Julio Torres emerged onto the national stage last year as a writer for Saturday Night Live. He was already well-known in the New York City stand-up scene, and briefly as a producer for The Chris Gethard Show, for his darkly luminous sensibility, a wry humor that catches you in unexpected places, as in digital shorts like “Wells For Boys” and “Papyrus”. After a few stellar and all-too-brief late-night sets earlier this year (and a performance in the Paste Studio last year), Torres finally made his long-form stand-up debut on Friday, with a Comedy Central half-hour taped in New Orleans.
If you love his sketch work, you won’t be disappointed by his stand-up. His tone is much the same—dreamily detached, charmingly arrogant, placid and ethereal—if the material is usually a bit sillier. (Not that “Wells For Boys” isn’t silly, but it’s a much more grounded sort of silly). His subject matter generally revolves around the absurdities of pop culture or the quirky niceties of human interaction. He operates with a light touch, dealing mostly in quick-hit two- or three-liners that proceed more often by feeling than logic: A doctor tells him he’s underweight, so he responds, flirtatiously, “Stop it. Shut up. You’re underweight.” At a work party a guy asks if he’ll stick around or if he has to run away to some rave; he takes this as an affront until he remembers that at the last party, he said he couldn’t stick around because he had to run away to some rave. Torres excels in joke structures like these—“A, B, A” or “A, B, D”—that transform quotidian situations into expressionistic landscapes governed by the rules of his own bizarre imagination.
This applies to individual jokes and to the special as a whole. Behind Torres onstage is a pair of massive “crystals,” which early on assume a human voice (that of New York-based comic and frequent Torres collaborator Lena Einbinder) and persona. The bit is basically that the crystals are a timeless entity with a contemporary personality: They have jokes they want to tell too, they’re excited to explore New Orleans, they want to see some titties. As a joke the crystals don’t… really pay off—I wonder if this is an editing issue; the special is unfortunately over-edited—but as a set piece they instantly create a heightened atmosphere, one that prepares you for Torres’s comedy. It helps that he eases into things, too. One of his first jokes is about being vegan (he doesn’t miss cheese but he does miss getting asked to do things), which isn’t the most surprising material but does seem like an eminently practical way of earning an audience’s trust.
More exciting are his formally subversive bits. My favorite joke, and it’s a short but potent one, is when he invites an audience member to participate in a brunch-style conversation where he interviews her as though they were simply out for brunch. He asks her a single question and immediately turns to his phone, grunting his acknowledgment at her answer. It’s one of those punches that feels at once like it came totally out of left field and was the only possible conclusion. And it’s totally understated—he explains nothing, justifies nothing, just lets us connect the dots for ourselves. It takes a lot of trust; it’s proof that trust pays off. What’s so marvelous about Torres’s work is the sense, intrinsic to all of it, that silence would not daunt him, that he could still give everyone a good time even if our laughter were private and hidden, like whatever secret world is turning in his head.
Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents: Julio Torres is available on demand.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.
Watch Julio Torres live in the Paste Studio: