WHEN AL Porter emerged on to the stage of the Spiegeltent, an opening act on the opening night of the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway last October, he was little known. Fifteen minutes later, those present knew they would never forget him, and that a new star of Irish comedy had announced his arrival.
Twelve months on, and returning to play three shows at this year's Comedy Carnival, Al is increasingly becoming a household name in Ireland, selling out Vicar Street in January and appearing on The Late Late Show; while across the Irish Sea he proved a sensation at the Edinburgh festival and has been snapped up by Off The Kerb Productions, which also looks after comedy superstar Michael McIntyre. "It has been an incredible year, and I wear it on my face," Al tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. "I feel like I'm four years older than I am, because I've had about four years' experience in the last 12 months."
Resplendent in suit and tie and sensible haircut, Al's disarmingly charming delivery, reminiscent of old-school light entertainers from the 1970s, allows him to get away with the kind of ribald stories and double entendres, not to mention the frank descriptions of contemporary young gay life, that would shock Sid James and make Kenneth Williams go "Ooh!" And yet, his comedy is one that can be enjoyed as much by an 80-year-old as it can by someone just turned 18. "I did Vicar Street at the start of the year, and my parents were there," says Al. "I was talking about ridin' this and ridin' that. They know how dirty I am, and that I'm a bit of a Lothario, but my parents loved it I know how proud my dad is of me."
Indeed Al is so good, sometimes the audience are in stitches even before he reaches any punchline. "I did a gala event with Adam Hills and Phill Jupitus, in front of 4,000 people in Edinburgh," he recalls. "At shows in Britain I'd say two or three things so the audience will get used to my accent, and I went 'Hi everybody! My name is Al, I'm 22…' and that got a huge laugh! Nothing has ever been more insulting! There was one woman in the front bent double. I said 'But I am 22!' and she laughed again!"
Yet it could all have been very different.
Sharp dressed (holy? ) man
Had life worked out another way, it might have been Fr Al Porter, parish priest. In his childhood and teens Al was very involved in his local church in his native Tallagh, but it also there he got the buzz for performance.
"I was very into religion," he says. "I'd read at Mass - I was the youngest reader - and it was theatre, that's how I saw it. I went to speech and drama and had a very clear speaking voice, so I'd get up and go [adopts portentous tones] 'A reading from St Paul to the Corinthians!!!' Mum would give out to me that it was a bit dramatic. 'Please you're embarrassing me, just read the thing, don't act it', but the elderly parishioners loved it and I was there thinking I was Richard Burton!"
Ironically it was a trip to the Roman Catholic church's annual World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011 that spelled doom for Al's priestly ambitions. He went in search of the New Jerusalem, but found Sodom and Gomorrah instead!
"I had several big experiences in Madrid," he says. "It was the first time I was away from home, away from my parents. I was with friends and they convinced me to mitch from Mass. I started drinking and going on the lash for the first time. It was also the first time I got high. I smoked a joint with a nun, Sister Jane, she was cool, and I slept with a young priest as well - and I found I was comfortable with it all."
Despite all that, and his subsequent comic career, Al has never fully left God or the church behind. "It does still come into my mind," he says. "I have friends who are priests and we meet up regularly and discuss philosophy, which I studied a bit in college - not on any major academic level, more Woody Allen film level, and while it will never happen, it is a notional thing that pops up, becoming a priest. There is something very attractive in the life of a preacher - Tommy Tiernan will tell you that. I think Tommy and myself have taken the role of the priest into comedy, but we display two very different aspects of the calling. Tommy has taken up the preacher role and I have taken on everything else - the hymns, the costumes."
When Al takes to the stage in suit and tie, it is not a costume. He is the proverbial sharp dressed man, and again he has the church to thank for his sense of style.
"I was always well dressed," he declares. "It started with my Communion, that's where my parents went wrong. They got me a lovely suit and I refused to get out of it. I'd be playing football in my communion outfit. Eventually my Nana said 'For God's sake, get the child more waist coats!' Nana got me more trousers and bow-ties and then my aunties and uncles also started getting them for me. Mam eventually accepted my sartorial elegance. At 14 I tried to be a rocker, I grew my hair very long and wore a Nirvana T-shirt even though I didn't know any of their songs, and still don't. That was a troubling year. I went back to wearing suits, I was comfortable in that. When we go on holiday, no matter how hot it is I will wear a suit and tie."
A further influence has been those comics Al often reminds audiences of - Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, and Dave Allen - although they were not his initial comic inspirations. "People said I remind them of certain older comics, but I didn't know them," he admits. "I never grew up watching the Carry On films - I watched my first Carry On when I was 20 - but on YouTube I discovered Frankie Howard and Kenneth Williams and Dave Allen and I thought 'I'm not alone! There are others who like the same kind of humour - Oh I have found my people!' I started dressing better and taking cues from these masters."
Panto antics and the married life
Al may be a relative newcomer in stand-up comedy terms, but despite his young years, he is veteran of showbiz, having earned more than a decade's experience in the big panto shows in Dublin. "I'm doing my career in reverse," he says. "Most people end in panto. This year marks my 11th in panto and my 12th onstage at The Olympia. It prepares you for anything a stand-up will encounter - drunks, hecklers, corporate gigs where you're wondering 'What material is suitable to use?' - in panto you get all of these.
"I remember when I was 12/13 I was appearing in Bugsy Malone. The guy playing Fat Sam was upstairs kissing his girlfriend, and it was coming up to his time to appear on stage. It was this scene with only two people in it - him and me - where Fat Sam has to murder my character, shooting me with a gun that spurts cream. Time is going on and he's not coming down so the producer comes running up to me saying 'Al, we can't wait any longer' , and he hands me the gun and says, 'Go out there and kill yourself', so I had to improvise a suicide in front of 1,000 people, and there I am in a stupid New York accent, saying 'I can't live this life anymore!' and then splurge myself!"
"New Year's Day is the toughest gig, especially the matinee. It's full of hung-over parents and screaming kids, so when I come out to do a comedy show, I always think 'Whatever this audience is like, it's won't compare to New Year's Day at a panto'."
On May 22 2015, the Republic of Ireland became the first State in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by the vote of its citizens. Al, like many, feared a 'silent majority No' would defeat the referendum, instead, "a huge silent Yes" won the day. "The Yes result was important for young people - 14/15 - who don't know what they are yet," says Al. "The Yes vote tells them though what kind of Ireland we live in."
Five months on from that historic vote, does Al have any thoughts on possible nuptials for himself? "I want to be married before I'm 30. I'm very eager to get married," he declares. "I'd love to meet someone, get a two-up, two down house, a little dog, and come home and have dinner, but it would probably only last one day! My friends joke that I'll propably have four marriages in my life and I can't say I disagree with them."
Al Porter presents his show Al Porter Is Yours at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday October 23 at 7.30pm. He also plays the Spiegeltent (with other comics ) on Wednesday 21 at 8pm and Thursday 22 at 7pm. For booking see www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com; Tickets are also available via OMG @ Zhivago, Shop Street, and www.ticketmaster.ie