The Radical Empathy of Comedian Julio Torres

The rising star’s stand-up special My Favorite Shapes and show Los Espookys, both on HBO, filter the politics of immigration through magical realism

Julio Torres is having a moment. It’s undeniable – and well-deserved. For three years, he’s led a caucus of Saturday Night Live (SNL) writers who have kept the show a viable space for contemporary sketch comedy, despite the lazy political parodies that weigh it down. ‘Papyrus’ (2017) and ‘Wells for Boys’ (2016), both written by Torres, quickly became fan favourites. The former tracks actor Ryan Gosling as he is tortured by the Papyrus font, stalking its creator as he clings to aesthetic sanity. The latter is an advertisement for a toy wishing well for sensitive young boys to gaze into wistfully at playtime. Easy to spot, Torres’s sketches are mystical confrontations with existence that manage to be simultaneously serious and deeply silly.

I first encountered Torres in the basement of a church at Halloween. Coyly handsome, he wore a winged silver crown atop his signature mop of bleach-blonde hair. He looked, by no exaggeration, otherworldly. His stand up was methodical and deadpan; he took his time with the audience, reading often from Melania Trump’s fictional journal.

Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres, Los Espookys, 2019–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Two recent shows on HBO – the stand-up special My Favorite Shapes (2019) and the series Los Espookys (2019–ongoing), co-created with Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen – are finally putting Torres’s writing and performance centre stage. My Favorite Shapes, which premiered on 10 August, begins with Torres in a black void, speaking in Spanish to his mother on the phone, telling her that he is about to begin the show. The call sets a simultaneously familial and alien tone. He then steps onto the stage, which has been styled to look like the inside of a diamond, and takes a seat at a conveyor belt of shapes. From a square to an oval to a cactus in a crystal pot, each form is given a Hollywood close-up while Torres’s descriptions imbue them with life. Reading the diary entry of the cactus, for instance, he notes that it does not understand English. The human anguish afforded to the plant echoes a sketch Torres wrote for SNL, ‘The Sink’ (2017), in which Emily Blunt narrates the existential ruminations of an ornate bathroom washbasin. Torres regards the most mundane of objects with an unbridled and imaginative empathy. It comes as no surprise that he’s a vegan.

My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres, 2019. Courtesy: HBO; photograph: Zach Dilgard

Los Espookys, which follows a group of friends as they launch a business based on their shared interest in horror, likewise embraces mysticism and raises existential questions. Torres’s character, Andrés – the adopted heir to a chocolate fortune hellbent on uncovering his mysterious past – uses a gemstone necklace to keep an eye on his fiancé, beckons sea waves with his hand and communicates, albeit begrudgingly, with a water spirit trapped inside his body: all powers that go unexplained. Meanwhile, the titular friend group craft campy special effects to fake a demonic possession and stage the discovery of a sea monster – suggesting that magic isn’t real, except when it is.

Set in an unidentified Latin American country, the series also explores the contentious issue of immigration through the character of Renaldo, another member of Los Espookys, who is trying to obtain US work permits for himself and his friends. The vapid American ambassador, played brilliantly by Greta Titelman, refuses to learn Spanish and capriciously throws around green cards. At one point, she drops some visas in front of Renaldo and laments that they've been invalidated since they've touched the ground, before taking off in a helicopter.

Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres, Los Espookys, 2019–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Immigration is a backdrop for Torres's personal material. During My Favorite Shapes, he pauses while handling an object to joke that, as an immigrant from El Salvador, he is taking the job of describing shapes on an ethereal stage set from a hard-working American. Recently, he tweeted about a new Trump administration policy that imposes stricter citizenship processing for those who seek government aid, such as food stamps: ‘Under the new visa and green card application guidelines created by the administration, I would have likely been denied the visa that kept me in the US and allowed me to work very hard for financial stability.’ Torres carefully instils humanity in every object he handles and each character he writes; in light of current US border policy, his understated approach assumes a radical tone.

Main image: My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres, 2019. Courtesy: HBO; photograph: Zach Dilgard

Olivia Rodrigues is a comedian and writer based in New York.

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