A bright, sunny afternoon in Dublin and Al Porter is in his element, gassing away about a monster squid caught off Kerry and counselling a man whose girlfriend’s cheated on him. I’m unprepared for us starting our interview in the studio of his Today FM show, making hesitant small talk off-air while Phil Collins finishes Easy Lover. But the warm, engaging comic is welcoming, unflappable and almost unrecognisable, his usual, sharp-suited attire forsaken as he apologises for the lilywhite legs beneath his shorts.
Twenty minutes later, we’re driving to a hotel in the tranquil Wicklow Mountains where Porter is based as he writes his new Edinburgh show. His driver, also Al, is having his car fixed, so amusingly, we’re pootling to the stately, five-star retreat in his mammy’s little motor. Porter, a proud, working-class son of the Dublin suburb Tallaght, tends to arrive at awards ceremonies in a limousine, announcing to everyone how reasonably priced it was.
“I mean, I still live with my mother,” he says. “I still drink at the Dragon Inn, a little pub where I sing with my band on Mondays. The only thing that’s changed is that I indulge myself with my little celebrity glamours every now and then.”
“Chronically honest”, the downside to his burgeoning fame is “that my boyfriend doesn’t care who I am”, he laments. “I’ll arrive at a restaurant and they’ll offer to put me at the back where no-one bothers me. And I’m like, ‘Put me by the f***ing window, I’m after getting a blow dry and I’m not wearing a three-piece suit for no reason!’ I just love old-style showbusiness as you know …”
Driver Al interjects: “He’s the Queen of Tallaght alright, very good for it, always bigging it up.”
Porter smiles. “Shaking babies and kissing hands. I’m worried about being seen as representative because at any moment I could say something f***ing horrendous on TV and we’ll all go down with the sinking ship. It’s important for me to give it a leg up while I can.”
Recently installed as the host of Blind Date in his homeland, at just 24, Porter is busy establishing himself as the face of light entertainment in Ireland, tipped to be the coming man in the UK too if Graham Norton ever vanishes in mysterious circumstances.
He hasn’t “taken a breath” since dropping out of Trinity College to perform stand-up. A child actor in musicals who flirted with the priesthood, he writes, produces and stars in Ireland’s largest annual pantomime. Indeed, Alan Kavanagh has been a performer since he was “five years old, wearing my nana’s fur coat, telling my family to watch me”.
He took the stage name Porter to stop his parents finding out he’d quit university, inspired by the American songbook’s Cole, whose euphemism-laden humour he reveres. “Witty songs that innocent-minded people would think are lovely, while people who really knew what was going on could go, ‘Ah, f***ing hell,’” he enthuses.
Constantly emulating that innuendo, even accidentally, he remembers an event attended by former Irish president Mary Robinson, who, when he inquired how she was, responded, “Great, except my legs are a bit achey”.
“Yeah, but legs apart how are you?” he replied.
He is not, he ventures, “the best comedian, singer or presenter.
“But I’m a great entertainer for your money’s worth, whatever entertaining you want, I’ll give it a good bash. My training wasn’t comedy clubs but karaoke nights, panto, making bored people smile however I could. If you need someone to be calling bingo numbers or striptease, I’ll do it.”
Garrulous and gossipy, he tells me how he offended Jimmy Carr with a joke about his tax arrangements, how a pair of Billy Connolly’s “piss-stained” trousers are among his most treasured possessions and how his recent get-fit column for the Irish Independent was a sham.
Instead of routinely visiting a personal trainer, he turned up one day with eight changes of clothes, was photographed in each, then filed his reports “while on a cruise with my mates around the Greek islands, drinking like a fish”. When it came time to run a 5km race for charity, he managed two before practically keeling over, then cheated by cutting across the park, romping home eighth with an “Olympian” time. He then asked the paper to change it to something more realistic.
He also participated in a “pink collar” boxing match. “My own stereotypes lulling me into a false sense of security, I assumed I’d be up against this camp fella like me. But he was a big MMA fighter so I got my arse handed to me and was out in the first round.”
Breaking off to message his accountant and to swallow an anti-depressant he’s forgotten to take, having revealed his struggles with mental health on TV last year, Porter will be discussing his pugilism but decidedly not his psychological issues in Campus Maximus, a light-hearted follow-up to last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated At Large. It might be his last appearance at the festival for a while, as he’s planning to stage a musical next year, has penned a children’s book and is developing a sitcom with Norton’s co-writer Dan Gaster, all while lobbying Brendan O’Carroll for a role in Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Installed at the hotel, over lunch he explains that his glitzy hour will include a pianist, trumpeter and Irish folk chanteuse Mary Black as one of his backing singers. The Roman columns and togas meanwhile, are a homage to Frankie Howerd’s Up Pompeii, Carry On Cleo and Porter’s childhood portrayal of ex-footballer Roy Keane, whom he played as a boy in the musical I, Keano. “It’s costing me a mint but you owe them a bit of glamour, a bit of spectacle” he maintains.
Focused on his familiar preoccupations of “religion, family, sex, relationships, working-classness and showbusiness”, he shows me a rough set-list alluding to his encounters with Carr and the late Roger Moore, thoughts on blessed religious artefacts, gender fluidity and why it’s great to be gay in Dubai.
Perching on a high stool, he’s nodding to Dave Allen once again; to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and, er, Ken Dodd with his crooning; and to Larry Grayson with his recurring characters, such as none-too-bright best friend Sarah Ward and his father, “Mickipedia”, who, hilariously, has taken punchlines Porter once put in his mouth and begun sharing them in the pub as his own anecdotes.
Happier engaging “with real people than I would be with Tom Cruise or Halle Berry”, his son would prefer to be the next Michael Barrymore to Norton, “only without the pool and scandal”.
Arriving with a fully-formed persona when he entered stand-up, Porter, incredibly, was unaware of camp British icons like Howerd, Grayson and Kenny Everett, likening the process of discovering them to an adoptee finding his birth family.
“All the camp Irish men used to become priests” he says. “Graham [Norton] had to leave. But we’ve got a gay prime minister now, which proves how far we’ve come. I’m harking back to the 1970s but I’m a filthy modern twist too.”