Julio Torres won me over before I even knew who he was. A few years ago, Saturday Night Live started to air some sketches with a very distinct comedic sensibility: Ryan Gosling obsessing over the Avatar font, Emily Blunt as an ornate kitchen sink, a line of stepchildren dolls for little girls, and of course… Wells for Boys.
As it turns out, all these ideas come from the same “alternative” (as he describes it) mind of Julio Torres, a Latinx, immigrant, queer comedy writer. As I am myself four out of those five descriptors (comedy is not my strongest suit), it’s no surprise that I could relate so deeply with his characters and their feelings of incredibly specific (yet universal) longing and melancholy.
Besides SNL, Julio is also the creator of the delightfully underrated HBO comedy Los Espookys, and headlines his own comedy special My Favorite Shapes in the same network. I had the chance to talk to him about his immigration journey to the US, how his various identities influence his voice, and, most importantly, what Daisy Duck is doing on quarantine.
Jorge Molina: I just want to start with your villain origin story. What was it like growing up [in El Salvador] and making your way to the US to pursue this career?
Julio Torres: I came [to the US] ten years ago for college. I just knew that I wanted to be in New York and that I wanted to write funny things, mainly for film and television.
I tried coming to New York earlier but the scholarships the schools gave me weren’t big enough, so I waited it out doing two years of school down there [in El Salvador], where I worked for a little bit, until I finally was able to come here.
As soon as I got here I was like, “How do I get to do the things that I want to do?”. It was a pretty long road until the lightbulb went on in my head of trying stand-up, because I don’t need anyone’s permission. I don’t need to collaborate with anyone. I truly didn’t know anyone. So I started doing standup overnight after graduating school.
I kind of followed the same trajectory. I’m from Mexico City, so I also came here for college to write. I think you mentioned in your special that you were in an O-1 visa*?
*An O-1 visa is given to people with “extraordinary abilities”, mainly artists and athletes.
Yeah! I went from the student visa, to the work visa where I had a day job, to the O1, and now a green card.
That’s the goal! When I heard that bit in your special, it was too familiar. It’s good to know that other people are following the same path.
It’s hard. Harder. Every year it gets harder.
I’m literally right in the midst of applying for a renewal right now as we are speaking.
It’s so stressful because even when I was starting to apply for the green card, my lawyer was like “Normally this would take months, but because of the Trump administration it will take over a year.”
I was applying for the first time when he got elected and it didn’t make things easier.
Also I don’t know that under a Trump administration I would have been able to get my work visa. Because the intention is to raise the bar for specialized workers so high that the idea of coming to America and figuring it out is sort of becoming less and less of an option.
And with people in the arts, that bar just becomes more impossible to meet. Especially now with the world going on, who is essential and who isn’t becomes more black and white. It’s not gonna become easier.
To go back to the standup part of your career, your type of comedy is very specific and has a very unique sensibility, plus you’re an immigrant, and you’re Latinx, and you’re queer. So as you’re coming up, how did you maintain that authenticity and point of view?
Well, when I started doing the open mics… (and [the landscape] has changed dramatically since I started not that long ago), it was all very straight white guys.
But there is something very often democratic about the New York open mic system. I don’t know if you’ve been to one of these things, but the only people in the audience are the four comedians waiting to go perform. And standing out in that world becomes such an intoxicating talent. You’re like “Okay, no one even looked at me tonight, but maybe tomorrow…” And little by little you start getting attention, start getting booked at bar shows.
All of my various minority aspects were a marriage of the type of work I was doing. Which is “alternative.” And because of that I befriended other people doing things in the same vein of work. There are queer people, but there also straight white guys who developed an appreciation for the type of work that we do.
And it also feels like there’s this expectation on anyone who is a performer or show creator who is a minority of any kind to be explaining their minority status: “That’s the show right there! That’s it! No, your coming out story, immigration!” That’s beginning and end, that’s your thing.
And I noticed pretty early that the industry gave my white straight guy counterparts allowances to just be as experimental as they wanted to. Whereas there was this pressure on anyone who wasn’t that to “No, but you have to tell us your true story”. I am this but I’m also not.
I have such gratitude for HBO that they just said “No, you do you…”
Well, and the thing I love most about your voice is that it is not about those other identities, but yet it is so informed by them.
Another thing that I love both about your comedy special and Los Espookys is how you incorporate Spanish. How is that relationship with you and writing in both languages?
Well, first of all I have a bilingual life so the work I do is bilingual. I’ve always disliked portraying communities that don’t speak English [as English speakers]. Like a movie set in Russia but it’s in English but with Russian accents. I hate that.
But it’s different answers for both of those projects. With Los Espookys, Fred Armisen wanted and sold that idea on the premise that it was me in Spanish. And then Ana [Fabrega] and I took it from there.
And with the special, the opening is in Spanish cause it felt like I would be talking to my mom about what I’m about to do, and I talk to her in Spanish. It felt true.
I also love the aspect [in Los Espookys] around the tradition of horror in Latin America. It’s something that isn’t immediately associated with those communities, but it is such a big part of it. What is your relationship with horror and why were eager to explore especially that aspect of Latin American culture?
Well, to me it’s not horror specifically. It’s Latin American obsession with the supernatural that I find strange. I think because Catholicism is so riddled with strange and supernatural things. Things like the Virgin Mary appearing all over the place, a statue might start to bleed blood, exorcisms… It’s very ingrained in Latin American culture to embrace the bizarre and the supernatural.
We all live through it. The Chupacabras was part of the news: it’s what happened in the UN, some lady got mugged in this corner, and then the Chupacabras.
It feels like the way Americans are obsessed with crime and punishment? Oh my God, they love scenes in the courtroom, and they love detectives, and people getting caught and people being shot. They’re obsessed with it. I feel our thing is inexplicable supernatural stuff. We love it, we eat it up.
I mean, I don’t want to generalize. I think it’s more of a Mexican and Central-American thing, now that I think about it.
Yeah, it definitely is. There is a lot of processing our issues through things we can’t explain.
That is what we brought to Los Espookys. It was a departure of a horror genre to the strange that allows for more ambiguity and more room for interpretation.
To go to your comedy special [My Favorite Shapes in HBO], were there any shapes that you wanted to put into the special but didn’t make the cut or were not good enough for primetime?
Oh, my God. So many. And it’s not that they were good enough, it’s that I didn’t have enough time. My desk is full of them. I even posted for people to mail me shapes to make the special. I don’t think any of them made the cut.
Well, at least there’s plenty of material for a follow-up. And just to finish up, we’re all stuck in quarantine right now. So I just wanted to ask you if you can help me imagine how a few of these people are spending their time. What is Tati from Los Espookys doing in quarantine?
Oh, poor Tati. Tati is just falling in love all over the place. I think she is juggling Tinder boyfriends during quarantine.
I mean, aren’t we all?
How about Deirdre from SNL’s “The Actress”?
Oh, God. Deirdre is reading a lot of plays. Deirdre is editing her reel over and over and over and over again. Deirdre is going on Instagram Live performing monologues to six people.
And the most important in my book. What do you think Daisy Duck is doing in quarantine?
Daisy is redoing her house. She is pulling one lamp from one corner of the room to the other corner. She is cleaning up after Donald cause he goes out and comes back and he is not complying with the gloves and masks.
She’s probably looking fabulous doing it.
Yeah, she’s doing her makeup every morning, even if she’s not going anywhere.
Both Los Espookys and Julio Torres: My Favourite Shapes are available to stream on HBO GO.
Jorge is a writer and filmmaker. He was born and raised in Mexico City, and is based in LA. He studied Writing for Screen & Television in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He likes to tell stories about outsiders looking for a community, and his scripts have been awarded in world-renowned competitions, like the Austin Film Festival and the Juan Rulfo Short Story Competition.
He has worked extensively behind the scenes in organizations like GLAAD, Outfest Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, and the Sundance Institute, and is excited to keep working towards creating entertainment that push representation forward. Jorge can be found listening to ABBA Gold at any given moment.