'SNL' Writer Talks 'Los Espookys' and How to Land Jokes in Both Spanish and English

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Julio Torres has engrossed audiences with his HBO series and an avant-garde stand-up special, 'My Favorite Shapes,' since writing for NBC's sketch-comedy show, with which he has a "fluid" relationship: "It's sort of an open-ended goodbye."

Known as much for his chameleonic coif as his absurdist slant, Julio Torres is sporting hair color that looks a lot like the grapefruit juice he's sipping in the soft light of this Greenpoint bar. We're a few blocks from Los Espookys' Brooklyn writers room, and the 32-year-old comedian, who originally is from El Salvador, is recapping what's been a pretty wild year. He left his writing gig on Saturday Night Live after a string of beloved sketches to deliver HBO its first Spanish-language comedy, Los Espookys, which follows a group of horror-enthusiast friends in an unnamed Latin American country, and the avant-garde special My Favorite Shapes — about, well, his favorite shapes.

Can you talk to me about how you make jokes land in Spanish and English?

Ana [Fabrega] and I were just writing something, dictating a line for my character and realizing it won't work in one language. So we have to make the decision of whether we're fine with something working in just one or trying to make it work for both. Good translation is obviously not literal translation. It's about conveying the sentiment — and that mostly happens in the editing.

Not in the writing?

Sometimes. But most filmmakers make their work and it's translated by someone else. I'm glad I can function in two languages because I can't fathom not having that control.

What's your current status with Saturday Night Live?

Last season, I missed the first half to shoot in Santiago. This year, I'm not at SNL at all. It's sort of an open-ended goodbye. My relationship with SNL is currently fluid.

You wrote the SNL skits "Papyrus," "Wells for Boys" and "The Actress." Do you see a throughline to them?

Having started therapy, I look back at the work I did there — that I'm very proud of — and the throughline is lonely, introspective people.

Did you ever discuss performing on SNL?

It's not a job that I would do well — unless it were redefined in some way. And I was not a utilitarian writer. It's almost like I was off coloring in the corner. I'd come to a meeting, show my little drawing. They either took it or they didn't.

Do you like acting?

It was very stressful for me to act in Los Espookys because I don't consider myself an actor — or at least a very experienced one. But I do like playing difficult people, making fun of very difficult people.

Are you getting more offers now?

I recently made the announcement that I will look at scripts. (Laughs.) Since then, I have a small part in a little movie coming out. I like trying to understand the astrological chart of characters.

What's your sign?

I'm an Aquarius, and I think I recently played a Virgo in this movie. (Laughs.) When you see the two seconds I'm onscreen, you'll wonder, "Why did he spend time thinking about this?"

My Favorite Shapes is not a traditional comedy special. What's the feedback been like?

I don't want to be deliberately provocative or obscure. My work is very honest. I think it got people to think that comedy specials don't always have to be like they've been before. And now people hand me their favorite shapes all the time. On my way here, this woman gave me a little brooch.

What's next, outside of more of Los Espookys?

Is it another comedy special? A concept store? A coffee table book? An acting job? Someone recently asked me how I landed at the term "comedian" to describe myself. I think what I do is funny. Even if I started designing furniture, which is something I've thought of, it would be an extension of comedy.

So when you're writing, do you think about specific parts getting laughs?

It's a byproduct. I just like showing people things they might have missed. It may be an extension of feeling alien in my home country and then feeling alien here as well. What I'm doing in my career magnifies that.

Do you keep all of your new shapes at home?

I have a storage unit. I keep everything.

You're going to run out of space.

I'll just keep getting more storage units.

Do you organize them by size or shape … family?

No. Like this? (Holds up brooch.) I'll just open up the unit and throw it in there. The job that kept me in this country was being an archivist. Maybe one day someone will get their work visa that way, organizing my shit.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

 

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.