production design

How Julio Torres Brought His Favorite Shapes to Life

Julio Torres on My Favorite Shapes. Photo: Zach Dilgard/HBO

Julio Torres’s new special, My Favorite Shapes, is not the typical stand-up show. That’s putting it mildly. For one thing, he barely stands. Instead, Torres sits behind a giant conveyor belt that brings his cherished objects to him, one at a time. The conveyor belt had to be custom-made, according to the special’s production designer Michael Krantz. “They generally manufacture for sushi restaurants,” he told Vulture. “So they’re food-grade.”

My Favorite Shapes began life simply as Torres’s most prized possessions. “I’ve always liked objects. They’ve been funny and stimulating to me,” he told Vulture. “I didn’t really know how to translate that into a live performance. Until I realized I could hook a cable up to my iPhone and hook that up to a projector.” That iPhone and projector rig became a show in 2017. Torres performed Shapes off and on all summer before taking the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that August. Now, it’s an HBO comedy special. But adapting the live stage show for television required test after test after test. “We played around a lot with the geometry,” Krantz said. “I built countless 3-D models, trying different lensing and different camera positions so that we could explore what was going to work.”

Upon seeing the designs for the set — a collaboration between Torres’s mother, Tita, and sister Marta — Krantz said it looked like “a set designed by Ettore Sottsass of an evil laboratory for an episode of Miami Vice.” The original plan was too elaborate to realize in the amount of time they had. “There was an area behind him that had, like, a little room. There was a reflecting pool. There were other shapes and bits of geometry that were hanging,” he said. “There were amoebic-shaped platforms.” Krantz had to boil it down to the most essential parts: stairs, screen, conveyor belt. Despite all the moving parts, he was struck by the singular nature of Torres’s vision. “It’s such a wonderful, unique, and amazing show,” Krantz said. “I’d never worked on anything like it.”

The revolutionary thing My Favorite Shapes does is, rather than make jokes pretty, it makes prettiness a joke. The more exquisite the shape, the more revealing it is of Torres as a comedy character. “The set is pretty,” said Torres. “But beyond it being pretty, it indicates a workshop or my little lab. Visually, I think there are context clues for the audience to interpret the show for what it is.”

The titular shapes come from all sorts of places. “Some of them were gifted to me. The little glass birds that live in the loft, for example, those were a Secret Santa gift from a friend at SNL. The crystal that sits on the chair was a gift from Aidy Bryant. Jessica, the PR girl who’s a pink jewel, I found in a dollar store in L.A.,” he explained. “Some of them, I have the idea for, and a friend made them for me.” The swan burdened by beauty was manufactured for Torres, as was its “shadow” and “soul.” Krantz was particularly taken with the soul of the swan.

With this special, Torres has accidentally rediscovered prop comedy, curating aesthetic moments where the comedy comes from the form of the object. In comedy, there’s an ongoing debate about how pretty things can get: Visually pleasing comedy risks being shadily called “slick,” or even worse “overproduced.” Women in comedy are constantly told that being too pretty will get in the way of their being funny. “I have heard that before: ‘If it’s pretty, it’s not funny,’” said Torres. “But what if it’s so pretty it’s funny? Like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate? What if an attempt to become pretty is funny, like that shoe that holds other shoes? I don’t think the special would work any other way.” The prettiness isn’t a liability; it’s the point.

Speaking of the shoe that holds other shoes, it has a monologue. Voiced by Emma Stone. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ryan Gosling voice objects as well, playing a cactus and a blue racing penguin, respectively. Torres had worked with all of them previously on Saturday Night Live, in voice-over-heavy shorts. Manuel played Diego in “Diego Calls His Mom,” Gosling was tormented by Avatar’s use of the Papyrus font, and Stone played an actress in a gay porn trying to find her character. “These three have really great voices, really specific voices. And they’re all really good at being self-serious and funny at the same time,” said Torres. “These three objects take themselves deathly seriously. That’s one of the funnier things about beauty, right? Something that is so humorless that it becomes funny.”

Talking to Torres, one gets the sense that imbuing objects with overly dramatic narratives is the only way he knows how to navigate space. It started early, when he read a psychosexual drama onto his dinnerware: “I had created the narrative in my head that the fork was jealous of the romance that the spoon and the knife had. Because the spoon felt so maternal and sweet, and the fork felt so odd and spiked. So I had this whole narrative in my head that the fork was so jealous of the love between the knife and the spoon. So now, when I see a fork, I’m like Oh, I’m sorry I inserted this jealous narrative onto you. For all I know, you didn’t care what the other two were up to.” 

Maybe it’s because every shape brings its own story that Torres’s favorite color, famously, is clear. Torres told Vulture that he’s most comfortable in a muted palette because it gives ideas and forms more of a chance to present their narrative, “sort of the way you make a gallery or museum white.” But, shockingly, this special may be the send-off for the clear aesthetic. The set his sister designed was too colorful for Torres, but upon seeing the muted version Krantz worked up in a 3-D imaging program, Torres had a change of heart. The set got a pastel dreamscape palette. And — breaking news — Torres has accepted color into his life. “I think I’m kind of phasing out of that [clear] moment. I’m really attracted to colors, the summer ones. Suddenly I’m very into orange.”

How Julio Torres Brought His Favorite Shapes to Life