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In 'Problemista' Julio Torres spins immigration stress into satire


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Today's guest, Julio Torres, is a comic, actor, director and writer. You may have encountered him in several different venues - his comedy specials on HBO and Comedy Central, the short films he used to do on "Saturday Night Live," his bits as a correspondent on "The Tonight Show" and as a writer and actor on the HBO series "Los Espookys." Recently, he made his debut as a movie director with his satirical film "Problemista," which he also stars in and wrote. And now, Julio Torres has a new absurdist comedy series titled "Fantasmas," which he also directs and writes and in which he stars. It premieres today on HBO Max. Here's a clip from it. In this early scene, Julio is meeting with executives at the Crayola corporation to pitch them his idea for a new crayon.


JULIO TORRES: (As character) The reason I'm here is because I was tossing and turning all night thinking about how you need to make a clear crayon.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Clear?

TORRES: (As character) Like, the color clear, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) But clear isn't a color.

TORRES: (As character) If it isn't a color, what do you call this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What do you call what?

TORRES: (As character) The space between us - the emotional space, I mean.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) But then if a crayon is a clear wax and it leaves no discernable color behind, what's the use? It cannot be done. Why are you doing this? Why do you need this?

TORRES: (As character) It's already done. Look at this glass of water over here. It's defiantly clear. Some things aren't one of the normal colors or play by the rules of the rainbow. Think about air or smells or memory. Shouldn't they be allowed to be colors? To color something clear is to acknowledge that maybe things are different and that's just fine. To color something clear is to reimagine coloring as we know it.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to Julio Torres earlier this year, when his film "Problemista" was released. Here she is to set things up.


TERRY GROSS: "Problemista" draws on Torres' own experiences as an immigrant from El Salvador trying to overcome the financial and bureaucratic obstacles of the U.S. immigration system. Torres plays an immigrant from El Salvador whose visa is running out and needs a job, someone to sponsor him and money for the lawyers and fees that the renewal requires. Tilda Swinton plays Elizabeth, a potential problem solver, because she offers to sponsor him if he's able to get a museum or gallery show and sell the work of her late husband, which she needs to pay his leftover bills. But she's also a problem creator, demanding the impossible and arguing with everyone. As she keeps assigning more impossible tasks for Alejandro, he's also facing the many problems created by the immigration system. One day, with little time left on his visa, he goes to an ATM and finds his bank account is worse than empty. He actually owes the bank money - a fee because he's overdrawn. Here he is in a scene with the customer service rep from the bank.


TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) I'm sorry, but that's just not the amount I should have. According to my calculations, that is not the amount I should have in my account.

RIVER RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) What balance were you expecting?

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) Well, I don't know. Zero would be great. Just get me to zero.

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) Again, every time you overdraft, the bank must impose a penalty of $35.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) So what, like, an $8 sandwich becomes a $45 sandwich?

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) Forty-three dollars. Again, that's the policy, Mr. Martinez.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) That makes absolutely no sense. I distinctly recall making a cash deposit.

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) And that deposit was flagged as potentially fraudulent. So it's on hold now for your protection.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) Right. But then that hold made me overdraw.

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) For your protection.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but do I seem protected right now? Why would you let this happen? Why not just have my card get declined?

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) That's not the way things work.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) But that is the way things should work. Otherwise, the bank is just benefiting from my misfortune, from the misfortune of people who can't afford to make any mistakes, from people who have no margin of error.

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) It's policy. It is what it is.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) No. Look at me. Just look at me. I know that you can hear me. I know that you can hear my voice when I tell you that I know that this is not your fault. You didn't do this. The bank did this, and there is no reason for you to be defending them to me. Please. Please, at this point, I'm not even asking for my money back. I'm just asking for you to tell me that you agree with me because I know that you do. I know that there's still a person in there, and I know that she can hear me.


TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) Please.

RAMIREZ: (As Estefani) I stand with Bank of America.


GROSS: OK. Julio Torres, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the movie. Thank you for being here.

TORRES: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: You like magic realism, and what's happening in the scene - the scene kind of switches from reality to what's happening in his mind, like, how he's experiencing the scene. And he's actually being kind of choked between the arms of a monster while she's telling him that it's the bank policy and then finally shoots him. So your film keeps kind of alternating between what's happening in reality and what Alejandro is actually experiencing. So I take it you like magic realism or fairy tales, 'cause it's also like a fairy tale, the kind of fairy tale where there's horrible things happening.

TORRES: Yeah. I mean, it just happens to be the way that I am comfortable and feel able to explain feeling and just sort of get to the truth of my experience. I don't sit down and think, oh, I want to write something that's fantastical. In fact, I tend to want to write something that's, like, very grounded in reality. And these flourishes just sort of come out as a way of explaining that.

GROSS: What's the closest you've come to the experience in the scene that we just heard - obstacles you ran into in the immigration bureaucracy that you thought was particularly absurd?

TORRES: I mean, all the catch-22s of the immigration system, the needing to pay for a visa but not being allowed to work for it, which implies you should have had the money from somewhere else that isn't working, even though the reality of so many people in this country, and especially immigrants in this country, is living paycheck to paycheck. You know, it's like the fact that I would have $6,000 saved somewhere is - it was just laughable. And...

GROSS: That's what it takes to renew the visa?

TORRES: I mean, when I was doing it, yeah. I don't doubt that it's more expensive now. In my experience, around $6,000, which includes the government fees, but also the fees for the lawyer that because it's such a complex system, you don't want to get rejected because you filled something wrong. And they certainly make it so you're dependent on lawyers. So the film takes place during the time of me transitioning from a student visa to a work visa. But even when I was moving on from a work visa to an artist visa, which is the last visa I had, part of the requirement was to show that I had a established career in the U.S. that warranted a - an artist visa. But at the same time, I had to thread the needle of not making it seem like I had been working and making money as an artist, because that would have been illegal because I didn't have an artist visa yet.

GROSS: You had a student visa?

TORRES: Originally, I came to the U.S. with a student visa, and then I had a work visa, and then I had to go from a work visa to an artist visa because under the work visa, I wasn't able to earn money as a stand-up comedian or writer or anything creative 'cause that's not what the work visa is for.

GROSS: Well, that is - that does seem to be a catch-22. How did you get around that?

TORRES: By showing a wealth of experience that had come for free (laughter), that come from earning no money, which is sort of, like, the only way that you can thread that needle.

GROSS: What did you do for no money?

TORRES: Oh, I mean, the irony of that is it's not hard to establish a reputable career as an artist for no money.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, that's...

TORRES: (Laughter).

GROSS: That is very true. That's how I started in...


GROSS: ...Public radio, even.


GROSS: Like - yeah.

TORRES: So it's not that big of an issue to show that you've done hundreds of shows for free, because that is the truth of pursuing something creative. By that point, I had done enough stand-up that getting the artist visa was not that difficult. What was difficult was, again, getting the money for it. And, that was the second time that I was trying to get money for a visa. But this time around, I had made so many friends who actually encouraged me to make a GoFundMe, which I found to be humiliating. I did not like the idea, but then...

GROSS: Wait. But they did it funny, so that made it good, I think.

TORRES: They did it funny.

GROSS: Yeah.

TORRES: They did it funny. Yes.

GROSS: They made a video called "Legalize Julio" and they make a plea on your behalf that, you know, you should be able to stay in the U.S. and you need money to do it, so help him.

TORRES: Yes. Yeah. And it was solved within a matter of hours. This GoFundMe, like, got me where I needed to be within, like, two or three hours. It was just so moving to feel like a part of a community, and that's when I really realized that I love making art and all kinds of work in community and with friends. And that's why so many of my really close friends are in this movie and will continue to be in everything that I do.

GROSS: So when people think of immigrants from El Salvador right now, they think of, like, escaping gangs and poverty and danger. Did that figure at all into you leaving? And what year did you come to the U.S.?

TORRES: I came to the U.S. in 2009. And no, no. To be honest, my experience is radically different than the crisis we're all seeing in the news. The crisis is very present in New York City right now. But, you know, the thing about me and the character that I play in this movie is that it wasn't really the story of someone escaping for survival. It was the story of - it's the story of someone just escaping or leaving to - for a greater ambition, to find himself. And that is what I think makes this story very specific.

BIANCULLI: Julio Torres speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with actor, writer, director and comic Julio Torres. His latest movie is called "Problemista," and beginning today, he has a new comedy series on HBO Max called "Fantasmas."

GROSS: So I want to get to the title of your movie, which is...


GROSS: ..."Problemista." And I thought, like, I'm not sure if that's a real word or if it's a word that you made up 'cause it's a great word.


GROSS: So I actually looked it up in a few places, and what it said was that it's a word for somebody who creates problems or solves problems, and it's especially used in chess. But I was talking to you about this right before the interview started, and you said you didn't even know it was a word. You kind of made it up 'cause it sounded like this is something...


GROSS: ...That would be a word. And it described a lot of your movie. So tell me about "Problemista" from your perspective.

TORRES: Yeah. I mean, to preface it, the road to finding a title for the movie was long. It had many titles during many different points, and none of them felt completely right. And then at one point, we were toying with the idea of calling it "Problema," which is just - literally means problem. And then I just - and then I don't know. I just felt dread calling this movie "Problem" because it just felt so dreary, and that's not the tone of the movie at all. So then I was trying to find something a little bit more playful, and I was thinking of what you would call someone in an artistic movement in Spanish. Like, a surrealist is a surrealista. And then I thought, well, then maybe someone who creates art from problems is a problemista. So I just sort of made it up, and it sounds like - it almost sounds like the kind of thing that you'd make up in slang in El Salvador, sort of in the way that, like, you know, you hear about people being fashionistas or Maxxinistas. It's like, oh, a problemista is someone who is attracted to problems or thrives within problems.

GROSS: So Alejandro is both a problem creator and a problem solver, though there's a whole lot he doesn't know how to do, and he just kind of fakes his way through.


GROSS: Since this movie is about problem solvers and problem creators and people who make art out of problems, where are you on that spectrum?

TORRES: I am someone who is certainly attracted to problems and ends up making work inspired by those problems.

GROSS: Give me an example.

TORRES: Well, this movie (laughter).

GROSS: What was the problem?

TORRES: I mean, obviously, the bigger problem that was solved by the time I made this movie was the visa problem and how that ended up not being a hurdle that I had to overcome to then move on and make work. That ended up being the thing that I made the work about and just sort of the joy that I found in dealing with that problem. You know, this movie is - it deals with the problem of immigration. But it - I think of it as a very silly, happy and joyful movie that just sort of - it's almost like the bureaucracy becomes this bouncy castle that the characters just get to play and laugh about. And then there's also just, like, the fact that, like, it's my first movie, and I made something that is so ornate, for lack of a better word. I was like, oh, OK, so this is why people's first movie are usually smaller.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. No, no. That's right. That's right 'cause you have, like, animation. You have, like, special sets...

TORRES: It's crazy.

GROSS: ...You've designed and little worlds...


GROSS: ...That you've designed and monsters that you've created. It's a lot...


GROSS: ...For a first film.

TORRES: It's a lot. I really didn't...

GROSS: Oh, and...

TORRES: I really...

GROSS: ...You have some real stars in it, too.

TORRES: Yes. Yeah. I mean, thank God they're - none of them are high-maintenance people. But to be completely honest, now that I look back on it, I think that I didn't take for granted the access that I felt was granted to me by making a movie, and I didn't take for granted the fact that I would ever be able to make another one. So I was like, why would I make a little preview of what I could do? Why not just go all in?

GROSS: So continuing with the theme of "Problemista," the Tilda Swinton character is a real problem creator. Her only way of relating is through arguing and making accusation. Her approach to life is to get what you want, become a problem. And part of her philosophy is, always send back the food. So I want to play a scene where your character is in a restaurant with her. And this is at the point where she's throwing all these problems at him to get a show for her late husband's paintings, and these are often insurmountable problems. So they're meeting at a restaurant. She's not going to sponsor him until he succeeds. So meanwhile, like, the waiter comes in, and you both order salads. It's a goat cheese salad, and you ask for it without the cheese. And then you're finishing your salads when the waiter comes back, and that's where we pick up, and here's Tilda Swinton starting off.


TILDA SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) Was there something wrong with your salad, Alejandro?

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) Oh, no, no, no. It's fine.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) It's just I can't help noticing that they neglected to hold the cheese as we specifically asked them to.

JACK RAYMOND: (As waiter) Oh, I don't think you said no cheese. I'm sorry.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) We did, and this young gentleman cannot eat cheese.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) It's fine.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) You tell him.

TORRES: (As Alejandro Martinez) I'm vegan.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) He's allergic.

RAYMOND: (As waiter) To goat cheese or...

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) Everything.

RAYMOND: (As waiter) Oh, I apologize. Well, we'll refund the salad.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) Well, that's not what we want.

RAYMOND: (As waiter) OK. I just don't know what else I could do. I can't go back in time. I'm sorry.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) Fetch somebody else who would say something different.

RAYMOND: (As waiter) I'll get my supervisor.

SWINTON: (As Elizabeth Ascencio) Oh, you're going to hold us hostage now?

RAYMOND: (As waiter) OK, so get my supervisor or don't. Those are the choices. I either get him or I don't get him.


GROSS: OK, so there's something so quintessentially New York (laughter)...

TORRES: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: ...About Tilda Swinton's character. And I was wondering, like, did you know people like her in El Salvador? Or was this a new kind of creature for you?

TORRES: Oh, I had actually never thought of that. No, I don't think I ever really encountered this kind of, as you put it, creature...


TORRES: ...In El Salvador, no. Or at the very least, I was never on the receiving end of this kind of creature in El Salvador.

GROSS: And in New York?

TORRES: And in New York, boy, I was.



GROSS: Tell me more.

TORRES: I mean, she's an amalgamation of so many people that I met. I think that it's almost like the artist rite of passage, in New York City, at least, to wind up being the assistant to so many people who are just so flustered by the fact that they haven't figured out so much. And I was the short-term assistant for so many people. And, OK, so another part of me also identifying as a "Problemista" is that I am very attracted to difficult people.

I don't see difficult people as nightmares to escape. I'm really drawn to them like a moth to a flame (laughter). And then there are more than a few that I came to really, really, really empathize with and appreciate. And I think that Tilda's character is rooted in that. And also, to be completely fair about it, whenever I was an assistant, I was on the receiving end of the wrath of these art world egos. I also acknowledge that I was a very incompetent assistant.


TORRES: I have zero attention to detail and I can barely keep my own life on track, so the fact that I was ever tasked with doing that for someone else is just a recipe for disaster.

GROSS: Why do you think you're attracted to difficult people?

TORRES: I don't know the why yet. I haven't gotten that far in therapy. But...


BIANCULLI: Julio Torres speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and critic-at-large John Powers reviews a new TV series about fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


STEFA: (Rapping in Spanish).

OHYUNG: (Singing in Spanish).

STEFA: (Rapping in Spanish).

OHYUNG: (Singing in Spanish).

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Julio Torres, the actor, writer, director and comic who recently starred in his own film showcase called "Problemista," unveils another new showcase today. It's called "Fantasmas," and it's a new absurdist comedy series premiering on HBO Max. Guest stars in the premiere episode include Paul Dano and Steve Buscemi. Later episodes include cameos by Emma Stone, Bowen Yang, Aidy Bryant and others. Terry Gross spoke with Julio Torres earlier this year. Let's rejoin their conversation. Here's Terry

GROSS: When we left off, Torres admitted to being attracted to difficult people like those in his film "Problemista," and he said maybe because he's a bit difficult, himself. That made me think of this clip from his 2017 Comedy Central stand-up special.


TORRES: I'm sorry if I seem a little bit distracted. I just got my lab results back and just as every doctor suspected, I'm simply too much.


GROSS: I think that's hilarious.

TORRES: I had completely forgotten about that.

GROSS: OK. So what makes you think that people think that you're simply too much?

TORRES: I think that I often feel like I don't know how to do the very basic things that you need to do. And so sometimes I feel like I'm this, like, exotic animal that needs, like, very particular things in order to survive and, like, won't eat the food that you give him and...

GROSS: Because you're a vegan? Yeah.


TORRES: Because I'm a vegan. Yeah. But beyond that, being a vegan who can't cook, being a vegan who...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TORRES: ...Is not a self-sustaining vegan. And then, like, recently, another wall that I've encountered that I put there, but now has become almost, like, a pillar of my being, is that I have never had a credit card, so I don't...

GROSS: What?

TORRES: ...Have credit.

GROSS: Really?

TORRES: Yeah. And I just don't want one. I aspire to never have a credit card, and I aspire to never have credit or rely on credit for anything. I'm terrified of the idea of owing anything to anyone. I - it would make me really uncomfortable to buy a home and feeling like I - it would make me feel like I'm in trouble all the time.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

TORRES: I don't think I...

GROSS: I understand that.

TORRES: Yeah. And I think that makes it so maybe I'll probably never own a home, but I'm sort of at peace with that.

GROSS: So continuing with the theme of "Problemista," I just want to get back to the Tilda Swinton character, the character who creates a lot of problems and whose default mode is anger and bitterness and arguing. You've basically designed the character almost as if it was a clown or some kind of rag doll. Her hair is this kind of, like, wild and scraggly, like, fiery orange red. Her cheeks have, like, so much blush on them, they look like her cheeks were painted on. And she's wearing, like, really eccentric, loud clothes. And all of this matches her, like, crazy mood and mood swings. So what was your inspiration for her look? - 'cause Tilda Swinton usually looks kind of ethereal on screen, there's something almost, like, translucent about her.

TORRES: The hair was one of the very first conversations we had. Talking about her hair was almost like the icebreaker between Tilda and I, and just became the road to becoming friends, like, discussing the hair. First we talked color, and we decided that she should have the kind of red hair that you see in the streets, but you rarely see in film because it's not a shade of red that anyone aims to get. It's the shade of red that something wrong...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TORRES: ...Happened, and then you ended up with that shade of red. It's, like, almost, like, a little purply. And then her haircut. The idea was that her haircut would be at odds with her hair texture so that her hair was just constantly in a fight with itself. And that really gave Tilda the fuel for the character of just imagining that every time that Elizabeth sees her reflection in the mirror, she's adjusting her bangs, she's adjusting the size of her fringes and she gets so angry about the hairdresser who promised her that she would look exactly like the photo she showed her in a magazine. We made this whole fantasy of, like, she walked away from the hair salon with all these products that she's supposed to use every day, but, of course, she doesn't. And then the look - we really wanted to capture that woman in the art scene, Lower East Side with a hint of, like, groupie who has good taste. But there's always something that's, like, a little off.

GROSS: The mother in the film seems just, like, wonderful. She and the Alejandro character, your character, live in the countryside in El Salvador, and she builds, like, a fort for him. I should mention here that your actual mother is a designer and architect. So you grew up probably in a very visual world, which certainly serves you well as a filmmaker and as a comic.

TORRES: Yeah. So early in the film, we see that the mother and son character have a bond and a relationship through creating. And she creates this little, like, castle, which is interesting that you use the word fort, because that is sort of the intention of it is to, like, keep him safe and sound and away from danger. And this, like, sort of magical little structure that's in the movie was designed by my mother - by my real mother.


TORRES: And I - you know, I love having a piece of her in what I do. And...

GROSS: Is she still in El Salvador?

TORRES: Yes. Yeah. My whole family is there.

GROSS: Oh, so that's beautiful that you were able to emigrate to the U.S., but you have a project together.

TORRES: Yeah. And we always have a project together, whether it's, like, coming up with a coat rack for my apartment, or I have, like, an event that I need clothes for, and then I send her sketches of what I'm thinking of having made, and she gives me her feedback, or, like, she shows me the bag that she's making for herself. We always have a back-and-forth of collaboration, and I have really come to find that same joy in filmmaking because that's what being a director is.

A director isn't an all-knowing oracle creator who can create a - single-handedly a world from the ground up. A director relies on collaboration and getting to work with people who can physically do things that I can't, and having them feel excited and seen by what we're doing is, I think, a testament to the way I grew up.

GROSS: In the movie, the mother, you know, builds this, like, castle or fort or whatever as an alternate reality where the son could be as a child, but it's also a - it's a protected world. It's a world on - like, basically, in the backyard. And she worries that when her son is an adult and leaves to emigrate to the U.S. - that the safe world that she had created for him was something he felt he had to escape. And now all of the problems of the world that she protected him from, he is endangered by. And I'm wondering if your parents experienced that - that they created this, like, safe world for you and a beautiful world with all of their designs, and then you go out to, like, New York City. You...


GROSS: So do you think that they worried that, like, you were out of their protected world, and you were going to be exposed to all these dangers?

TORRES: Completely, yeah. They were encouraging but very nervous about me going off on my own and trying to find a life in an environment that was completely foreign to us in a field that it was utterly foreign to them. You know, there's no picking up the phone and saying, hey. My son is interested in being a writer-director. We - I have never met a - (laughter) anyone who does what I do. And so yeah. No, they were - oh, my God. I mean, the first, I think, two years, every time I spoke to my mother on the phone, which was often, she would tell me to look both ways before I cross the street, as if, you know, that wouldn't occur to me. But I was definitely very, very protected. But I felt like I had a drive in me that I wasn't ever going to be able to explore within the confines of their safety.

GROSS: Well, also, I'm wondering, like, you started as a stand-up comic, right? Is there much stand-up comedy in El Salvador?

TORRES: No, at least not in the time when I was growing up there.

GROSS: So how were you exposed to it?

TORRES: I wasn't. So I came to the U.S. wanting to be a writer, wanting to be specifically a writer for TV and film. But very much like in the movie, my visa was running out, and I didn't know how long I'd be able to stay here. And I kept aspiring to find a day job that would make me so that I was able to stay here, and then I remember being at one of these day jobs one day, like, working a coat check and, like, thinking, well, why am I here? Am I in New York just so that I can afford being in New York? Is the goal of living in New York to make rent in New York? Is that all there is?

And then I remembered the original goal that brought me here, the wanting to be a writer. And I had no idea how to write a script that would ever get made. And then it just popped into my head that stand-up comedy was something that was available to me in New York City for free, meaning I didn't have to take any classes, I didn't have to know anyone in the business and I could just Google New York City open mic tonight. And lo and behold, there was this website that had an inventory of every single open mic in New York City for free. So I started going to them as a way of showcasing my writing. And the very first time I did it was sort of like means to an end, the end being being a professional TV and film writer. And then I fell in love with performance. I fell in love with the world I accidentally wandered into, and I made a lot of friends in that world. And then the stand-up became a calling card for what I do now.

BIANCULLI: Julio Torres speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with actor, writer, director and comic Julio Torres whose recent film showcase is titled "Problemista." He has a new comedy series on HBO Max called "Fantasmas" launching today.

GROSS: You know, I think that maybe not having a template for comedy 'cause you didn't really grow up with standup helped you find a very original voice 'cause it's not like you were imitating somebody since you hadn't...


GROSS: ...Grown up watching it.

TORRES: I will say that the very, very first time I did an open mic in New York City - so one thing that I think that people who have never done a comedy open mic don't realize is that the audience in the open mic is just other comedians waiting to go up. There's no real audience. It's almost like a workshop. And at the good open mics, everyone is very engaged and listening to each other and, like, cheering each other on. At the very bleak ones, everyone's on their phone just killing time till they get to go up and be ignored. And the latter is the first ones I ever did.

And in waiting to go up, I was just sort of, like, observing how people did it. And I was like, OK. OK. You have six more people before you have to go up. You better learn how to make this fast. And then the first time I performed, I was sort of doing my impression of what I thought a stand-up comedian should be, and that didn't feel right. So then I just decided to ignore it after that. And I think there's a learning curve with any discipline that you pick up where, like, the first couple of attempts, at least in my case, are crude impersonations of what you think that medium should be. And then I quickly give that up and just do the thing that I feel more comfortable in doing.

GROSS: A lot of your stand-up comedy is based on, like, giving personalities to objects and talking about, like, colors and shapes. This is not your standard stand-up material. It's not about sex. It's not about neurosis. You impersonate a Brita filter in one of your bits. And I actually want to play another clip. And in this, you're talking about toys and stuff. And I'm going to give away one of the punchlines because I think it's going to be a little hard to hear and you're not seeing it. So I'm just going to help out a little bit by saying this is about one of the Happy Meal toys (laughter) that you saw and how it makes no sense to you. So here's a clip from my guest, Julio Torres, doing stand-up.


TORRES: Do you remember the Disney animated film "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame?" It wasn't a hit, but it was there.


TORRES: It's just sort of what we got that year.


TORRES: Sometimes we get lions, sometimes we get genies, sometimes we get a tender Parisian drama for the children.


TORRES: But a part about that movie that really, really stayed with me was its villain, this withering, possibly closeted, deeply troubled little man named Monsignor Claude Frollo. And during the peak of his narrative arc, Monsignor Claude Frollo sings into the roaring flames of the fire about his lust for the gypsy girl Esmeralda. And in that moment, we see him turn lust into misogyny, into essentially genocide. Anyway, that was a Happy Meal toy.


TORRES: So while some children were playing with, like, a ninja turtle or a transformer, others were like, oh, yeah, mine is this sort of, like, medieval court justice. He's morally bankrupt. There's a lot of self-hate in him.


TORRES: And that combined with power just makes him lash out in really toxic and scary ways. And sometimes, I don't know, I put him in a little car.


GROSS: And in the TV special - and this is from a 2019 HBO comedy special called "My Favorite Shapes" - you see the little figure. And he looks like he's singing in an Italian opera (laughter), you know...

TORRES: (Laughter) Oh, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...As opposed to this, like, really evil figure - and priestly...


GROSS: You know, this monsignor who's really evil. So it's really funny. You seem to love miniatures and objects. And do you attribute that to, like, your mother being an architect and designer and your father being a civil engineer, so that they inhabited the world of design and objects?

TORRES: That must be it. But I also think that the creative exercise of attributing personality and stories to inanimate objects is something that most of us have in childhood. I mean, that is literally what playing with a toy is - feeling for them, making up stories for them. And I think that most people lose that somewhere in adolescence. It is just sort of gone by adulthood. And I think that I really disliked adolescence in adulthood so much that I just retained it, that I just, like, never shook it away. So I don't really think I'm doing something that no one does. I think I never stopped doing the thing that we all do.

GROSS: Julio Torres, it has been great talking with you. Thank you so much for coming on our show.

TORRES: Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: Julio Torres speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His new TV series, "Fantasmas," premieres today on HBO and also will stream on Max. Coming up, John Powers reviews "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld," a new TV series about the famed fashion designer in the 1970s. This is FRESH AIR.


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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.