Two months into his new radio show, and Al Porter is shaking up the airwaves. Esther McCarthy joins him in the studio.
IT’S lunchtime in the Today FM studios, the on-air red light is on, and Al Porter is talking to his friend, Senator Fintan Warfield.
The interview is about youth unemployment and proposed changes to the minimum voting age, but it’s not long before Al starts being Al.
“The reason you got elected to the Seanad is because you’re a bit of a ride,” Porter teases Warfield, adding: “You looked great on the election posters”.
Moments later, he’s nailing an on-air impression of George Hook.
It’s just a typical day in the chaotic life of Al Porter, who, barely six weeks into his Today FM lunchtime slot, is shaking up radio in the way he has shaken up comedy.
He’s been so omnipresent in our lives in recent years that it’s easy to forget that Porter only recently turned 24, a baby in both of the fields in which he works.
He is a bundle of energy. He doesn’t walk around the studios; he bounds. And he is loving his new role.
“It’s only six weeks in, it’s very young, but it’s found its feet very quickly, in terms of tone,” he says of the show.
“In terms of the type of content, it’s changing every day. One minute, you’re talking to a granny who’s never been to the cinema, the next you’re talking to Brendan O’Connor, or the farmer who had four calves, or porn addiction, or witches casting a spell so that Ireland can win the rugby.
"It’s a mad show. If I could sum it up in one word, it would be ‘curious’.
“Colm Hayes was a really good mentor. I was only the comic foil on 2fm. I didn’t know if I could present my own radio show. I’ve never got confidence in getting it right, but I’ve got confidence in trying things, because I don’t worry about failing.”
It’s that devil-may-care attitude that makes Porter such an interesting character. Getting it wrong matters less to him than having a go.
“I meet a lot of frustrated young people, people who don’t do things because they’re afraid of not being good. As people will be able to tell from some of my TV appearances, not being good has never bothered me! I’m not worried about that, I’m just worried about doing it.
“It’s easy in entertainment. It’s not life-or-death. It’s not like going: ‘Oh, I’ll give being a doctor a go’. If you look at early clips of your idols, they all have ropey moments, where they were a bit s***e, or they were ok, or they were only finding their feet.”
Not that it matters, because Porter has rapidly gained a massive fanbase. His stand-up show, Al Porter At Large, has been a huge success, both here and in the UK, and the final performance will be staged at Live at the Marquee on June 16.
“I talk about my family, my dad, the flight sergeant, my mam, the parish secretary, my school friends in Tallaght, my therapy with a therapist called Dr Dick Loose — not a fake name!
“It’s very confessional, very fun, very silly. It’s one hour and 45 minutes, which is much longer than some other comedians, and I bring an eight-piece band around with me, who are called the Sugarcubes. They’re great fun.
“Every audience is different, and when something is live, if it goes wrong, it goes wrong. Thankfully, nothing really does with these shows, but you do get mad moments.
“When I was in Cork Opera House, one night — and I don’t intend on doing it in The Marquee, in case it scares ticket sales away — I streaked. Something just came over me and I thought: ‘Oh, f**k it, this’ll be gas craic’. Took off all my clothes, did full-frontal nudity in front of the audience.
“It’s for everyone from 18 to 80. If you don’t take yourself too seriously and you like full-frontal nudity, it’s the show for you,” he joked.
While Porter is happy to deliver the manic soundbites that make him an interviewer’s dream, he is endearingly thoughtful.
His flamboyant sense of performance, he reckons, comes in part from his late grandmother, Maura.
“I’m more cut from her cloth. She was very over-the-top. She had a big brown perm, even in her seventies. She’s where I got my idea for the accent ‘Aristocratic Ballyfermot’. I’m from Ballyfermot, but I’m very grand altogether!’ We used to call her Mrs Bouquet.
"And the dramatics out of her. If there was a fight, a plate could get flung, a door could get slammed. You know what it was like? Debbie Reynolds. Shirley MacLaine in Postcards From the Edge. That’s my nana. She had the attitude, the glamour, the noise of a 1950s movie star. She thought she was Bette Davis.”
His parents, by contrast, he describes as: “Very sober, very calm”.
He still lives with them, in the family home in Tallaght, and still turns to them for counsel, regardless of his growing success. What do they make of his colourful comedy and public presence?
“I think they’ve gotten used to it. I mean, my mam was watching me on TV last week talking about porn. My poor mother has to watch that. They’re very supportive, very proud. They know I trust them, that I still live at home, that I need their advice.
“They’re very much still parenting me — we haven’t had that divorce yet, where I’m my own man. There’s still that pride of: ‘Well done. I wish you didn’t say that, but well done’. Mortified? Yes. But proud? Absolutely.”
He, too, is a proud Tallaght man, who still pops up for pints in the Dragon Inn every Monday night, where his friends, the Keeley Brothers, gig, and he joins them for a few songs.
It could have been a very different life. The younger Porter once seriously considered a career in the priesthood, regardless that he realised at the age of nine or ten that he was gay.
“I was always going to be a gay priest. That was no problem for me. The two were never going to be a contradiction in terms, because if you’re celibate, you’re celibate. It doesn’t matter what you’re abstaining from, you’re abstaining,” he says.
“I was a big Stephen Fry fan and heard that he’d been celibate for about a decade. I was also interested in…if you took away all the angst and energy and focus and drive you put towards getting the ride, or getting a partner, and you devote it all to something else, I was really interested in what you could achieve, if you took this huge human drive and put it into something else? Eventually, I found out that sex I could live without, even though I love it, but intimacy I couldn’t.”
He has found love, and is currently involved with a partner whose privacy he respects.
“I’ve a lovely boyfriend: we walk the dogs, we mind his nieces, we watch TV. I’ve got a great balance going on.”
It’s a balance, perhaps, that he values more than ever, having struggled with anxiety and depression, and having taken steps to manage it.
Last year, he memorably showed his antidepressant medication during a panel discussion on Brendan O’Connor’s Cutting Edge TV show, just hours after telling his family that he had sought medical help.
“I thought that it wasn’t, maybe, as brave as people thought it was. I was astounded by the reaction. I got thousands of emails. I’m just happy with people knowing I’m a happy person again, and that medication helped.
“It’s more like stemming the hole in the ship, so you can get the navigation on track. It’s not the whole ship. I think a lot of my stand-up rests on being honest. I’m an open book, you know?
"So how was I going to talk to two other panellists about therapy, and depression, and hide that I had been going through a rough patch and that I had seen a therapist and that I had gotten a prescription for anti-depressants?
“It just felt false, and I said: ‘Nah, f**k it, it needs to be said’. And it was a great excuse to tell my mam.”
Al Porter is Live at the Marquee on June 16
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