At the top of HBO’s My Favorite Shapes with Julio Torres, the comedian and Saturday Night Live sketch writer tells his audience, “I have a lot of shapes but not a lot of time, so we have to start immediately.” The performer’s sense of urgency is immediately funny, as he actually has all the time in the world to literally comb through his favorite “shapes” via a decorative conveyor belt that sits on the stage. What’s more, for all this apparent need for speed, Torres spends a good chunk of Shapes saying nothing — pausing to let the room figure out the jokes.
This alone makes the new HBO special an oddity, but when you also consider the props — from the shapes themselves to the conveyor belt, the stairs, the entire set on stage and Torres’ outfit — it becomes something even stranger. Which is good, because Shapes stands out in a way that most comedy specials tend not to. It is, in many ways, a comedy show that shuns formula in favor of Torres’ unique sense of humor, which SNL sketches like “Papyrus” and “The Actress” have proven time and again.
Ahead of Shapes‘ premiere on Saturday, Torres spoke with Uproxx about what makes the show — and himself — tick. That, and how he was able to convince Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — all of whom have been featured in his SNL sketches — to lend their vocal talents to the show.
You’ve been performing versions of this show for several years now, right?
It sounds insane, but yes, that’s correct.
How did the concept first come about? What sparked that first idea?
I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while. I just didn’t know how to do it. Like, how would I show a small object while doing stand-up? And then I realized, “Oh, I can just plug my iPhone into a projector and show the live audience the camera feed.” It literally came down to me using my iPhone as an overhead projector. When I realized I could do that, the show itself just came up so easily because I felt like I had it all in my head already.
Even with the iPhone and the project, I suspect this was more of a barebones show in its early day — especially since you were performing it in and around New York.
Oh yeah. I mean, just commuting with all the objects and making work then — I was using a table and a black tablecloth — was exhausting. Sometimes, I’d be backstage and realize I had to go out and find a CVS to get a couple of things I’d forgotten or didn’t have. But no, it was great to have the extra help on the special so that I wouldn’t have to worry about all that stuff.
What was the response to those first shows like? What did the audiences think?
I think it was positive. I think there was a moment when the audience realized that the show was literally about my favorite shapes. That it wasn’t a smaller thing and that I was actually going to present the objects one by one. I think that’s why when I take the first object out and show it, I usually get that “Oh, wow!” response. They immediately realized what the show was going to be like at that moment. That’s how they came to understand the rules of the show.
As quick as that realization is, this is not a fast show. You take your time, pausing between certain shapes or objects and letting the jokes sit with the audience for a minute.
The structure of the show is something that I thought about a lot. The material within the show is just so quick and comes so easy, but there’s a specific structure in it. And it requires me to guide the audience. I think that’s where most of my thought processes went. Scott Rudin, a producer on the show, helped me to think about this show as having an act structure. That was very helpful because I was pretty hung up on it for a while, at first. Up until just a few days before filming the special, I was thinking, “What’s the logical order of this?”
I’m sure it helps to have that, too, since Shapes isn’t a simple hour of stand-up. There are tons of props and cues to keep track of.
Oh my God, yes! The tech rehearsals were a big help, especially for making sure the conveyor belt was running smoothly and that the stairs were high enough to go over the conveyor belt, big enough to let some of the items go under them, and not too high that it would be scary for me to go up and down them without a handrail. I didn’t want a handrail on set. So, yeah, there was a lot of that kind of planning — even just for the tapings. But those things are so much fun.
I’m sure that, being in the New York comedy club scene, you’re used to standing up on a stage with a mic stand and a stool. Not only is that not Shapes‘ stage, but you’re also sitting down a lot.
I loved it! I loved doing those parts of the show while sitting down. I was like, “Why do we have to stand?” I don’t know. For a lot of the show, it just felt like it clicked when I finally decided to do that for certain bits. I also realized that I should have been doing that a long time ago. Sitting down just makes sense. It felt like it was the perfect vessel, the perfect way for getting the ideas in my head out. It was a color I didn’t know I needed. Like, it felt like I had finally discovered a medium that felt appropriate for what I wanted to do.
Dave McCary, who has directed a lot of your SNL sketches, directed Shapes. What was that experience like, especially since this was a much longer piece?
It was heaven. Mainly because I’ve worked so frequently with him at SNL and I’m so proud of the work we’ve done together. We speak the same language, creatively, and I trust him completely. Whenever I would whip out a sketch, I was always thinking, “It’s not going to be bad because Dave wouldn’t allow it to be bad.” There was just such comfort in having him guide me through this. Which was great, because it was a pretty vulnerable experience. I feel like I am very present in what I do, but for me to be physically present in something like this felt very new. So just having someone to work with on that, someone who helped to fill in the blanks of what I was trying to do, was great.
Whose idea was it to do the vignettes illustrating certain jokes and stories? The ones with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone?
It was Dave’s idea to have those vignettes. Originally, that wasn’t a part of this special, but then Dave said, “What if you pick a couple of objects and we get some actors to voice them?” I thought it sounded fun, so when I decided to do it, Dave really pushed for it. He was instrumental in making it happen and putting it all together with the extra shooting and lining up the actors. I’m very happy with it.
I’m sure it was nice to have all of those actors from your previous SNL sketches come back, too.
It was such an honor and I don’t take it for granted. I mean, it’s people’s time. They were working for free.
You’ve some time with Fred Armisen working on Los Espookys, but he also produces this. Was there anything in particular that he said or did that helped out with Shapes?
He brought up a good point about me sitting down early on. He felt that the monotony of me sitting down should be interrupted. Not so much monotony, actually, but the pattern of it. He thought that should be interrupted. Maybe by something organic, like a moment in which it makes sense for me to stand up and do something else. I’m so glad I followed his advice because that’s how I got stairs.
Shapes is your first special. Is this something you’d want to do again?
I would love to! I don’t know what that would like but I would love to do another experiment. Maybe it will be more of an unplugged, bare-bones performance. Yeah, I would love to do something like that.
‘My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres’ premieres Saturday, August 10th at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.