On a February day 32 years ago, a beam of glitter from space crashed into a home in El Salvador and Julio Torres was brought into existence. You might recognize the otherworldly comedian from his work as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” his crafty witchiness starring in and co-creating HBO’s “Los Espookys” or his most recent HBO comedy special, “My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres.” Torres’s comedy is unlike anything you have ever seen before in this time, dimension or universe. He spends his stand-up, for instance, mostly sitting down behind a playful conveyor belt in a silver jumpsuit and clear slippers a la one particularly forgetful Disney princess, highlighting as his special’s name promises — his favorite shapes. Torres disassembles the staleness of the classic stand-up routine and reconstructs it with grace and care. “My Favorite Shapes” is the kind of comedy I want injected into my veins or stirred into my coffee. It’s the kind of comedy you don’t know you need until you’ve had it. Have you ever experienced that magical moment where you go from having not seen your favorite movie to having seen it? It’s like you can’t imagine your life before and now your life is better after? That is what watching “My Favorite Shapes” for the first time feels like.
Like most good things in this world, “My Favorite Shapes” was born at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (see “Fleabag”). I think that one of the most admirable aspects about Julio Torres is his dedication to his art. He has a need to show us his shapes because it has to be done and he absolutely must do it. It reminds me of the famous Hillel the Elder quote (or what Ivanka Trump attributes to Emma Watson) — “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But when I am for myself, then what am “I”? And if not now, when?” But for Julio Torres: “If I don’t tell you about my favorite shapes, who will? And if not now, when?” He even explains this further through a phone call with his mother as special begins: “I need to show them. If I don’t, I don’t know that anybody else would.” Torres has to do this special and we need to hear him. “As I was preparing this show,” Torres says, “and deciding which shapes were going to go in which order, and I was weighing out the pros and cons of all of them. I thought ‘Oh, I’m sorry, is this one of the many good jobs that I’m stealing from hard-working Americans?’ Look, I’m just doing it because no one else was doing it, and it needed to be done.”
Within “My Favorite Shapes” Torres shows three shorts narrated by the likes of Lin Manuel Miranda, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The shorts are dramatic and absurd, reminiscent of Torres’s writing for such “SNL” sketches as “Papyrus” and “Wells for Boys.” Miranda voices a cactus inhabiting the home of his deceased predecessor, Gosling tells the emotional story of one existential racing plastic penguin and Stone questions her purpose as a massive stiletto whose role is to display smaller shoes. Everything about Torres’s aesthetic is the opposite of what stand-up comedy has made itself into. In an interview with The Atlantic, Torres says of performing “It’s all drag, anyway.” “Comedians like the idea of presenting that they were just wandering down the street having their musings and then they wandered onto the stage,” Torres explains. He challenges the concept that comedians are average joes with witty stories — he is first and foremost a performer.
In an act of radical self-awareness Torres acknowledges the wacky uniqueness of his craft with careful consideration. “I have often been called too niche,” he declares at one point in his special as the camera zooms in on his fingers delicately placing a crystal into a miniature chair, “To which I’ll say, I have no idea what you could possibly be talking about.” Julio Torres is an avant garde modernist of comedy, deconstructing and reconstructing humor like Marcel Duchamp did with the ready-made or Gertrude Stein with the novel. If the future of comedy looks like Julio Torres, I think we’re in good shape.