his regular radio work on 2fm, he's just back from a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He also has some Irish dates coming up, which he's really excited about, but most thrilling of all is that he has just signed to British talent agency Off The Kerb Productions, which represents Jonathan Ross, Michael McIntyre, Dara O Briain and Alan Carr.

Putting on gigs is a risky endeavour and he hasn't made much money yet, so does the business side of his career worry him? "Ah I don't take that part too seriously," he says. "I was doing this swing show at the Dublin fringe festival last week and all the tickets didn't sell, and that was stressful for about 20 minutes and then it was hilarious. I like to slag myself if I'm not doing well, so I could worry for half an hour and then play an Abba song and get over it. I've been very lucky as things generally go well, and I'm dying to get to Cork this week as the people there are very funny and I love the love/hate relationship they have with Dublin."

He may exude a confidence that belies his years, but Porter admits to being privately nervous of it all falling apart. He doesn't have balance, he says, and being an entertainer totally consumes him. "Nothing comes above the audience," he admits. "I would sacrifice my friends if I had to pick between them or the lights. I love the applause, laughter and the give and take, and I give it all I have to give. I'm wracked with insecurity if I don't have a gig, as I derive my confidence from my audience and they're my main love.

"I don't mind telling people I'm nervous before a gig," he adds. "I think the loudest, brashest, most sequinned and feather boa-d people are the most vulnerable, and that's the fun of them. The way I protect myself is that if I do get really hurt, something gas is going to come out of it, because some of my funniest stories have come from the worst situations."

Catch 'Al Porter is Yours' at the Cork Opera House this Friday, Vicar Street on October 17, and the Vodafone Comedy Carnival in Galway from 21 - 23. Other dates are on

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