Metro Weekly

Julio Torres: The (New) Shape of Comedy

Julio Torres delivers his first HBO comedy special "My Favorite Shapes" while serving up haunts in "Los Espookys."

Julio Torres — Photo: Sandy Honig

Somewhere beyond irony and the absurd, lies the fertile, fantastical comic terrain of Julio Torres. We’ve seen delectable glimpses in the Saturday Night Live writer’s stylish “Melania Moments,” and pre-taped sketches like the Emma Stone-starring viral hit “The Actress,” about a thespian extremely committed to nailing her first leading role as a woman who gets cheated on in a gay porn. His offbeat wit rings out like a bell in “Wells for Boys,” an ad for a Fisher-Price wishing well for sensitive little boys “to wish upon, confide in, and reflect by.”

Wed to stylish direction and production, and A-list talent, Torres’ work as a writer on the past four seasons of Saturday Night Live has earned him a special place in the heart of comedy fans, along with a share of the late-night TV perennial’s four straight Emmy nominations for writing.

Skits bearing the droll touch of Space Prince — both a nickname and a production banner for gay, El Salvador-born Torres — are unmistakable, although he doesn’t appear as a performer on SNL. “I feel like my presence is very tangible even though my physical presence isn’t there,” he says. “And I feel like all my physical vessel would do is limit the scope of the things that I want to say sometimes. I don’t know that a ‘Wells For Boys’ or a ‘Melania Moment’ would have benefited from me being in them.”

But lest anyone mistake Space Prince for bashful, he does put his feet to the fire performing his work onstage. During last summer’s SNL hiatus, he taped his first HBO standup comedy special — or, sit-down, in the case of Torres’ delightfully original show My Favorite Shapes. Executive produced by SNL impresario Lorne Michaels, Shapes finds Torres seated at a working conveyor belt he uses to display, you guessed it, his favorite shapes. From a cactus who keeps a diary, to a despondent, oversized, high-heeled shoe, with a tiny staircase running up its inside arch, the litany is an often hilarious exploration of the comedian’s unpredictable whims.

The special’s premiere on Saturday, August 10 caps a summer of Torres bringing his brand of funny to HBO’s lineup. Season one of Los Espookys — the six-episode, Spanish-language HBO comedy series Torres co-created with SNL and Portlandia vet Fred Armisen and fellow writer-comedian Ana Fabrega — just wrapped, with the cable network already announcing plans for a season two. Like a Mel Brooks comedy directed by David Lynch, Los Espookys — about a team of friends in a mysterious Latin American country, who “make real horror for those who need it” — strikes a macabre balance of bizarre and smart and spooky.

Led by horror buff and makeup artist Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), allied with the group’s no-nonsense engineer of haunts Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), her daffy sister Tati (Fabrega), and Torres as Andrés, the darkly imaginative scion of a chocolate empire, the troupe takes on parasitic demons and cursed mirrors, corrupt government officials and the manipulative plotting of Andrés’ parents and his handsome boyfriend Juan Carlos (José Pablo Minor). Armisen co-stars as Renaldo’s uncle Tico, with Carol Kane adding to her brilliant career of comic kooks playing fictional iconic horror film director Bianca Nova.

Silly yet topical, outlandish yet heartfelt, and nonchalantly queer-friendly, Los Espookys reflects the shared and complementary sensibilities of the show’s creators. “There’s nothing calculated about this show or the way that I operate, or the way Fred and Ana operate,” says the 32-year old. “We just do things the way that we know how and like to do them. And in my case, I feel like I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Julio Torres: Los Espookys

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with Los Espookys, which I didn’t know anything about before watching it. I was searching for something on HBO, saw the title, saw Fred Armisen, and thought, “Okay, I think I might like it.” And I did.

JULIO TORRES: I’m so glad, I’m so glad. Yeah, I feel like it’s a show where the audience likes discovering it. Which is how people watch TV these days, I guess, they just stumble into it.

MW: How do you describe the show to people?

TORRES: I think it’s a very optimistic show. There’s a playfulness to it. It’s a comedy that is maybe unpreoccupied with expectations, which is something that I feel that Ana [Fabrega], Fred, and I share. I hope it’s stimulating and imaginative. I mean, if I have to boil it down to one sentence, maybe it’s a show about a group of friends in an odd place trying to find their path, making horror experiences for people.

MW: Now, clearly, Andrés on the show is gay…

TORRES: Yes.

Julio Torres: Los Espookys

MW: But I’m curious about Renaldo, because there’s a line that he says to his mom, where she’s trying to hook him up with a girl and he says, en español, “I’m not interested in girls.” But the English subtitle says, “I’m not interested in sex,” which is a different meaning.

TORRES: It is. Ana and I went back and forth on that — Ana and I wrote the show. The reason I keep bringing Ana up is because it was a close collaboration between the two of us, and we’ve been friends for a while. And the subtitles were such an ordeal, a fun one, but definitely one that Ana and I went back and forth on a lot. I think with that scene, it felt to us like reading, “I’m not interested in girls,” was a lot more direct and tangible than just a throwaway, casual Spanish ‘chicas,’ which he’s rebutting from what his mom said. So, as for his sexuality, I think that Ana and I are as interested as you are in him. I think that for now, he is just not interested in it. He’s just not interested in that part of himself, and that is something that really excites Bernardo, who’s the actor who plays him, because I don’t think he’s ever played someone like that. So yeah, we’ll see where he goes. We’ll see if he opens that door in himself, or if he just continues living life without it. Will he become an asexual symbol?

MW: That would fit your show, as it seems Los Espookys could fit just about anything. But Renaldo says that what he is passionate about is horror, so his passion is not about the conventional things, but stranger things. Is that part of what you relate to about the show?

TORRES: Him being interested in the odd, as opposed to his personal life? Yeah, definitely. I do. I think that there have definitely been moments in my life where I just gave myself completely to something that wasn’t like interpersonal relationships and only pursuing that, [instead] getting a satisfaction and joy from somewhere else. So yeah, I do think that there’s some correlation between me and him in that way. Also I think that there is a moment in — and this is not me foreshadowing anything about Renaldo, because we truly don’t know where he’ll go — but I think that there is a moment in the lives of many, many queer people where we are asexual for a little bit, where we’re figuring things out, lock that part away. So perhaps that’s what he’s going through. Or maybe he’s not.

MW: As for the translation and the language in general, you’re producing a mostly Spanish-language show for a primarily U.S.-based audience. And it’s HBO. Has there been any pushback at all from producers on shooting entirely in Spanish? Or is there any question of, “Can we have a little more English here, or one more scene?” Is language an issue at all?

TORRES: No, HBO eagerly jumped on the project knowing fully well that the vast majority of it was going to be in Spanish, and at no point have they asked for more English. I think that the show embraces a bilingual life. In Latin America, you are exposed to English every single day of your life, and that is reflected in the show. In Latin America, everyone knows someone who lives in the States. I mean, I don’t want to say all Latin America, but at least in my experience. And English is just such a part of your life, be it in television, the products that you buy, movies that you see, it’s just around you and the presence of America is inescapable. And so I think the show reflects that a little bit. But no, HBO never said, “Could there be less Spanish?” HBO was eager and ready to celebrate what the show was meant to be from the beginning.

Julio Torres — Photo courtesy of HBO

MW: Does it feel especially subversive at this current moment to be producing a Latinx show, in Spanish, with queer themes?

TORRES: Well, if it is, again, it’s not intentional. It’s not like we wanted to check boxes. I feel like it was not until we were editing that Ana and I sort of looked at each other and were like, “Oh, ha ha. That was made by two queer people.” We just realized that. We just realized that that was another sort of unique thing about the show.

MW: But it’s also a gift that it wasn’t a matter of anyone’s concern.

TORRES: No, it’s not the show. It doesn’t claim to be the definitive representation of these people or those people. It’s just a show that does what it wants to do. It doesn’t have any agenda in that way. Fred and Ana and I all agree that we’re pretty happy about it, because I think that it’s in its honesty that it can be important for certain people.

MW: Do you guys have plans for where you’ll take it in season two?

TORRES: Ana, Fred and I met up a couple of days ago, and were just scribbling ideas. So after season one, what we have is a collection of concepts and thoughts and people, and by people I mean characters not actors, that make us giggle. We’ll see where that takes us.

MW: You also have lots of horror sub-genres left that you guys didn’t really touch.

TORRES: Oh, so many. So many, yeah.

MW: Speaking of concepts, and moving on to My Favorite Shapes, conceptually that feels like it could be either the product of an acid trip or just a lifelong fascination with inanimate objects.

TORRES: It is the latter. It is an earnest joy from inanimate objects. I have a few of them in front of me as I speak to you.

MW: Are you a really tactile person?

TORRES: Oh, I think I’m more a visual person. I actually don’t know about tactile…. You know what? In fact, I don’t think I’m a very tactile person, because I’ll put on the itchiest fabric and it just really won’t matter to me. I’m a very visually driven person, which is why I put on an itchy fabric: If it looks good, it looks good. No, I’ve always been very drawn to objects and have always been very visual. My mom is an architect, and she used to design clothes. She had a boutique. And so, I was always around a certain air of importance to the way that things look. She and my sister designed the set for My Favorite Shapes.

Julio Torres: My Favorite Shapes Comedy Special — Photo: Zach Dilgard

MW: And who engineered the conveyor belt?

TORRES: My mom, my sister and I came up with the idea of a conveyor belt that was U-shaped, but Michael Krantz, the artistic director, is the brilliant man who made it happen. He just found a place that made conveyor belts, and it was a big trial and error experiment. So much of it, I think, Los Espookys and My Favorite Shapes, have been experiments for the people involved, which is, I think, a lot of fun. The HBO executives behind Los Espookys had never done a show in a language that they didn’t speak. The logistics of that were an interesting challenge for them, and one that they were very eager to accomplish. And then similarly here, A24 and HBO hadn’t done a stand-up special that required a conveyor belt, but everyone was game to figure things out. So, I’ve been lucky.

MW: Obviously your mother and sister get you, but have you ever felt you were surrounded by folks who didn’t understand where you’re coming from?

TORRES: Maybe very, very, very early on. I mean, I’m talking like I’ve been doing this for decades, which I haven’t, but earlier on, when I just first started doing comedy, I may have walked into a meeting or two, just like general meetings with networks or whatever, where maybe I felt like I checked certain boxes for them, and the expectation was that I would fulfill the expectations from those boxes. By those boxes, I mean Latino, queer, etc. But then very quickly, I think I made it clear through my work that I am very much those things, but approached from this angle over here as opposed to this angle over there, which is where you expect this to be approached.

MW: Dealing with the executives, did they have to go and get an intern who reads Spanish to be able to write notes on your script? You said that, logistically, it was challenging. How challenging is it to maintain the shape of your ideas with producers who might not understand the shape of the language?

TORRES: So the first drafts of those Los Espookys scripts were in English. HBO read them in English sort of in the way that you read the subtitles, or pretty much in the way that you read the subtitles. And then during table reads, Bernardo, Cassandra and José Pablo and all of our Spanish-speaking actors read in Spanish, [while] HBO read along in English. So, figuring out that that was a solution to, “How are we going to do a table read?”, was, I think, really fun. Because I can’t think of any other moment where actors are performing in one language and the people making the decisions are reading along in another. And yet it worked very well, because I think the spirit of the show is what’s important of it. And their notes were always on point and always helpful.

MW: That seems rare.

TORRES: It sounds like it is rare, yeah. This being my first TV show, I can’t attest to how rare or not it is, but I think that we’ve been lucky that way.

Julio Torres: My Favorite Shapes Comedy Special — Photo: Zach Dilgard

MW: My Favorite Shapes is your first TV comedy special and we’re now days away from its premiere on HBO. Was it more nerve-racking putting together the live show, or anticipating this debut on television?

TORRES: Oh, the live show for sure. My work is over. I don’t have to do anything now. I have to talk to you and a few other people, but that’s it. No, putting on the live show was really fun, but definitely a lot of work because I was so highly involved in every aspect of it. Just thinking about the material and the delivery and the jokes in the show, but also being like, “Well how high are the stairs going to be? Because the giant shoe has to go under the stairs, but if the stairs are too high then I’ll feel weird walking up them without a handrail, and I don’t want a handrail because that thing will look gross. So how do we do that?” So, stuff like that. But it was so fun, because I like being involved in every aspect of what I do.

The same is true of Los Espookys. I didn’t just show up and act, and write it — Ana and I were highly involved in the way things looked and the way things were framed, and we were lucky that Fernando Frías, our director, was very collaborative in that way. Every step of the way I think I have been grateful, including in my work at Saturday Night Live, to be trusted with the outcome of a project.

MW: By the way, I love those little stairs. Was that shoe custom built for the show, or did you see a shoe with stairs on it and think, “Oh my God, here’s a moment!”?

TORRES: No, someone on Instagram sent a picture of the shoe to me, because this person knows that I have a fascination with shapes. And so this person who, I guess, is familiar with my work, sent me a picture of the shoe and just said something like, “I feel like you should see this.” And then I was like, “Oh. My. God.” And then I tracked it down and we got it on Ebay.

MW: It’s funny that you mention the handrail on it, because I had actually made a note about Los Espookys, the line about the “Ferracuti handrail fortune.” That’s just a great joke to me, and brings me to another question. A lot of your comedy is conceptual, but there are also really good jokes. Do you consider yourself a good joke writer?

TORRES: I think I might be, but by accident. I don’t even have the language to articulate what makes a good joke. Does that make sense? I never studied it. I’ve always gone by instinct. So I think I’m interested in these sort of abstract concepts, and the way that I articulate those opinions sometimes comes out in a form that is recognizable to the ear as a joke.

Julio Torres: My Favorite Shapes Comedy Special — Photo: Zach Dilgard

MW: When you talk about putting the live show together, how does that compare to your work on SNL and being in the writers room? That seems like a really high pressure environment.

TORRES: I feel like a lot of the skills are transferable in that, by the time I was doing the special or Los Espookys, I was already very confident in my instincts as a writer but also as a producer in communicating with different departments about what the vision is, and then getting those people to trust me in what the vision is. And I think that one is the consequence of the other. And also another giant similarity between doing the special and working on SNL is the director Dave McCary, who directed, I don’t know, like ninety-nine percent of the work that I did on SNL, and who also directed the special. So by the time we got to working on the special, it just truly felt like another one of the many projects we have together. By projects I mean sketches. And we have a relationship where not a lot has to be said for us to understand each other, and he fills in my blanks really well, which is something that is impossible to manufacture, I think. But there’s a chemistry and there’s trust between the two of us that I felt like the special necessitated, especially of being my first thing of that scale.

MW: Are you returning to SNL this season?

TORRES: Well, I am going to do season two of Los Espookys. So I think we’re figuring things out. But I am very excited to do season two of Los Espookys, and [the producers of SNL] are very excited for Los Espookys as well. They’ve been nothing but incredibly encouraging and championing of the show, in the same way that they’ve been encouraging and championing of my work within their show. So, I just feel happy and grateful.

MW: One really exciting thing about SNL, you are — for the fourth year in a row — nominated for an Emmy along with the entire writing team, so congratulations.

TORRES: Thank you.

MW: Have you ever been to the Emmys, and do you have any intention of going this year?

TORRES: Yeah, I’ve gone every year just because it’s a silly, fun thing to do. You get to dress up, go to a fun night. Why not?

MW: As for your personal journey, how long did you grow up in San Salvador before you came to the States?

TORRES: I moved to the States ten years ago.

MW: On your own?

TORRES: I moved here on my own to go to a school, or at least that was the reason I found to come to New York. I came here with a student visa, and then I transitioned into a work visa for day jobs and then an artist visa and now a Green Card. Yeah. And I came here wanting to be a writer.

MW: A comedy writer or were you thinking of writing something else?

TORRES: No, a writer of humorous things, is how I saw it then. I didn’t know what that was going to be. I didn’t know if that was going to be movies, or television, or plays, but I really had it in my head that I wanted to work with actors and I wanted to work with really good actors and have them interested in being in my work. And I graduated school, and I didn’t really know how to accomplish that, while at the same time juggling the stresses of getting a work visa which were very time consuming. So then I just felt like I needed something immediate, something that didn’t take a lot of time or didn’t necessitate me knowing people or having any sort of connections, so I just Googled ‘New York Open Mic,’ and I started doing open mics, as a way of beating that problem.

MW: Do you have film scripts that you’re working on?

TORRES: They are forthcoming, none completed.

Julio Torres — Photo courtesy of HBO

MW: I feel like you’d write a good horror movie.

TORRES: A horror movie? Someone, a producer I didn’t know, mentioned that before, and I don’t love horror. [Laughs.] I like things that are eerie, things that are strange and mysterious, which is why Los Espookys feels that way a lot of the time. But maybe I can write something like that, or probably what I write will inevitably be like that. But I don’t think it will be scary.

MW: What are you most excited about these days?

TORRES: I am excited to start writing season two. I miss being in a room with Ana, laughing and writing, even though I see her so often because she’s a close friend.

MW: There’s a different feeling when you’re in a room writing together?

TORRES: Yeah, I like being productive. So if friendship can be productive, great. And I am excited to start writing longer things, to write a movie.

MW: You talked about how you and Ana are really involved in getting your vision across for what the show is, and obviously there’s a very specific vision behind My Favorite Shapes. What advice do you have for people trying to sell challenging ideas?

TORRES: I recall a friend at SNL who used to be head writer there just saying to me one time, “Oh, just do you. Do what you want to do and people are going to be like ‘Oh, I guess he just does that.'” Which I really like as advice. So, just do what you want to do, and people are going to be like, “Oh, okay, I guess that’s how that works.”

MW: Final question. Who is Space Prince?

TORRES: That’s an Instagram handle, and now is a fun little nickname, and I like that the two words encapsulated how I feel a lot of the time — like, not from here but in control about it.

My Favorite Shapes premieres on HBO, this Saturday, August 10, at 10:30 p.m. Los Espookys: Season One is available on HBO’s streaming and on demand platforms.

André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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