Tonight at 12:30 Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents will air a half hour that is arguably unlike any you’ve seen before. If this sounds like hyperbole, please know that the special involves giant sentient glowing crystals and excerpts from Melania Trump’s secret diary delivered by someone who refers to himself as a Space Prince. The half hour belongs to Julio Torres, the New York-based comedian and writer who has made a name for himself with his “flight of fancy” comedic output. He’s the brain behind SNL’s standout sketches “Wells for Boys,” “Melania Moments,” and most recently, “Papyrus.” He also just took his show My Favorite Shapes – wherein, he sits at a table and plays with various items that remind him of jokes, stories, observations, and famous people – to Edinburgh Fringe Fest. I talked to Julio the day before his half hour recording about his unique approach to standup, using art to translate otherness, and why he finds the humorless funny.
I was watching some old clips of yours and noticed that you often use a notebook as a type of affectation device.
I caught myself doing it just instinctively and someone called it out like, “I like what you do with the notebook.” I was like, “Oh, it wasn’t really a choice. It was really because I couldn’t memorize my jokes.” So then I kept doing it for a little bit. Now I do it sometimes if I’m in the mood. Every now and then I read longer pieces as part of my standup, like fiction pieces that I write. When I do that I definitely use it.
You’re clearly a chill guy, but how did you come up with your stage persona? It’s definitely a bit heightened.
It was one of those things I didn’t really workshop or calculate. It just came naturally. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I never really performed anything before I performed standup. I never acted, was in a play, did improv, or anything like that. I think what is read as slight discomfort and seeming a little frigid was, at the beginning, completely natural. It’s an accurate description of how I felt.
So it’s similar to the notebook thing.
Yeah, although I will say I’m a little looser now. I used to be more uncomfortable.
At what point did you realize how you wanted to be perceived as an artist onstage?
I like the idea of showcasing some sort of otherness, because I have all these things about me that make me a little different: being Hispanic, being gay, not being from here. All of those things I don’t always discuss because my material ends up being more flight of fancy. In my head the way I rationalize it is that my otherness, my being not from here, is exemplified in the delivery of someone who feels like they have come from somewhere else. That somewhere else is a question mark. They’re different or off, but maybe not necessarily because of the reasons you would guess.
At that it point it becomes theater in a way.
It does. I think a lot about how things are presented. Wardrobe is important. The blocking is important. I think a lot about the whole production.
What made you want to start standup?
I really wanted to be a writer, a film writer, playwright, television writer, and I didn’t know how to do any of that. I realized the one thing that I could do to showcase my writing that didn’t require spending any money, collaborating, or relying on other people’s schedules was standup. I think I did it the day after it popped into my head. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a standup. I wanted to be a writer. I mean, I grew up wanting to be several things, but in my formative adult life that’s where I wanted to be.
Did you have any success as a writer before starting standup?
No, nothing. I started doing standup right after college. Two days before doing standup I never would have guessed I would be doing anything with it, but I’m a little bit impulsive when I think I’ll like something.
When did you start?
I believe I started in 2012-2013.
It’s really cool that in less than five years you’re doing a half hour and got picked up to write for SNL. I read a New York Times feature on what you’ve brought to SNL, which are a lot of conceptual, surreal, abstract bits that have been standout pieces, especially in the digital shorts. Was that always your style?
I think so. It’s definitely the mood and tone that I like, again, just sort of playing with an outsider’s perspective with a heightened strangeness.
Who are your influences?
I’d asked myself if I could have a career like Charlie Kaufman’s and make strange movies like that. I went from wanting to write movies to “I can’t do stuff like that.” It kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and it became jokes. I was like, “I guess it’s standup for now.”
Now you have the opportunity to build it back up. You started big in your mind and distilled it down, but now you have things that you can slowly put in place to maybe get back to that original goal.
Yes, yes. Those paths became so much clearer once I started doing standup.
I read an article where someone asked what you found funny and you said, “I find the humorless funny.”
I think the funniest people I know are very serious people who don’t know that they’re funny. I think I find a lot of humor in beauty and things that take themselves very seriously. For this half hour I’m performing it with three giant, glowing crystals. The whole arranging of them coming here is probably the biggest joke of my set. I find stuff like that very stimulating, very funny.