Smile of a pixie, mouth of a docker

TEN o'clock and Lucy Porter is padding around the kitchen in pyjamas - confirmation that stand-up comics operate on a different time zone to those of us locked into a 9-5 routine - so it's an appropriate moment to wonder just how her cake-baking is progressing.

TEN o'clock and Lucy Porter is padding around the kitchen in pyjamas - confirmation that stand-up comics operate on a different time zone to those of us locked into a 9-5 routine - so it's an appropriate moment to wonder just how her cake-baking is progressing.

“Arghh.” A momentary grimace interrupts her tea-making. “My mum was so annoyed with me about that.”

It was all because a Sunday morning Radio 4 programme last autumn outed the Porter weakness at domestic science. The cookery show put cheerful Lucy's skills to the test by asking her to bake a cake.

If it achieved one thing, it supported her assertion that a domestic goddess she ain't. A major clean-up in the Porter household in Kentish Town will involve moving a couple of dirty coffee mugs to a different position. (By way of irony, she did the voiceover links for the recent BBC show Anthea Turner: Perfect Housewife.)


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Lucy confesses she didn't hear the final cut. “I presume they weren't very kind about it. They said 'Bring it in the next day or bung it in a taxi and send it to the studio.' I baked it but it was so burnt to a crisp. I was working that night, so when I got home from my gig I stayed up until two in the morning, making a new cake. That one was just as bad - burnt to a crisp!”

Her mum was a shoulder to lean on, and only slightly mortified . . . “She was like 'Oh darling, you can make cakes. I'm sure you made cakes when you were little.'”

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Actually, Radio 4 is getting Lucy into a bit of trouble with her mum. Last summer, Woman's Hour ran a piece on the comedienne and the subject of children came up - as it frequently does in many of Lucy's interviews, publicity material and shows. (“If I wanted to be nervous, exhausted and broke, I'd get a crack-habit.”)

She's insisted she doesn't want teenies of her own - but tempered her opposition slightly during the Woman's Hour chat with Jenni Murray. Her mum's a regular listener and would be a bit upset by a definite anti statement, she explained.

Today, there's a definitive sense of wavering conviction. Don't know why: having children isn't obligatory. “No, but they're quite nice. People who have them seem to be quite happy.”

Hmmh. A psychoanalyst might suggest that all these comments about not wanting to be a mum is a case of protesting too much . . .

“Well, you know. Maybe. Someone wrote me this massive long email about why I was absolutely right to not want to have children, and how irresponsible it was for people in the public eye to advocate parenthood and how we should be worried about controlling the world's population, and how pleased they were to have such a firm spokeswoman on behalf of not having kids.

“That did kind of scare me! Now, if I do change my mind, this person's going to be absolutely livid with me! It's not like an ideological standpoint, but . . . I don't know . . . like I say, I just haven't met the right nanny, so it's not going to happen at the moment. But let's never say never - which at least will keep my mum happy. Keep the flame of hope alive for her.”

It's a funny business, comedy. Unless you're issuing a stream of quickfire gags, you're inevitably weaving stories that expose your psyche to public gaze: either mining your own experiences or exploring something you feel strongly about - essentially serious messages wrapped in informality.

“Yes, that's right. I think what most comedians want is to be taken seriously. I think we secretly feel we are like philosophers, poets, with beautiful souls and stuff, but actually what people want is to have a bit of a laugh.

“I've veered dangerously close to taking myself too seriously at times. The function of a comedian is to entertain, basically, and quite often at two in the morning, after a couple of wines, I'll be with my girlfriends and say 'This is amazing! I've just come up with this fantastic material that is really profound.' I'll look at it next morning and go 'There's actually no joke in this, is there?'

“Your function is to make people laugh first and think second.”

She's spoken of wanting to give audiences something of lasting value, so that her legacy is not one of a fluffy poppet who could deliver funny lines; but she's doubted her comic and intellectual abilities to strike the right balance.

The ideal would be to go down in comic history as the funny Bertrand Russell!

Lucy confesses her material might have lacked a bit of passion in the past because of the desire to show off her writing skills or to feel liked - more jokes per minute = more waves of love coming back from the audience - and the fear of failure is also a deterrent.

This tension is palpable in the lead-up to a big show, such as at the Edinburgh Festival, where the need for an hour of sparkling new material can send comic brains into a frenzy.

Lucy compares the preparation of such a show to childbirth: you forget how painful it was and choose to do the same again. Her strategy is to entrust trial and error - taking material out on the road to find out what works and what flops. Strangely, she reckons she has a different idea to most people about what's funny and what isn't, which must prove a bit of a challenge!

Another survival tackle is to anchor your performance to a theme.

Her 2006 Edinburgh show is about to go out on a spring tour to 30 venues, including four in our neck of the woods. The Good Life builds on the theme of her 2005 centrepiece, Happiness, and examines the theory that it's important to be a good person as well as a happy one. We're back to the desire to leave a legacy.

Mind you, the road to good intentions is full of potholes. Not so long ago she teamed up with a friend to start an allotment, but the ratio of back-breaking manual labour to pitiful returns - certainly in the first season - failed to provide strong motivation.

Lucy - a comedienne, writer and actor for about a dozen years - hadn't been on stage until she did her first gig. But she says that moment in the spotlight felt like coming home, and that being a comic changed her life.

She admits she was a bit shy at school: a pupil who did her work conscientiously, and not at all the class clown.

Just what does her chosen profession give her?

“It is very drug-like in its addictiveness. I think I have always felt like a bit of a misfit. Often you find with comics there might be a physical quirk that sets them apart a bit; obviously I've always been short. It's such a cliché, but it is true, about deflecting criticism or bullying, and learning to laugh at yourself.

“You know, for a lot of us it would be hard for us to hold down any other job, because we've got weird brains that aren't very good at self-censorship! I find it very difficult. I often find myself saying really inappropriate things in company.

“It's self-perpetuating: you start off being socially awkward and being a comedian just encourages it! But I think most comics deep down, if you asked them and they really had a free choice, would probably rather hold down a normal job and have a normal life; because it is a bit of a weird, lonely thing to do. But the compensation is that it's an incredible buzz going on stage and getting laughs.”

ONE little girl grows up to be a doctor: a consultant in the treatment of addictive behaviour. Her sister - described by a critic as a razor-edged überpoppet - tells jokes for a living and is a support act for the Puppetry of the Penis show. Who says God doesn't have a sense of humour?

Lucy Porter's leaning towards all things humorous was apparent at an early age, although she admits to years of denial about wanting to get involved at the sharp end.

Born in 1973, she was brought up in “the gorgeous concrete paradise that is Croydon”. Her father was a comedy fan and had a book of Two Ronnies scripts. At the age of about 11, Lucy would underline her favourite bits.

Dad was also a committed fan of Irish raconteur Dave Allen; his daughter would amuse with her own Allenesque routines. She also remembers admiring Victoria Wood's stand-up ability.

She left south London at 18 to read English, starting the Manchester University Comedy Society, writing reviews and jotting her own ideas down in notebooks.

Lucy found herself drawn to the local comedy scene: at one time dating a comic. Eventually, at the age of 22, she admitted she wanted to be there at the centre, rather than on the edge looking in, and booked herself a gig in Chester. It was, she says, a rubbish performance, but at least no-one there knew her!

Five minutes or so of material, “obvious stuff”, was enough to get her established in the north-west. Lucy also got an agent: a man who'd been involved with Steve Coogan and John “Cold Feet” Thomson.

In 2000 came a move back to London. The Manchester scene had had a cosy feel, but comedy in the capital was more cut-throat: more performers, boasting eye-opening professionalism and polish.

Lucy's day-job was as a researcher for Granada TV - she worked on Caroline Aherne's The Mrs Merton Show, for instance - and was writing comedy for other performers.

Granada allowed her to go part-time - working Tuesday to Thursday - so she could fit in stand-up at weekends, but it became too much and she quit to devote her energies to her dream.

Lucy thinks that at heart she's a good writer; it took a while to ally that to performance skills, she admits, and it's all about finding your own voice as a comic.

That soundbite about a docker's mouth doesn't tell the whole story - her trademark is gentle and self-deprecating - but she isn't averse to throwing in a bit of filth when the need arises.

Interesting, considering she's from a “pretty religious” household and attended Catholic primary schools and then a south London high school for girls.

Her dad, who's from Ireland, goes to Mass every day. “I think it's fair to say I've lapsed,” says Lucy. “I don't think that will shock anyone!”

Do we detect a lingering sense of guilt?

“Yeah, definitely. It never leaves you. Catholicism: you can try and get away. You can run but you can't hide,” she laughs. “I've always got the feeling I'm going to be a deathbed convert. The Catholic Church is not one of my favourite institutions, I would have to say, but the appeal of religious faith is something I waver in and out of, really.

“I think I might be an Anglican. I quite like its gentle, slightly shambolic nature. I don't want anything that sings modern hymns; that would offend my Catholic sensibilities. I think that's the problem when you're brought up Catholic: you have a very strong sense of standards - the priest should be wearing a 'frock' and there should be incense. Maybe High Anglicanism is what I need!”

What do mum and dad think of their youngest offspring's chosen way of life?

“Well, they tend not to come and see me! They've seen me on telly, but they've never come to see my live stand-up show. I think it's an unspoken thing: we'd all feel a bit awkward.

“They came up to Edinburgh to the festival last year, and were going to come and see me; and we got to the point where they were in the Pleasance Courtyard, about to come in and see my show, and me and mum just looked at each other and said 'Shall we not . . .?'

“Well, nobody else takes their mum and dad to work.”

Lucy Porter in East Anglia

Thursday, February 15: Norwich Arts Centre, 8.30pm, 01603 660352

Sunday, March 11: Bury St Edmunds Corn Exchange, 8pm, 01284 754252

Tuesday, April 10: Cambridge Junction, 8pm, 01223 511511

Saturday, April 21: Colchester Arts Centre, 8.30pm, 01206 500900

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