Julio Torres On Building A Trippy Sketch-Comedy Sandcastle With ‘Fantasmas’

Julio Torres has been filling screens both small and large for years with his brand of eccentric storytelling, an amalgam of shapes, colors, social commentary, and an enduring love of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. The result? Singular stand-up specials, memorable Saturday Night Live sketches, thought-provoking indie films, and now, what may be TV’s trippiest comedy.

Fantasmas (which debuts on HBO June 7) is Torres’ latest collaboration with HBO following the cancellation of his beloved Los Espookys series. The two projects aren’t related – one a Peabody Award winning love letter to horror and Latin America, the other a surrealist experiment that sees Torres navigating a dreamy, neon-splattered New York City in search of a lost pearl earring. And yet, Fantasmas shares the same nonconformist comedic DNA as its Spanish-language predecessor, a patented sense of rebellion and curiosity that infuses so much of Torres’ work – from his critically-praised A24 feature Problemista to the bulk of his weirder SNL sketches that somehow made it to air.

When asked to clarify his own cerebral interior, Torres suggests it’s “so cluttered and messy but welcoming, I think.” That’s how Fantasmas could be labeled as well, a collection of whimsical, bizarre vignettes strung together narratively by an overarching quest whose sum of its parts is often more interesting than its whole. Torres binds it all, playing a version of himself intent on avoiding the mundanity of life – like getting a government-issued I.D. – by focusing his time and energy on finding a piece of jewelry, scouring the city and getting sidetracked by its kooky and comical characters. These detours come in all shapes, species, and themes.

There’s Paul Dano, playing the dad in a sitcom parody that quickly turns dark. There’s the underground dance club for Queer hamsters that Julio turns to for help. SNL vets like Bowen Yang and Aidy Bryant pop up to play elves on trial and stylists who take bathroom decorating to the extreme. Emma Stone cameos as a housewife stuck in a reality TV hellscape. Steve Buscemi is here to demand respect for the letter “Q.” And then there’s Martine Gutierrez, Torres’ long-time collaborator, who plays Vanesja (the “J” is silent), a performance artist who’s been masquerading as Julio’s agent for so long, she’s now one of the most powerful players in the entertainment industry.

On paper, it might seem like none of it makes sense, but that’s exactly how you know it’s a Julio Torres project that’s destined to be a hit.

I spoke with Torres about Fantasmas’ connection to his early SNL days, his favorite skits, and making art from an OCD diagnosis.

There are toilet commercials and malfunctioning robots and gossiping mermaids. How do you keep the thread when it comes to the overarching story here?

Everything was so organic. The genesis of making the show is that I missed the short form writing I got to do at Saturday Night Live and I really wanted to get to do that again. I didn’t necessarily want to make the kind of show where it’s like bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, but rather making it a river that you flow down, where you just go in and allow it to guide you. I wanted that same feeling of momentum here. What would be a through line that thematically connects with the themes of the vignettes? It feels like building a sandcastle. You don’t go in it with a plan. You just sort of know the things that you want to include, and then you just sort of hopefully make something cohesive.

With something that’s semi-autobiographical, the obvious path might be to play all these characters yourself. Why did you want to recruit so many guest stars for this?

Yeah, a lot of comedian-driven sketch comedy is the performer, the comedian playing different sketches and different characters. That is something that I really, really admire, but that’s just not my thing. I just don’t have it. I don’t think I’m a chameleon in the way of Fred [Armisen] or Maya Rudolph or any of these people that become household names because of that talent. I think I’m more of a storyteller and think of myself more like a master of ceremonies. I love working with actors, and that brings me so much joy. So this is what felt right.

Which of these sketches felt most integral to the theme of show?

Oh, I think that because of complications with production, which is something that happens in doing any show where you don’t have infinite resources, it’s almost like every single thing that you saw was at one point on the chopping block. But then that’s a very helpful exercise of seeing what actually is important to the show versus what can wait for something else. I think Steve Buscemi playing the letter Q felt integral because it checks a lot of the boxes of what the show is interested in, but also, just any of the very idiosyncratic moments of lonely people being hung up and obsessed with one thing. One of the ones that has a really big place in my heart is the vignette between Kate Berlant and my friend Spike Einbinder, where one is sort of a theme park Marvel superhero, and the other one is the Disney fan kind of person. That, to me, felt very necessary to the show, those kinds of stories.

what does the search for the oyster pearl earring represent?

It’s interesting because in the course of writing this and Problemista — they were both sort of written at the same time — I got my OCD diagnosis and just learned how so many of these obsessions are distractions. We make things the vessel for bigger things. I think that’s what this earring is. It’s a symbol. It’s an object. It’s not the key to anything. It’s a stand-in for the thing. I also like how complicated it becomes, because it’s not even a pearl earring. It’s a little pearl in a golden oyster. You don’t even know what to call it. It’s not crisp and clean and succinct.

Avoidance and obsession definitely go hand in hand here. Is the point to find balance, the right balance between routine and structure vs freedom and creativity?

It’s not so much having a balance as it is facing the reality that we don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist in a context. Art isn’t created in a vacuum, art is in context, and that ignoring the world around us is a disservice to it.

You don’t make art that’s meant for the mainstream and yet, so much of your comedy resonates on a bigger scale. Why do you think that is?

I think because it’s not absurd for the sake of being absurd. It’s rooted in human experience and observations, and I don’t know if any of these vignettes will resonate with people, but they’re real observations.

Is there anything you’ve done in your career that you look back on and think, ‘How did I convince someone to say yes to that?’

Yes, my second sketch at SNL, it was Emily Blunt voicing the sink. No actors, and I was just like, ‘Wow, they’re really just allowing this.’ I mean, the show is a mosaic of the people who worked there at that time, and I think that, because they have so many big, broader mainstream hits, smaller corners of it are allowed to be a little quieter. And I think that at its best, they understand that balance, and those are always the pieces that I was interested in making. They knew what purpose I served there, and I did as well. I felt very privileged to do that.

‘Fantasmas’ debuts on HBO June 7