“Whenever I don’t know what to do for Halloween, I come here,” says Julio Torres, stepping through the door of Canal Plastics Center in New York City's Chinatown. “I was the Heart of the Ocean one time, from Titanic, with some iridescent paper. I was a broken mirror another year.” But the store's significance in his life is about more than just Halloween costumes: the comedian also mined the wonders of Canal Plastics when putting together his new HBO comedy special, My Favorite Shapes.
The show is Torres's first stand-up special, but he's not a newcomer to the network. HBO is also home to the first season of his Spanish-language comedy Los Espookys, a series about a misfit group of horror enthusiasts who stage cartoonish gags for money that he co-created with Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen. A staple in the “alt” comedy scene in Brooklyn, Torres has also garnered acclaim for writing some of Saturday Night Live's most absurd sketches, including “Papyrus,” “Wells for Boys,” and “The Sink,”, an introspective monologue by a sink that is anxious about being too large, which was unfortunately cut for time.
On Los Espookys, the comedian plays Andrés, a blue-haired, adopted heir to a chocolate fortune with a water demon inside of him. In real life, Torres does not come off as strange or brooding like Andrés, and there's really nothing spooky about him, but he does have some mystifying interests. He jokes that his favorite color is “clear” but admits that he’s “having a moment with orange right now.” He prefers round shapes to pointed ones, and squiggles or amoeba-like forms to straight lines. “Stuff like this drives me crazy,” he says, as he picks up a cylindrical piece of plastic and rolls it around in his hand. “Like, what do I do with it?”
A display catches his eye. “I have been considering trying to make a table out of stuff here,” he says, while grabbing a two-inch by two-inch plastic square in a milky pink color. “Like, a coffee table.” Has he ever designed something like furniture for his apartment before? Not really. But he's always dreaming up something. “With my mom, like with clothes, I’ll sketch something and she’ll design it for me,” he says, explaining that his mother takes the ideas to a tailor in El Salvador—where she lives and where Torres grew up—who sends the finished pieces back to Torres in New York. He's given to sartorial theatricality: In My Favorite Shapes, Torres materializes on the stage in what appears to be a silver spacesuit. The look was designed by Muriel Parra, who also designed the outlandish costumes for Los Espookys, which is filmed in Santiago, Chile. And today, in the middle of this plexiglass warehouse in Chinatown, he's wearing an outfit that only he could pull off.
“These spoke to Canal Plastics,” he says while gesturing to the oversized white sandals wrapped around his feet. “I thought, these should come out even though they’re too big on me, but I really like them. My sister’s friends made them, and also made the shoes in the special.”
As for the iridescent pair of green shorts he’s wearing, Torres confesses that he puts them on “when I think I’m not going to have any interesting top to wear, to distract from that.”
“But then I remembered this one,” he says, pointing to his white tank, “which is kind of fine because it also reminds me of Canal Plastics.”
The comedian’s hair is dyed his trademark blonde, a drastic change he decided to pursue in adulthood. “It felt passive to have my hair color from birth,” he says. “I wanted to build something that I was in control of, so that’s why I did it.”
Torres says he would characterize his adolescent self as “longing,” but never performative. He and his mother and sister were always making things, whether little houses out of cardboard or clothes. He watched a lot of I Dream of Jeannie. “I loved the inside of her bottle. It was, like, very minimalist. It had one marble coffee table with a bowl of fruit. I thought that was so funny and so sexy, that she was not about the cushions and the plush. Diametrically opposed. She was like, ‘No nonsense in my apartment. Just fruit.’”
As we walk through the store, Torres grabs some long, semi-see-through green cylinders. “I actually have a vase filled with these,” he remarks, making it easy to imagine his apartment as some sort of kaleidoscopic funhouse.
These objects, though made mostly of plastic, aren’t all cheap. Some of the larger prism cylinders—maybe a few inches in diameter, and roughly a foot long—can run you up to $175. But with an HBO budget, Torres was able to build a few characters out of the good stuff. The square, the rectangle, and some other seemingly random pieces that he took from a grab bag of defected shapes have all found their way into his work in one way or another.
He picks up a big, clear, hollow plastic tube. “I bought two of these tubes one time, and came up with an idea that I’m working on right now. It just reminded me of the transportation of The Jetsons, how they would zoom,” Torres muses. The large, cylindrical container looks not unlike the hollow fish transport tubes that went viral on Twitter earlier this month, designed to preserve ecosystems by transporting live salmon over dams into bodies of water across the way.
In Torres’s world, an oval is not just an oval—it’s an oval that wishes he were a circle. A Ferrero Rocher chocolate (which, by the way, Torres has never actually tasted, he just thinks “it’s so funny to go to a bodega and see stacks and stacks of a chocolate that sells itself as being the fanciest chocolate”) is given the chance to “perform” in the show but only if it has its little “skirt” on. On the surface, the task of giving life to objects, or developing some sort of ontology for inanimate pieces of glass and plastic may seem like a convoluted, maybe even hifalutin' endeavor, but Torres sees it as much more simple than that. “I don’t think what I do is hyper-intellectual or analytic. I think it’s pretty simple. I’m just playing,” he says. “I think [what I do] looks different, but I don’t think it’s unapproachable or inaccessible. I don’t think it’s snobby in the least.”
In the first few minutes of the special, Torres grabs a clear pyramid, and begins to add on some other knick knacks: a tiny flat mirror, a taller rectangular cube with an hourglass inside of it. “Notice what happens with this shape, when you begin to expand on the basic principle of it. All of a sudden, it turns into... Tilda Swinton’s apartment?” he jokes as part of a setup that introduces his sense of humor to the audience.
Torres began his stand-up career after moving from El Salvador to New York for college, and confesses that it was a bit of an “uphill journey” until he found his contemporaries. He met Lorelei Ramirez—a non-binary comedian who plays a “cis-ist” woman in season one of Los Espookys—at an open mic on 14th Street and the two became fast friends. “When I met Lorelei, I was immediately hypnotized and so intimidated,” Torres says, before citing Jo Firestone and Joe Rumrill as other comedians whose work inspires him.
The pack of comedians that Torres runs with is tight, and often referred to with the "alternative" label. “I don’t mind it,” he says, before adding, “I know that some of my friends don’t like it because it’s used to describe any comedian who’s not straight or white, and that’s incorrect.” According to Torres, what a comedian must do in order to be defined through their work as “alternative” or “queer” is “approach things from an unexpected angle.”
“I don’t think it makes anything better or worse than ‘traditional’ comedy, but I think it makes it different,” he says. “It’s just sort of like saying, ‘Is it abstract or is it figurative?’ You know?"
Many of his friends and collaborators have been cast in small roles on Los Espookys, including Ramirez and Spike Einbinder, who he's known since college. The series, he says, got its start with an idea from Armisen. “Fred wanted to do a show about a group of horror enthusiasts in Latin America," Torres says. "That was his basic premise, and he wanted it to be in Spanish. So he asked Ana and I if we wanted to write it and maybe be on it, and we said yes of course, and then when the three of us started thinking, it just changed and it changed and it changed into what it is now, which is about horror inasmuch as The Office is about paper,” he laughs. “It’s what they do, but then the world is so much different. But since The Office is about paper, it’s a show that’s funny in how bland it is, right? And I think that Los Espookys is funny in how maximalist and extreme and odd it is.”
According to the comedian, the threads that connect his work are variations on a theme, which is self-reflection. “I have a bunch of mirrors in my apartment. They feel like windows to something. I end up doing a lot of stuff with mirrors, water, transparency, reflection,” he says. Why? For Torres, the answer is, of course, strange but simple: “I don’t know," he says. "I’m an Aquarius.”