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It Is Not What It Is: The Magical World of Julio Torres

With his HBO stand-up special ‘My Favorite Shapes’ out on Saturday, the window into the ‘SNL’ writer’s off-kilter imagination is open more than it’s ever been

HBO/Ringer illustration

The HBO comedy special My Favorite Shapes mostly stays true to its name. One exhibit at a time, stand-up and Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres takes us through a kind of show-and-tell on acid, displaying objects that provoke an emotional response in him. There are simple shapes, like the humble square; there are impossibly elaborate, definitely impractical ones, like a giant shoe that’s also a shelf for a bunch of miniature shoes. The shapes are a kind of entry point into Torres’s brain, the gap between random trinket (a magenta fake jewel) and his characterization of it (“Jessica from L.A. Jessica works in PR. Jessica ends every email with ASAP”) gradually steeping the audience in his skewed internal logic.

But My Favorite Shapes works by negative example, too. As many shapes as Torres adores—a cactus; various Happy Meal toys; anything clear—there are also those he can’t stand. “My least favorite shape,” he announces towards the end of the special, “is someone telling me, ‘It is what it is.’”

In Julio Torres’s world, there is no greater sin than literalism. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but where’s the fun in that? Since joining the writing staff of SNL in 2016, Torres has rapidly developed a distinct comic signature, no small feat on a show where writers are largely anonymous. SNL sketches famously eschew bylines, yet in-the-know fans can usually tell they’re watching a Torres creation in less than 60 seconds. An early hit co-authored with Jeremy Beiler, “Wells for Boys” imagines a toy for those kids who “just sort of wait for adulthood.” “Melania Moments” interprets the First Lady as a sort of dimwitted Rapunzel trapped in Trump Tower. “The Sink” is a direct precursor to My Favorite Shapes, extrapolating 90 seconds of existential angst from an actual flamboyant sink Torres encountered on the Upper West Side. These clips often feature an undercurrent of sadness, a glamorous diva figure, and/or a disproportionate response to a stimulus as minor as a font—the same wild associations that power My Favorite Shapes, and that Torres finds so irritating when dismissed. Where other successful alumni like John Mulaney and Simon Rich found success by mastering the institution’s quippy house style, Torres has carved out his own fiefdom within SNL’s notoriously rigid bounds.

This summer, the Torres sensibility finally got a larger showcase than SNL’s three-to-five-minute increments. Los Espookys, the six-episode HBO comedy, was initially conceived by Fred Armisen, who developed a fascination with Mexico City’s horror-obsessed subculture. But the actual writing of the season ultimately fell to Torres and Ana Fabrega, both of whom joined Armisen as part of the core cast. Torres plays Andrés, a blue-haired heir to a chocolate fortune with a personal demon and mysterious origins; Fabrega plays Tati, a guileless sidekick forever working odd jobs and joining multilevel marketing schemes. The basic setup, an almost sitcom-like structure wherein a “horror group” takes on a new commission each week, is furnished with details sourced not from a writers’ room, but two highly individual voices.

Espookys, recently renewed for a second season, offers Torres a much broader canvas on which to turn his strange worldview into an actual world. Though inspired by Mexico City, Espookys takes place in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country—ostensibly to accommodate the multinational cast’s accents, though the resulting placelessness feels in keeping with Torres’s fantastical streak. As on SNL, it’s easy to identify Torres’s contributions, because they fit into a remarkably consistent set of motifs. Gregoria Santos (Paloma Moreno Fernandez), a brainwashed news anchor who walks on her tiptoes even when she’s not wearing heels, reads like a more apolitical version of Torres’s Melania Trump character. A scene from the finale, in which Andrés’s fiancé gives him a threatening lecture while tightening his corset, is sourced directly from Torres’s stand-up, which is in turn extrapolated from one of his tweets. Andrés himself, who routinely neglects his family’s candy dynasty to pursue flights of fancy with his friends, doesn’t feel like much of a departure from Torres’s own personality. In an interview with New York magazine, he explained the character’s blue hair was intended to differentiate performer from performance: “I want people to think I’m acting,” he said. “And I’m not a very good actor, so I’ve got to make that happen some other way.”

As uncompromising as Los Espookys is, My Favorite Shapes is an even more immersive experience. What Torres does in this hourlong performance isn’t exactly stand-up; for one thing, he spends much of the show sitting down, sandwiched between a geometric background and a foot-operated conveyor belt that carries shapes to center stage. (Torres released a more traditional half-hour with Comedy Central in 2017, in that he stood behind a microphone but also communicated with a massive crystal.) Torres’s style can also feel influenced by almost every art form except comedy. His micromanaged persona and androgynous bearing don’t bring to mind Richard Pryor or George Carlin so much as Prince or David Bowie. With a muted delivery and studied avoidance of eye contact, Torres eschews comic tropes like crowd work. This is a diorama, not a dialogue.

In a medium that rewards candor and relatability, Torres revels in artifice. Character is never broken, a charade that extends from wardrobe to editing. Clad in a crinkly silver ensemble, he resembles a highly opinionated Mylar balloon. The cold open of My Favorite Shapes shows Torres walking onstage from another dimension; an editing trick makes it seem like he’s teleported back to his seat after an interlude across the stage. Enabled by director Dave McCary, Torres’s aesthetic is as much visual as verbal, executed with an almost Andersonian level of control. But the effect isn’t suffocating—it’s enveloping.

In critics’ attempts to capture Torres’s ethos, the term “otherworldly” recurs frequently enough to come off as a crutch. It’s a descriptor Torres seems happy to play into. His Instagram handle is @spaceprincejulio; in My Favorite Shapes, he tells the audience he holds a visa for “an alien of extraordinary ability” with a smirk that indicates he knows the title fits him better than the average recipient. But crediting Torres’s novelty to something as simple as intrinsic difference underrates his ability to translate his insights for mere mortals. Torres is perfectly capable of writing a straightforward joke, as when he observes how the prince in Cinderella could’ve just met all the girls in the kingdom instead of bothering with the whole shoe charade. Yet most of his humor consists of situating the audience in his point of view. The laugh doesn’t come from a turn of phrase; it comes from the joyful surprise of watching someone take in a knockoff Mrs. Potato Head and put out a startling ingenue figure named Krisha. (Torres claims to be overcome by her star power, and so are we.) To watch a Torres bit is to be tractor-beamed into an alternate reality, left to intuit its bylaws, and be delighted by what you learn.

There are plenty of other adjectives that Torres’s work brings to mind: melancholy, ethereal, occult-oriented, synesthetic. “Political” isn’t one of them, or wouldn’t be if events didn’t conspire to make it so. An immigrant from El Salvador who just obtained his green card last month, Torres has been placed squarely in the center of American political discourse, a state of affairs that seems to bemuse him as much as anyone else. “Is this one of the many ‘good jobs’ I’m ‘stealing’ from hard-working Americans?” he wonders, reaching out a body-glittered hand for his next wacky shape. Torres is rightfully incensed by Trump’s America, yet also frames it in a way that fits into his remarkably consistent self-presentation. His green card, he tweeted, feels less like “a hard-earned victory” than “a big diamond necklace a lover is giving me during a rough patch,” a bit of imagery that evokes Shapes roster of baubles. On Los Espookys, the ditzy, demanding Ambassador Melanie Gibbons (Greta Titelman) serves as a benign parody of American entitlement. Sometimes, politics even goes far enough through the looking glass that it comes to him: Longshot Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson feels like nothing if not a Torres character come to life.

My Favorite Shapes is the most concentrated, and extended, dose of Torres-core yet. The special contains within it strains of DNA from throughout his career. Like Espookys, My Favorite Shapes is produced by Lorne Michaels, and a series of “Sink”-style reveries drawn from the inner monologues of inanimate objects are voiced by a string of high-profile SNL collaborators: Lin-Manuel Miranda, of “Diego Calls His Mom;” Ryan Gosling, of “Papyrus;” Emma Stone, of “Wells for Boys” and “The Actress.” (McCary, a member of the sketch group Good Neighbor with cast members Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, is also on the show’s staff.) The special has the feeling of a culmination, or maybe a coming-out party. Torres has always seen the world in a particular way. Now he has the resources, and the attention, to replicate that vision in full. “I need to show them,” he explains to his mother over the phone as the special begins. “If I don’t, I don’t know that anybody else would.” He’s certainly right about that.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.