In the year since Julio Torres was hired to write for Saturday Night Live, the Brooklyn-based comedian has produced a string of viral sketches, including last week’s season premiere standout, in which host Ryan Gosling plays a man haunted by the fact that James Cameron chose the Papyrus font for the movie Avatar. That kind of abstract, idiosyncratic humor has quickly distinguished Torres, twenty-nine, who was graced with a New York Times profile earlier this year. Tonight, Comedy Central will air his first TV special, part of the showcase series Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents… (previously titled The Half Hour).
Torres moved to New York from San Salvador, El Salvador, to attend the New School, and has quickly become one of the city’s most original comic voices. Among his celebrity impressions is “Sofia Vergara’s caption to a New Yorker cartoon.” At one point in his special, which was filmed in New Orleans, he gestures to the “very subtle crystal formation in the corner of the stage” — two tent-like, crystal-shaped objects, one of which occasionally speaks. “My best friend, the crystal.”
The Voice spoke with Torres about writing apolitical comedy in a politically charged time, abstract humor, and thinking visually.
Congrats on your first TV special! How do you feel about it?
I’ve seen clips but I’ve only watched them on mute, just to sort of see if the jacket is doing what I hoped it would.
It complements your hair.
Thank you! That was the primary concern.
You have a joke in the special about how you and Melania Trump are both “scared little immigrants.” Last month, you went on Jimmy Fallon and did a bit about being an immigrant shortly after Trump announced he was ending the DACA program. For the most part, your material isn’t very political, but I wonder if that’s changed since the election, and if that’s something you’re happy about or not.
I feel like me and a few of my friends that I think are similar to me, we tend to be very apolitical, and it’s always more abstract ideas that make us laugh. Now, because the world is where the world is, it felt silly to not touch on that or address that. And it wasn’t so much that I felt a duty or anything like that, because I don’t. It was more like, “Well, this is what’s on my mind now.”
How old were you when you moved here from El Salvador?
Twenty or twenty-one. I transferred halfway through college. I did two years of advertising school, which was a very bad fit but for whatever reason seemed like a good idea at the time. And I actually worked at an advertising firm for a year, between doing those two years in school and coming here. I don’t recall any of my ideas actually being executed. I think I was pretty bad at it.
After college, did you feel a sense of urgency in your career because you’re here on a work visa and didn’t necessarily feel like you have all the time in the world to develop it?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I felt like, I can’t afford the time to just sort of figure things out. If I’m gonna do this, I can’t do it once a month and then go back to my life and see where it goes. No, no — this has to happen, it has to happen quick. It has to be quicker than everyone else. First of all, legally, I can’t, like, get a server’s job and do something else. I actually credit that with being a strong motivator. I worked in the admissions office [in college in New York] doing clerical work and they liked me enough that when I graduated, they asked if I wanted to work in the office full-time. And I wonder, if I hadn’t been foreign and I’d been able to take that job, if I would be there right now.
The first time I tried stand-up was because I sort of thought that I wasn’t going to be able to stay here, and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to waste time here thinking about possibilities and doing a job that I’m not in love with, then going home.”
You have this very deadpan delivery, and at times it almost feels like watching a deconstruction of a stand-up set. Was that your natural voice from the get-go, or did that evolve as you did more stand-up?
The first couple times that I did it, I was sort of doing an impression of what I thought a stand-up should sound and be like. I was counting the seconds before I brought the microphone out of the mic stand, just leaning into it and doing a whole performance out of that.
What other comics have influenced you, or who made you laugh?
You know, I didn’t start consuming stand-up until I decided to try it. To me it was like, “I should do this because it feels like an efficient way of getting my writing out there.” It was very quick, and I didn’t have to rely on anyone else.
You have a joke about growing up watching American TV, and trying to copy how Americans speak. Did having English as a second language help shape your sense of humor?
Maybe. At times, I feel like there’s almost a sheet of glass between me and the audience, because my brain wasn’t trained to speak in this language. And I think I like exploring that. I guess the answer is, I don’t know, but probably. I think there’s a reason why I never did comedy in Spanish.
I guess it’s like asking what’s it like to be a twin — you don’t know any other reality. But I thought of that because so much of your material is based on these big concepts, with a lot of visual punch lines.
I was convinced that I was going to do something visual when I was growing up. I remember taking those aptitude tests, and they said that I would never be as good verbally as I was visually. The visual component is very important to me, and I like finding the humor in that.
Right, well, you’ve got the “subtle crystal formation” in the corner of the set in this special.
You barely see it.
Where did that idea come from?
Just, feeling like I needed it, I guess? Also, the whole to-do of shipping them to New Orleans — talking about the dimensions of the crate and the cost of the insurance and all of that — that was all so funny to me. I’m sad that the audience will never get to see the calls and the paperwork that were required to get that to New Orleans. It was such an ordeal, with so many executives chiming in on how to get this thing down there, I was so tempted to be like, “Actually, I don’t think I’m gonna use it anyway.” Because I thought that nothing was going to be funnier than that.
Catch Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents…Julio Torres tonight (or rather, early Saturday, if we’re getting technical) at 12:30 a.m. on Comedy Central.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2017