During the final few minutes of Julio Torres’ HBO special “My Favorite Shapes,” the “Los Espookys” co-creator and star remembers his disheartening childhood trip to Disney World. Picking up a doll-sized pink and purple door made out of clay, Torres recalls how excited he was to meet a fictional character in real-life: his beloved Daisy Duck. Like so many kids, he went to Disney World to not only live in a cartoon paradise filled with his animated friends, but to make that world a part of his own.
But Torres wasn’t able to do that. His favorite character wasn’t there, and the only indication she existed at all was a random door, painted to look like hers, but that led nowhere at all. In the special, Torres explained that he hated having the world “explained to me by oversimplifying it.” Long before he became an exciting writer, comedian, and performer, the imaginative young Torres would rather be allowed to come up with his own interpretation than be shunted toward a dead-end.
“I think that part of the reason I was so drawn to Daisy is because she was so underdeveloped, and it allowed me to develop her,” Torres said in a recent phone interview. “Because all these other characters, like Mickey, were just so clearly defined — their likes and dislikes, their personality, all these things. So then there was no work for me to do, except to react to what they created. But Daisy allowed me to do the writerly work, which is what I like to do.”
Now 33, Torres stands as one of the entertainment industry’s most enlivening young voices. Memorable stints on “The Tonight Show” and “The Chris Gethard Show” helped introduce him to a wide array of comedy fans, before “Los Espookys,” HBO’s Spanish-language comedy created alongside Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, became a cult favorite and critical smash after just one season. On “SNL,” he consistently creates peculiar yet sensitive sketches that quickly go viral, and his famous collaborators on “Papyrus” (Ryan Gosling), “Diego Calls His Mom” (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and “Wells For Boys” (Emma Stone) all provide voices for pre-taped segments within “My Favorite Shapes.” Past stand-up routines have broken from the norm (like his Comedy Central special that involved talking to a massive crystal), but his latest feels so immersive it’s like you’re transported into one of his miniature dioramas.
The set itself has a similar function, inviting viewers to reframe their expectations while creating plenty of jokes on its own. Alongside his mother, who’s an architect, and sister (a designer), Torres built the giant, pastel-shaded shapes to hand-in-hand with his routine.
“This set and the visual components of my work are so important because they’re not backdrops, they’re not set decorations; they’re part of the joke,” Torres said. “Our conveyor belt in a U[-shape] is so much funnier than a straight conveyor belt because you get those beautiful cars — those are going to look great on camera — [but] also it’s a more dramatic entrance for every object. Great. OK. That means I’m corralled inside of a conveyor belt. How do I get out? OK. [How about] big, difficult, stairs? OK! That’s funny.'”
Torres utilizes a freeform writing process that involves him “scribbling and drawing” in a big, blank sketchbook. The open canvas allows him to explore whatever ideas come to mind, rather than get boxed into just one by pesky lines or color-coded instructions.
“Some [ideas] become shitty jokes. Some of them might blossom into a bigger writing project. Some of them are just furniture that I ended up getting me for my apartment,” Torres said.
That’s typically when he dials up his mother. Prior to “My Favorite Shapes,” the Torres family had been looking for a way to collaborate professionally, even though they talk through ideas all the time.
“When I talk to my mother throughout the day, it’s always about the creation of something or the design of something. I will never be done. My apartment will never be finished. I will never stop decorating it,” Torres said. “And a lot of what I talk to her about is just like, ‘Should that go here? So that goes there? Oh, is that too orange?’ That’s how we’ve always been. So that is sort of how we express love and interest in each other.”
Torres credits his family’s openness and acceptance for framing his distinct outlook on, well, everything. Growing up, he was never forced into any accepted ways of thinking; curfews weren’t set by his parents and religion wasn’t passed down to him as law.
“When I was a kid, I really liked having the liberty to be me,” Torres said. “I was never forced to do anything I didn’t want to do, which turned me, I think, into this unburdened writer. But then also, I don’t know how to drive or ride a bike or cook or tie my shoes. [So] I don’t want to give any advice because what the hell do I know? But I liked being raised that way.”
Seeing him onstage, playing with Happy Meal toys and creating backstories for his pet plants, it’s easy to assign the comedian a childlike sense of wonder. But the specificity he brings to his descriptions as well as his special’s overall structure speak to a keen understanding of what can make anyone laugh, as well as what makes his comedy work so well. Torres can pivot from praising a toy penguin racing game into an allegory for middle class struggles without missing a beat. His innate ability to create, paired with carefully honed writing skills, make him an absorbing storyteller, able to whisk the audience away on winsome fleets of fancy.
Who better to build out rich, detailed worlds for shapes, places, or even underdeveloped Disney characters? Daisy Duck may have been left nascent on accident, but that only encouraged Torres to fill in the blanks — and he only hopes the rest of us will do the same.
“So I was thinking, ‘Oh, if I ever do a children’s project, I will leave one very underdeveloped character, so that kids like me can use that as the entry point into creativity,'” he said. “I think that a closed door will infinitely be more exciting than a door that opens into an empty room — which is sort of what that Daisy moment is about.”
“My Favorite Shapes” is streaming now on HBO.