Al Porter: ‘After wild sex with a priest, I realised the priesthood was not for me’

A stand-up who has seen the darkness talks frankly about depression, sexuality and class

The comedian Al Porter talks to Patrick Freyne about masculinity, male role models and more. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

“You’ve lovely hair,” says dapper-besuited Al Porter.

“Thank you,” says the bleached-blond waiter.

“Where are you from originally?” asks Porter.

“Croatia,” says the waiter.

“Lovely part of the world,” says Porter. “Are all the boys so handsome in Croatia?”

The waiter smiles and heads for the kitchen. “And that’s just some good old-fashioned flirting,” chuckles Porter, turning to me as though he’s been doing a demonstration. “I say that I’m a feminist because I make men feel how they made women feel for hundreds of years. That’s my aim as a feminist hero.”

I think the waiter was flirting back, but Porter dismisses the idea.

“A cappuccino for the handsome gentleman,” says the waiter when he returns, and he’s not talking to me.

“See,” I say.

“He had to think about it though,” says Porter.

Al Porter (23) is a stand-up comedian who specialises in channelling the world of 1970s variety and game shows. He has been onstage since he was a child (he starred in I, Keano at the age of 10), recently completed a lauded run at the Edinburgh comedy festival, and is about to start his 10th panto stint at the Olympia Theatre. (“I’m like Twink!”)

And Porter has experienced depression, something he recently discussed with moving honesty on Brendan O’Connor’s Cutting Edge programme. He showed the nation his anti-depressants and talking about the stigma connected to talking about it. Indeed, he did not talk about these issues when we first met for an interview (most of this piece comes from our first discussion). “I kind of did,” he tells me later, then laughs about how many clues he gave me.

“I was very hesitant to talk about it. I don’t like the cliche about comedians being sad clowns – the BBC doing TV movies about stars like Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd having miserable private lives.People have tough enough lives themselves. So when people come to see you and you’re the comic and the joker, they shouldn’t be worried about you.”

Drug benefits

What made Porter open up, in the end, was that he had been asked to support a few mental health charities and doing so without mentioning it “felt hypocritical”. Furthermore, for all the well-known people discussing their issues, he hadn’t heard many talking about the benefits of anti-depressants. “I hadn’t heard anyone say, ‘Actually, what I needed was medication’.”

He felt the need to do that because, for him, the drugs really have worked. He has received more than 600 hundred emails and letters from people since and he is doing his best to respond to people.

Porter doesn’t want depression to define him. Growing up in Tallaght, he was a happy kid. He describes his mother, a parish secretary, as quiet, his father, a soldier, as stern.

Al was different. At the age of five he would stand in his front garden talking to strangers. “My mother says people would pass by and I’d say ‘Hello man!’ or ‘Hello woman!’ and ‘Can I talk to you?’”

The gene for performance skipped a generation, he thinks, because he had a melodramatic grandmother.

“She had a difficult life. She was so over the top. She would stand up for Mass on the TV and she would have huge arguments where she would accuse my mam and da of not loving her. I saw flying waffles she threw across the room, heard doors slamming. But, at the same time, she was quite sweet-hearted and loved me to perform for her.

“My mother would literally say, ‘Go in and perform for your nana – I’ve been in there all day and just need a break.’ [My nana] always encouraged me to sing and to dance and to act.”

Grandmother also shaped his sartorial choices. After his first communion, he refused to take off his suit. While his mother was trying to get him into tracksuits, his nana “kept buying me all these suits and bowties and waistcoats”.

Out of his system

Porter’s mother worried about her flamboyant son. She signed him up to a drama class, “kind of in the hope I would get it all out of my system”, but he loved it and ended up doing dancing, drama, musical theatre and exams at the Leinster School of Drama. He even had an agent and got parts in shows such as I, Keano and Bugsy Malone, though he “hated taking direction”.

At one point, Porter was up for a part in a significant American film. But his father forgot to pass on the message. His parents had a huge argument. “My mother said, ‘If it was [Al’s brother] Niall and a football match, you’d remember, but you don’t remember when it’s Alan and a feature film?’ She really took him to town and I’ve never forgotten that. I’m still uncomfortable over it.”

Back then he knew nothing about stand-up comedy, though he loved Michael Barrymore and other “light entertainment, shiny floor types”. His tastes were mainstream. “My introduction to comedy was me and my mam and nana in the front room,” he says. “My mam’s ironing. My nana’s having a cup of tea and [we’re watching] something like Father of the Bride or The First Wives Club, these middle of the road 1990s rom-commy things.”

In his teens , an entertainment career was far from Porter’s mind. He wanted to be a priest. “I read at Mass. I wrote for a religious magazine called Intercom. I wrote essays. One was about experiencing the divine.” He laughs. “I mean, I’m an atheist now.”

Porter knew he was gay from about the age of 10, but never considered religion to be in conflict with his sexual identity.

“Because I always looked at celibacy as a really interesting choice,” he says. “I still look at it as a really interesting creative choice. Just look at Stephen Fry. Where you repress that primal urge and channel the energy into something else. Some year I might challenge myself to do it.” He smiles. “It would be very difficult, because, you know, I am quite the Casanova.”

When did he lose his faith? “I went over to World Youth Day in Madrid. And I smoked weed for the first time and I was drinking and I was really attracted to this young priest who was there. And there were other people on the pilgrimage who were shaking and crying and saying they had experienced something divine. I felt nothing. It was really overcrowded, and Pope Benedict was quite underwhelming, and I remember thinking, ‘Everything I’ve been talking about that’s divine is really human.’

“And then I ended up having a night of booze and weed and sleeping with that priest. We had wild, euphoric, wonderful sex, and I went, ‘You know what? [Being a priest] is not for me.’”

Shape of the hole

Since he publicly spoke about his depression, Porter says, some people have asked him whether he has “a god-shaped hole.” His response? “I don’t know what shape my hole is.” He laughs uproariously.

He first felt depression, he says, when he went to Trinity to study English and philosophy. “I let my hair grow very long and greasy and I was wearing tracksuit bottoms and I just wasn’t myself. I felt trapped in the silence of the library. Twice I was kicked out for dancing because I could hear someone playing the saxophone on Grafton Street.”

But that depression, he says, was circumstantial. He just didn’t enjoy college. Eventually someone suggested he join the comedy society.

“I went and there was this little meeting of five people who wanted to be comedians. We were all asked to write down ideas based on funny things that had happened that weekend, and I wrote [about] going to get an STD test. It was about how [while there] someone had walked out of an office on crutches and I thought, ‘That’s a bad STD.’ And they were like, ‘Have you written stand-up before?’”

He realised he had a knack for it. He did 10 minutes at a local comedy night in Captain America’s in Tallaght. “I was paid €20, but I would have given them a hundred to do it. I decided there and then it was what I wanted to do.”

Porter soon dropped out of college, and it didn’t take him long to find his comedic mojo. “I’ve always had a very keen sense of identity,” he says. “I knew who I was and was wearing the suits and the pink tie from day one. Little inflections and catch-phrases I had then I still have now – the ‘Hello!’ and the kick behind me – all that Larry Grayson stuff.”

A lot of it, he says, he picked up subconsciously. “Older comedians were going, ‘I see what you did there with the Frankie Howerd thing’ or ‘I see what you did there with the Larry Grayson thing’. I’d never seen the stand-up of Frankie Howerd until a year into doing stand-up. Now, I’m very conscious of what I am or amn’t referencing from those eras, and I’m so comfortable with that – being a reinvention of a retro kind of thing.”

The scene’s scene

How does Porter fit into the existing comedy scene? “I think there is a mutual respect and antagonism between me and comedians that came up in the same group. There are comedians who don’t like me; I don’t know why. They think I got a gig they should have gotten, or they think that I don’t work hard enough even though I’ve been working since I was a kid.”

Some of it is just snobbery. Some people see him doing “broad” material on The Late Late or BBC2 and think that’s the extent of his act. He wishes they’d come to his live gigs.

“In my show I cover death, I cover religion, I cover depression and psychotherapy, and I do it in way that I think is inventive because your nana could be clapping along to me singing Joe Dolan while her granddaughter hears the joke about the Phoenix Park that went over nana’s head.”

He thinks some of the snobbery is about class. During another appearance on Cutting Edge, he decried how working class communities are demonised in the media.

“As a stand-up you only represent yourself, but I do feel a responsibility to represent a community in a sense. There are people who feel very unrepresented, and don’t like the fact that Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Robert Sheehan are playing [working class people] on television. And I’m friends with Robert Sheehan, but there is that feeling of under-representation. They feel like the people on RTÉ or BBC have nothing to do with them.”

Porter proclaims his empathy for people who are struggling. “For whatever reason, loads of people I’ve gotten involved in relationships with or friendships with are very troubled people – they suffer with mental health problems or schizophrenia. They’re drawn to me or I’m drawn to them. I’m a messer, but there’s another part of me, I can even feel it talking to you, which is very upset for a lot of people. I don’t know why I carry it with me. I’m just very upset . . . People confess to me or disclose things to me.”

Kind of like a priest? “Yes,” he says, laughing. “I was the only person who said mass at Electric Picnic: two readings, a gospel and some unconsecrated communions I got shipped over.”

Feeling injustice

Does he think that that side of him infiltrates his work?

“I think that because I feel the darkness, the upset of people, I put on a glittery, sparkly, fun-filled feel-good show,” he says. “If I didn’t feel so strongly the suffering and injustice of those people, then I actually would do a more middle-class show like Des Bishop does, and get up and talk about why alcohol is bad for you. (He later notes that he likes Bishop’s work.)

“If you think everything is fine in life, you can produce shows that deal with problems, but if you know life is full of problems and torment and hurt and that lot of people live unfulfilled, frustrated lives, your desire to entertain is about distracting them from that and providing them with a complete fantasy.

“Any thread running through a [stand-up] show should be invisible. The final product should be fun, like a pop song on the radio, like Abba.”

But isn’t there a lot of darkness in Abba? “Yeah, you listen to Super Trooper and think that’s a bit of craic,” says Porter. “And then you listen to the lyrics and go ‘that’s a f**king heavy song’.”

Porter loves stand-up. No matter what’s happening in his life, he enjoys every moment he’s on the stage, but he also talks about the loneliness of the job – sleeping in hotels, writing alone. “I would say that I am a lonely person. At the same time, when you get into a real relationship where somebody’s worries are your worries or their day is your day, I find it creatively stifling. Isn’t it awful?”

He still lives in the family home and is close to his mother, though he didn’t tell her about being on anti-depressants until hours before telling the nation. It was the one thing, he says, he didn’t feel he could talk to her about. They have late-night chats in the kitchen, during which he “tells her things that make her uncomfortable”.

He laughs. “Then I send her to bed with those thoughts. For such a religious woman, I think the only way she can frame it is that I’ve been sent to challenge her. Not that she’s not proud of the gay thing,” he adds. “It’s more the drinking and the roguishness.”

My son, the madman

What does Porter’s father think of his career? “It would be really unfair to the man to say he’s not proud and not supportive. I don’t think his pride is entirely personal. It’s encouraged by people coming up and going, ‘Jaysus, your son’s a madman.’ So he’s coming home with a puffed-up chest going, ‘Fair play to ye, Al.’

“If these people were all telling him that I was a poof and I was shite, maybe he’d be coming home with a different opinion.”

He is ambitious. He appears on UK television panel shows, presents radio shows and writes television columns and sitcom pilots. He wants to play arenas and present game shows, and he fantasises about filling in for Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show – “just for a few weeks.”

The depression hit him at a point when his career was doing very well. “I’m an incredibly emotional person. So I’ve no problem with feeling sadness. There’s a sustenance to sadness. Sadness can make you feel alive. But I was feeling nothingness, numbness. I was doing sell-out shows and seeing beautiful places, but going back deflated to the hotel room.”

It’s quite simple, he says. A friend suggested he see a doctor. The medication has helped him a lot, and he wants to share that with people. “I’ve no book coming out, no DVD, no depression-themed show. The point was, ‘I’m grand because I’m looking after myself, so you look after yourselves too.’”

Porter becomes concerned, towards the end of our initial interview, that he has been overly serious (he hasn’t), and wants to reassure people that all of his shows are raucous good fun.

“If we’re all in the Titanic, I’m the band playing as it sinks. And the people I like, they’re in the room and they know they’re going down with the ship, and they’re just enjoying it. The people scurrying around trying to get lifeboats piss me off. ‘Save me! Save me!’”

Al Porter cackles mischievously. “‘No! You’re going to die!’”

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