Comedian Julio Torres doesn’t tell “jokes,” he tells stories. The 32-year-old writer, actor, and producer is responsible for some of the best-performing sketches to have aired on Saturday Night Live, where has been a writer for the past three seasons. In June, Torres took on his first major series role on HBO’s Los Espookys, for which he also writes and serves as the co-executive producer). The series follows a group of close friends in Latin America, who moonlight together producing comically low-budget, horror-themed events.
A staple of Torres’s writing is his knack for enlivening daily life with rich, surreal stories. Torres’s brand of object-driven humor is best showcased in his new standup comedy special from HBO, My Favorite Shapes. The range of these shapes is wide, from a cactus (voiced by Lin Manuel-Miranda) suffering existential ennui to a purse hook inlaid with a magenta crystal which, according to the comedian, is a publicist who lives in L.A. and “begins and ends every email with A-S-A-P, A-S-A-P.”
Torres’s delivery is comically direct in its bluntness. At one point, he rhetorically asks the audience, “Is this one of the jobs I’m stealing from hard-working Americans?” The question highlights his unlikely path to success in American comedy as an immigrant from El Salvador.
It’s not like Torres—with his bleach-blond hair, his affinity for glitter makeup, and space-age style (he designs a bespoke wardrobe for himself, consisting of boxy, neon silhouettes)—is wanting for attributes that will endear him to an audience. But his material, which effortlessly works in commentaries on capitalism, class strife, and immigration, manages to be both topical and unique. “When I started, I thought, ‘Well this is for everyone but people who like broad comedy,’” Torres told Vogue.com. “Then I found that some of those comedy enthusiasts who consume material that I wouldn’t necessarily like, they also have gravitated towards it.” We caught up with the actor and writer in New York City about using comedy as a vehicle for dissent, being labeled as a niche comedian, and glitter.
Having written for SNL and now Los Espookys and My Favorite Shapes, what has it been like for you to work so frequently with producers who embrace the degree of creative freedom you take?
Oh my God, I’ve been so lucky! Because every step of the way, be it Lorne [Michaels, the creator and producer of SNL], or Amy Gravitt who was our executive for Los Espookys, or A24 and HBO with the special, everyone has been so protective of the integrity of every piece of writing and every project. They’ve all wanted to make it be the best version of itself. I have never had that sort of quintessential Hollywood experience that I grew up hearing about, where someone goes in with a unique idea, and then the executives fuck it up, and then it just turns into like the broadest, most horrible thing that no one’s actually proud of. I’ve had a completely opposite experience.
You’ve been described as niche before, which you comment on in your special during a sketch about crystals.
So when you’re writing, is there a line between what’s too niche and what’s just specific enough to be funny?
That’s a good question! I am always surprised when I’m called niche, because I don’t think that I am. So every time someone uses that, it’s been used to describe what I do a lot, or in turning me down. I don’t get it, because to me, I am being very truthful. I’m not being deliberately confusing; I’m just articulating things in the way that I know how to. I would never take pride in making something that was exclusionary or making something that said, you’re not cool enough, or you’re not smart enough to come here. That’s not what I’m about at all. So one of the great joys of working for SNL was that my voice, which had been considered niche, is now in one of the biggest, most accessible shows out there. And that I think is just magical.
Definitely. When I think of describing your material as niche, it’s not that I feel like it excludes anyone. I think it appeals to a lot of people on a secondary level that broad comedy often doesn’t.
I think, I hope it speaks to a part of a person that maybe they haven’t gotten to explore that much elsewhere. And people who are sensitive, who are patient. I did My Favorite Shapes, that show, in Edinburgh last year at the Fringe Festival, every day for a month. And when the show finally found its stride within the festival, people kept coming back. Their equivalent of a hip Brooklyn crowd really liked it. Then older ladies really liked it too. Because I feel like there’s something that they and I share: It’s that we love small things, like miniatures, precious little shapes.
__ We’re living in this golden age of male comedians really owning signature looks—like Pete Davidson with his streetwear and John Mulaney with his suits. You’ve used “Space Prince” to describe your love of neon and reflective textiles and the boxy silhouettes of your outfits. Where does that come from?__
I like feeling like I’m in control of how I project myself. I like enhancing and owning this idea of otherness that I felt when I arrived in the states. It felt like I had so much to figure out, getting a phone and a bank account and a visa—all of these scary things that make you feel like you are not from here. I feel like subconsciously through what I do, I’ve like magnified that in a way that’s fun.
Right, and the way you use beauty is so fun too. Would you want to chat about that sometime?
I don’t have a skincare secret or anything...but I would love to talk about glitter.
In your special, you talk about how, as an immigrant from El Salvador, the odds weren’t quite in your favor to come to America and make it as a comedian. You also devote a lot of your social media platform to speaking out about capitalism and the impact of technology in our lives, and calling out the people responsible for our current political climate. How does that impact your writing process and you, personally?
Whenever I’m scared, and that fear never quite goes away, I don’t think, no matter how much good you think you’re doing, your heart always skips a beat at the airport. But I have been so lucky that I haven’t had to do truly desperate things in order to do what I want to do, that I started as middle class. That made a gigantic difference. If anything, the past news cycle and everything that’s going on just puts that into perspective. It’s honestly something that I haven’t truthfully been able to deal with creatively yet. I mean very abstractly, the idea of magnifying otherness and visibility and all these things speaks to that. And I think that making a special, where you say this is a chocolate and there’s this whole other life behind it; it just encourages critical thinking in a way that, I think, would not have us where we are now.
Before we part ways, could you tell me if you have a favorite of your favorite shapes?
Krisha. Krisha is very spoiled. I spoil her because she’s become a fan favorite. I actually want to make her just for fans!
Originally Appeared on Vogue