Picture a stand-up comedian onstage. There’s probably a mic stand, a stool, and a spotlight. The comedian probably jokes, pauses for laughs, and develops a rhythm. Maybe there’s a little pacing back and forth, some physical comedy, a prop or two at the most.
My Favorite Shapes, Julio Torres’s first special on HBO, filters all of that—the very concept of a stand-up act—through a marvelous theatrical kaleidoscope. The comedian, a writer on Saturday Night Live and one of the masterminds of Los Espookys, HBO’s kooky Spanish-language comedy about a group of horror enthusiasts, performs most of his hour-long set sitting in a chair in front of a pastel, Dr. Seussian backdrop. Encircling him is a conveyor belt that delivers objects for him to present in an elaborate show-and-tell. As each “shape” arrives, Torres carefully considers it, holds it up to a camera that projects close-ups on a screen to his left, and offers a backstory.
Some are indeed just shapes with straightforward explanations—a piece of pink plastic with a chipped corner is “a rectangle having a really bad day,” as he puts it—while others are complex dioramas with ornate histories. Torres displays a low-key confidence, a delicate demeanor distinct from the bravado of the type of male comic who prefers stalking the stage during a performance. Eyes often cast downward, he speaks like a wary teacher concerned that his students won’t be able to grasp the lesson in time for the test. “I have a lot of shapes, but not a lot of time,” he announces gravely at the beginning of the special, “so we have to start immediately.”
Known for his off-kilter SNL sketches (oddly specific, often melodramatic fare such as “Papyrus” and “Wells for Boys”), deadpan bits on late-night shows, and his work on Los Espookys (which was renewed for a second season last month), Torres has built a reputation for making high-concept, absurdist comedy–slash–performance art—a Millennial, otherworldly Andy Kaufman by way of Central America. (A decade ago, Torres immigrated to New York from El Salvador to attend the New School, remained in the states on a visa, and just obtained his green card.) “I’m a stand-up comedian, but not just any kind,” he once said as a correspondent on The Tonight Show. “I’m the sort of queer, multimedia kind.”