SNL and Los Espooky’s Julio Torres on turning toys into comedy

Julio Torres has an otherworldly style. Since joining the Saturday Night Live writers room in 2016, the comedian’s been responsible for some of the show’s most distinctive sketches: “Wells for Boys,” advertising a Fisher Price plastic well for sensitive little boys to “wish upon, confide in, and reflect by”; “Cheques,” celebrating the most dramatic method of payment; and “Papyrus,” following one man’s obsession with the Avatar poster.

This summer, Torres brought his signature sensibility to HBO, writing and starring in Los Espookys with his collaborator and co-star Ana Fabrega. The primarily Spanish-language comedy follows a group of friends who produce horror spectacles, like a haunted house or an alien invasion, for the citizens of an unnamed Latin American country. SNL alumnus Fred Armisen produced the show, co-wrote the pilot with Torres and Fabrega, and stars as tío Tico, uncle to the group’s ringleader.

On Aug. 10, HBO aired Torres’ first hour-long comedy special, My Favorite Shapes. To call My Favorite Shapes a stand-up show is technically correct — it’s full of the tight observational humor you’d expect from a comedian at the top of his game — but as with all things Julio, it’s suspended in a whimsical bubble and structured as a kind of offbeat show-and-tell. Torres plays commentator to his favorite shapes as they’re brought out by conveyer belt. Among the objects are a crystal sitting on a tiny chair, The Hunchback of Notre Dame villain Frollo as a Happy Meal toy, and tiny models of new animals he’d like to pitch to the zoo. “I just need to show my shapes.” Torres says in his introduction. “That’s all this is for.”

Polygon caught up with with Torres in New York City to talk My Favorite Shapes, his plans for Los Espookys season 2, finding collaborators who share his vision, and, of course, his favorite shapes.

Julio Torres ascends a set of whimsical stairs while wearing a headset in a still from his HBO comedy special, My Favorite Shapes.
During a transition in My Favorite Shapes, Torres wears a video headset so the audience doesn’t miss anything as he walks back to his seat.
Zach Dilgard

Polygon: So I would love to start by talking about the first thing that I saw you in: the “Julio’s Extremely Expensive Visions” sketch from The Chris Gethard Show.

Julio Torres: [gasps] Yes!

The premise is that your ideas are too costly for the show. But now you have budget.

I have budget!

So how are you thinking about that? Are you thinking “yes, this is exactly what I wanted to do,” or do you still have bigger and bigger dreams?

Oh, I still always think like, “what do you mean we can’t do that?” Give me a little and I’ll want a lot more. But yeah, the fact that I got to have this set that I had for My Favorite Shapes, or that Los Espookys looks the way that it looks is beyond my wildest dreams.

Los Espookys has a very defined style.

Jorge Zambrano is the name of the production designer, who’s brilliant. Muriel Parra designed all the wardrobe, just down to the ambassador’s sparkly sea shell belt. Choices like that, I’m just like “Oh, you’re so funny.” And our director is Fernando Fries. When we first talked to him he said all the right things. He told us, “The environment should be an important part of the show. There is so much weirdness going on, but the environment should be presented very matter-of-factly.”

Each character, even seemingly throwaway characters have very specific styles. Are the actors bringing that style to you?

Cassandra [Ciangherotti, who plays the group’s technical specialist Úrsula] in particular was very collaborative and vocal with her hair and wardrobe. She was very into the hair making her look like a sort of turn-of-the-century mad woman, which ended up working really well.

The American ambassador (Greta Titleman) seems very much like a reality show host, down to the employees competing for her affection.

That just felt very American that their world operated that way. All about competition and keeping up appearances.

A screenshot from Los Espookys with the American ambassador (Greta Titleman) seated, surrounded by two assistants.
The American ambassador dismisses her employees with an America’s Next Top Model-style elimination.
Jennifer Clasen/HBO

What’s the process of writing with two languages in mind? Los Espookys has jokes that are funny because they’re in Spanish or subtitled.

We wrote in English, but we’re also thinking about how it’s going to pan out in Spanish. So we’d end up saying like, “oh wait, that wouldn’t work in Spanish, let’s delete that,” even though it works in English. And then it became increasingly more collaborative once the actors got in the mix. They make it their own and make the words shine in a way that’s really fun.

The actors were pitching jokes in Spanish?

It’s more like attitude and inflection, and rephrasing of things to make it sound more like the person they were creating. Like when the seaside mayor lists all of the food available at her town’s local diner. The way that she pronounces the American dishes is so funny.

Are there certain characters or settings that you feel like you or Ana can more easily embody? Obviously your own characters would be one example.

We both brought individual ideas from past work or things that we were into, but because we communicate so well it was so easy. She or I would have an idea and we’d immediately start collaborating. Early on we thought maybe we should write episodes separately but I was like, “Awwww, lets keep working together.”

So you wrote everything together?

We wrote everything together.

Los Espookys has a lot of seemingly innocuous jokes that are later called back in really fun ways. Tati (Ana Fabrega) meeting a cartoon prince online seems like it’s gonna be a throwaway bit…

…and then it becomes her arc.

So are those planned as plot points initially?

It started as a throwaway joke and then one of us will say, “oh, let’s go back to that.” We think in moments and concepts. Like with the character of Pepito, for example, we thought, “what if a man just hires them to be weird?” And then it’s like, “Wait, hold on. What if that man is also in the mansion in the earlier episode and we just see him for a second.”

Los Espookys has been picked up for a second season — is the plan to continue as a monster of the week sort of show?

I don’t know, but I think so. I’m not certain. We haven’t truly started writing it yet, but that feels fun.

The cast of Los Espookys sits on a couch.
The group’s ringleader Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco) keeps the team together with his relentlessly chipper attitude.
HBO

It has almost a Scooby-Doo style.

Exactly. There’s a playfulness to it that I really enjoy.

Are you intentionally referencing those classic cartoons?

I think the Mysterious Woman (Tatiana Molina) mentions Scooby-Doo in the second episode. And Tati references The Flintstones with her “Yabba Dabba Doo” line, which is another example of Ana bringing something to collaborate on. They’re sort of anchors for the viewer to be like, “oh, this world works kind of like that.” I don’t think it’s a conscious choice, but it ends up working as a lens for the viewer.

A lot of your work seems to be very rooted in childhood.

I think so, yeah. My most successful moments are my most playful moments. Like “Wells For Boys” is a very obvious one because it’s a toy, right? But then like the sink is also a toy to me. These things [picks up a Ferrero Rocher candy] are toys to me.

Is everything a toy to you?

My favorite things are.

That’s a great segue to the new special, My Favorite Shapes. It started as an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show, so when HBO comes to you, do they say “we heard about the show, we want to produce it”, or did they say “we want to work with you” and you pitched this show?

Well after Fringe I did it a few times again in New York and they came to that and said “we want to do that show.”

So how much creative freedom do you have there?

I had immense creative freedom. I made the set based on conversations with my mom and my sister who designed it, and then Muriel, who designed the costumes for Los Espookys helped me with wardrobe, so I had my hands in all of it. And HBO has this reputation for being supportive of vision. As long as it’s within the budget. [laughs] We did not have the budget for the water feature that I wanted.

Your stand up style is very low key compared to your aesthetic. Is that a conscious choice to sort of let everything around you have a bigger impact?

The way I perform came first and then the idea of including these things that I was increasingly interested in came after. And yeah, I like that contrast of performing down here, but the visuals are way up here.

A screenshot from My Favorite Shapes, showing Julio Torres standing in front of a display of hand-crafted wildlife.
In My Favorite Shapes, Torres describes his ideas for more dramatic zoo animals.
Zach Dilgard/HBO

My Favorite Shapes feels effortless, but it’s very tightly structured with a lot of moving parts.

Dave McCary directed the special. That was his biggest job and he did it so beautifully. He and I have collaborated for a while. He directed like 99% of any SNL sketch that I wrote, “Wells for Boys” being an example. He and I just communicate in a way that’s effortless and fun and free. He saw the live show a couple of times and knew what had to be done.

How do you approach collaborating in a way that meshes your distinct points of view? Ana Fabrega and Spike Einbinder, the water demon in Los Espookys, are also people you regularly work with.

You know, that’s not a given! We’ve been lucky to find each other and enjoy each other and just find where the middle of the Venn diagram is and explore that.

It seems like there are some SNL hosts that just get your work: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sandra Oh. Do you know when a host comes in if they’re gonna be game?

I think so. Yeah. [It’s] just the vibe. Not even necessarily past work. No, you know what it is? It’s how they react when I tell them the idea that I have. So when their eyes widen and they’re suddenly really excited, I know we’ve got something here.

So is that how Ryan Gosling reacted to the “Papyrus” sketch?

Well actually he was the one who said to me, “that thing is not a throwaway joke. That should be a whole piece. A guy who’s obsessed with the Papyrus font on the Avatar poster. And I want to be that guy.”

It seems like you make a lot of observations that you just assume everyone is thinking about.

Yeah, but I’m pleasantly surprised when I do that and people are like, “Oh, see, maybe that was in the back of my head, but now it’s in the front.” or “Oh yeah, that right. That thing is not foreign to me, it just hadn’t been articulated yet.”

So you’re putting words to weird things that we often take for granted.

I think at my best I do. At my worst I put words to things and no one gets it.

Gosling provided a voice-over for a penguin toy in My Favorite Shapes; Emma Stone and Lin-Manuel Miranda also voice objects — notably people who you’ve worked with on some iconic SNL sketches.

Yeah, the idea of having vignettes voiced by the objects was Dave’s. I mean, those bits existed already. But there’s this sketch that we worked on together called “The Sink” where Emily Blunt played a fancy sink, and we both love that sketch. And he was like, “Well, that feels like something we could do here. Just think about which objects would get voice overs and who you’d like to play them.” And then the casting came easily in my head.

But obviously people gravitate to your work, to your vision. That must feel very cool.

Yeah! So sweet to donate their time to something that paid them nothing [laughs.] It feels really cool. Also, I think these are good roles!

Andrés stands on the beach holding out his hand in a screenshot from Los Espookys
Andrés has a strange connection to the water.
Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Okay one final question: In Los Espookys, Andrés’ water demon will tell him the secret to his mysterious past, but only if he lets them watch The King’s Speech. Why The King’s Speech?

That is a perfect example of me bringing something in, which is, “Oh, Andrés should have a demon that is a shadow of the water in his head.” “But what could it want?” “Mm, to watch The King’s Speech.” So that was beautifully collaborative.

One exchange that we ended up cutting was Andrés asking, “Why do you want to see it?” and the water shadow saying, “Because a white king’s struggle is universal.” And we were just ticked by the the idea of like, why are there so many movies about rich white people? Why does that dominate the industry when most of the world isn’t rich and white? Why is something about a rich white person more sophisticated? It’s immediately high brow.

I haven’t seen it. I’m sure it’s a great movie.

You’ve spoken before about wanting to make a show set in Latin America, about Spanish-speaking people…

…that isn’t through the American lens. In the same way that it’s about queer people but they’re not here to explain anything. It’s not a documentary for people to watch and give themselves a pat on the back. They’re just living their weird little lives.

My Favorite Shapes and Los Espookys are available to watch on HBO.

Source: Polygon.com

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