The surreal, singular, ‘slightly delusional’ comedy of Julio Torres

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NEW YORK — Nine years ago, Julio Torres played Miranda Hobbes in a live staging of “Sex and the City.” The production boasted a cast of nearly all gay male comedians, save for one heterosexual woman. Despite performing at an off-Broadway theater, they put on the episode “Escape From New York,” in which Miranda attempts to let loose on a trip to Los Angeles. Torres portrayed the character with a mysterious aura, according to his friend Bowen Yang, who produced the staging and says Torres “gave Miranda this extra dimension where she was also psychically gifted at times.”

“It was so novel to me that someone would take this beloved, well-known character in pop culture and subvert that in a way that only adds an extra axis to the thing we already know,” Yang adds in a recent interview. “That’s Julio being Julio, making Miranda this incredibly soft-spoken, fascinating, alluring figure, rather than just the high-strung, type-A person that Miranda still was, in his portrayal.”

Torres, 37, has a way of making you feel like you’re seeing something for the first time, no matter how familiar the concept may have been. Fred Armisen, with whom he co-created the HBO comedy “Los Espookys,” likens the experience to discovering a new genre of music. In that series, which overlapped with Torres’s three years as the author of absurd “Saturday Night Live” sketches such as “Wells for Boys” and “Papyrus,” he plays the out-of-touch heir to a chocolate empire — an unsympathetic character on paper, but one he imbues with endearing dry humor and a longing for purpose.

Those traits reverberate throughout the Salvadoran comedian’s eccentric body of work, which includes the new film “Problemista,” his directorial debut about a 20-something immigrant whose dreams of becoming a toy designer are threatened by the impending expiration of his work visa. “Problemista” is casually dreamlike, dipping in and out of other worlds whenever Torres tires of ours. When the bumbling protagonist, Alejandro, isn’t doing grunt work for his art world boss (Tilda Swinton) so she will sponsor his visa, he finds odd jobs on Craigslist. The website is personified on-screen by a cartoonish figure (Larry Owens) who taunts poor Alejandro with nonsensical ramblings.

Surrealism is par for any course designed by Torres. He played Miranda as a psychic, after all.

“What’s striking to me is everyone’s reaction to [his work],” Armisen says. “There’s this feeling that you’re the only person who’s mesmerized. … You know who was like that? David Bowie. When I talk to people in the business, family, friends, they’re all like, ‘You know who I love? Julio Torres.’ Telling me like it’s news. They act like it’s some sort of acquired taste. And it’s like, no, it’s everybody!”

When I arrive on a rainy February afternoon to the studio space Torres rents in Greenpoint, I spot an iridescent umbrella leaning against the exterior wall. Clearly, I am in the right place.

The door bursts open to reveal Torres and his three immediate family members, who came to visit for the “Problemista” premiere. His father, also named Julio, and mother, Tita, beam as they say hello and goodbye to the reporter set to interview their son. Torres’s younger sister, Marta, accompanies their parents. Her dark hair is dyed a vibrant hue, a trademark look of her brother’s, as well.

Torres wasn’t always one of the cool kids. He jokes that not making friends helped him maintain a sense of self at the private school he and Marta attended in their hometown of San Salvador. The institution, modeled after American high schools, was created to educate the children of diplomats. Though the student body had expanded beyond the political elite by the time the Torres siblings got in and secured scholarships to keep attending, he says school leaders prided themselves on maintaining that air of exclusivity.

Torres’s father, a civil engineer, taught his children to be curious. Tita, an architect and furniture designer, helped execute their creative visions. She made cardboard dollhouses per Torres’s instructions and stitched dresses for his Barbies.

“I think my parents armed me with a confidence that made me slightly delusional,” he says.

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In “Problemista,” Alejandro’s difficult boss (Swinton) possesses a whirlwind temperament that joins forces with an inscrutable immigration system to push Alejandro toward Kafkaesque despair. He is kept sane by phone calls from his mother (Catalina Saavedra), who encourages him from their home country to keep pursuing his artistic passion. Torres’s real mother designed set pieces for his film, including a fantastical playground that appears in flashbacks to Alejandro’s youth.

Torres didn’t know any screenwriters growing up but was determined to become one. He lacked the grades and savings to guarantee a future in New York after graduating from his private school in 2005 but decided he would apply to the New School, anyway. He got in. But it took three more years — during which he attended advertising school in El Salvador — and another round of applying to secure a sufficient amount of financial aid.

At the New School, he found community among peers such as Spike Einbinder, a comedian who plays Alejandro’s roommate in “Problemista” (based on their real experiences living together) and also appears in “Los Espookys” as Torres’s parasitic demon. “Julio has always been able to see me in his visions,” Einbinder says, noting that he even appeared in short-form plays Torres wrote in college: “He believed in me as much as he believed in himself.” Einbinder compares Torres to a sibling and adds that his mother, original SNL cast member Laraine Newman, once set her desktop wallpaper to a picture of the two friends together, “as if it were actually a photo of me and my brother.”

While living with Einbinder, Torres sometimes sublet his room and slept on the couch so he could make rent and still afford an endless torrent of immigration expenses (as Alejandro does in the film). A separate studio was out of question then.

In February, he tells me he just renewed his lease on the space. He gives me a tour of the room, talking over the faintly perceptible sounds of the children’s dance class next door. Wall-to-wall windows shed light on props from “Problemista,” including a set of whimsical wooden chairs Tita designed. “This is my storage unit,” Torres says, pointing to a clear box built into a countertop. I peer inside and see a bunch of furniture tiny enough to accommodate an insect.

After Torres watched “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Céline Sciamma’s 2019 movie about a slow-burning romance in 18th-century France, he was determined to try writing in a more low-key style. “The next thing I do, it’s going to be bare bones. It’s going to be an acoustic little set,” he says he thought at the time. “And then come the spaceships, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, why am I doing this?’” The story could be about any of his projects, really. When Torres is steering the ship, there’s a good chance audiences will be whisked away to another realm.

He wrote in 2016 for “The Chris Gethard Show,” where he earned an in-house reputation for his otherworldly interests. Gethard booked guests for the freewheeling talk show by framing it as a chance for them to do something on TV that they had always wanted to try. Lena Dunham sent word that she wanted to play a mermaid. But who would imagine that underwater fantasyland?

“The whole room goes quiet,” Gethard says, “and Julio goes, ‘I’ve got this one.’”

Torres doesn’t do subtle. He can appreciate when other people look hot in jeans and a T-shirt, but he says he is most comfortable dressing like a Christmas tree. The colorful outfits exude the wacky self-indulgence that comes through in his work, which makes sense: His personal aesthetic has always been part of the shtick. Ana Fabrega, the third co-creator of “Los Espookys,” met Torres in his stand-up days and says he performed in black clothing at the time — a choice he attributed to the fact that he was “absorbing right now.”

“He started wearing all white one day, and it was like, ‘What happened to the black?’” Fabrega continues. He explained to her, “Well, I’m reflecting now.”

Torres belonged to a class of experimental comedians who often performed in North Brooklyn, but he stood out to Gethard early on for his willingness to leave that scene. “It’s really easy to find your space and stay inside it — to be an [Upright Citizens Brigade] person who only performs at UCB. He wasn’t trying to become a hangout in North Brooklyn, where everybody agreed with him politically,” says Gethard, who recalled Torres performing for Times Square tourists at Carolines on Broadway.

In those days, Torres went where the wind blew him. “I’m not very detail oriented,” he says. He started doing stand-up after Googling “New York City open mic” because it seemed like a cheaper way to get into comedy writing than paying for classes at UCB, a comedy theater and school. He once waited on a sidewalk all night to perform a 30-second set for NBC executives as part of the network’s “Stand-Up for Diversity” showcase.

“I think it was a tax write-off for NBC,” Torres says. He was flown out to Los Angeles as a finalist in 2013 and, though he didn’t win, found a manager who helped him submit packets to TV shows. In 2016, SNL asked him to audition as a cast member, instead. “I show up with glitter on my face,” he explains, “and Lorne Michaels is like, ‘I don’t know about an actor, but maybe he should be a guest writer.’”

The next year, Torres wrote “Melania Moments,” the first of three vignettes to imagine the first lady’s stream of consciousness. It was directed by Dave McCary, who became a regular collaborator and later directed Torres’s HBO special, “My Favorite Shapes.” They teamed up on SNL for “The Sink,” in which Emily Blunt delivers a tortured monologue from the perspective of a gaudy bathroom sink, and on the hit “Wells for Boys,” a Fisher-Price toy parody Torres co-wrote with Jeremy Beiler about a plastic well for sensitive children to “wish upon, confide in, reflect by.” (McCary met his future wife, Emma Stone, on the set of this sketch. They produced “Problemista” under their Fruit Tree banner.)

“The SNL audience sensibility tends to not be my own, and that’s what was so special about Julio,” McCary says, adding that Torres didn’t aim for the “joke frequency an audience like that is accustomed to. Sometimes there’s only really one joke in the whole piece, but it’s funny the piece even exists.”

Torres left SNL in 2019, only briefly overlapping on the writing staff with Yang. They still managed to collaborate on multiple sketches — including the absolutely bonkers “Sara Lee,” in which Harry Styles plays the company’s Instagram manager who accidentally uses the professional account to comment things like “wreck me daddy” on celebrity pages. Yang says he and Torres wrote a first draft in a half-hour, Yang typing furiously as Torres sat cross-legged on a couch, the two of them rattling off silly phrases (such as the soon-to-be gay meme, “Must get rid of toxic in the community”).

“My happiest and proudest moments on the show have been ones where after [a sketch] makes the air, you’re like, ‘I can’t believe we got away with that,’” Yang says. “I felt that so many times with Julio.”

Whether he writes from the perspective of a bathroom sink or a lonely child, Torres reaches for emotional truths. “My Favorite Shapes,” the HBO special he released in 2019, showcases his ability to ascribe personality to inanimate objects with equal parts irony and earnestness. On the space-age set envisioned by his mother and sister, Torres sits behind a conveyor belt that brings him little knickknacks, including a quartz crystal, a plastic swan and a pearl that begins to roll away. “It’s because he’s so beautiful that he can get away with being so shy,” the comedian says of the pearl.

“I like toys because I see them as vessels for what I want to say,” Torres tells me. “When I was working on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you had to tell one of the producers what you were working on that week. He was like: ‘Is this about another tiny thing? A little figurine?’ I was like, ‘No, it’s about a flea circus.’”

“My Favorite Shapes” closely followed the premiere of “Los Espookys,” for which Armisen recruited Torres after watching his work on Broadway Video’s Latino-focused comedy channel, Más Mejor, and Fabrega after working with her on some comedy videos and “Portlandia.” (It was a happy coincidence that Torres and Fabrega were already good friends; Armisen had no clue.) The comedians co-created the absurdist Spanish-language series about friends in a fictional Latin American country who channel their love of horror into a business creating spooky situations for clients. All three act in the show.

As Andrés, whose family runs a lucrative chocolate company, Torres lampoons the type of trust-fund kids he grew up around. Andrés is a certified diva and proudly out of touch. When he visits a grocery store for the first time, he remarks that “it’s as if someone took food from a restaurant, deconstructed it and hid the parts of it throughout this place.” But Andrés also struggles under the weight of his parents’ expectations — which include marrying his prearranged fiancée, the heir to a merger-friendly cookie company — and sometimes expresses these misgivings to his inner demon (Einbinder).

The demonic bit was all Torres, obviously. Armisen says his collaborator contributed all sorts of mystical elements to Andrés, including an ability to talk to the moon. These were bizarre choices for a show that doesn’t otherwise delve into actual paranormal activity, and Torres knew it. “The supernatural part is done with a laugh,” Armisen notes.

He doesn’t hold back in “Problemista.” He directs Swinton toward an erratic portrayal of a lonely woman frustrated by a world that doesn’t understand her idiosyncrasies. (“To use directing as a verb feels insane,” the first-time filmmaker says of working with the seasoned actress.) Alejandro is more subdued than Andrés but is forced to navigate nightmarish bureaucracy that can feel like walking through a haunted house. While visiting his immigration lawyer’s office, Alejandro encounters another client whose visa is on the brink of expiration. When the hourglass empties, she poofs into thin air.

At first, Torres hesitated to write about his own life. “I felt so allergic to doing something that felt autobiographical,” he says. “I found that to be so boring.” Then he remembered who he was. If he didn’t follow the rules at an institution like SNL, why start abiding genre constructs now?

Torres “thinks about the absurdity of bureaucracy and all these things as it relates to his experience being an immigrant, but he can scope out on that idea … and make it about the kind of person you are in the world,” Yang says. “How you cope with crushing circumstances, and how the crushing circumstances can be averted altogether if you refuse to work under them. He sees the whole system at once.”

The immigration system or the solar system? The entire galaxy? Yes to all three.

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