The secret lives of inanimate objects are revealed in "My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres," HBO's bizarre comedy special starring bric-a-brac, broken toys, a lone cactus and the peculiar talents of "Saturday Night Live" writer and "Los Espookys" star Torres.
The 32-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, best described as a goth pixie with a philosophical streak, spends most of the hourlong show seated at a desk, introducing an array of random objects that arrive via conveyer belt, which he controls with a foot pedal.
Dressed in a metallic suit and sprinkled in the faintest sheen of body glitter, Torres gives each item a complex back story. He explains, earnest and matter-of-fact, that the plain oval disk is a fine shape – but when it stares at its own reflection, it wishes it was round.
A gaudy plastic jewel, the kind you'd find crushed into the carpet of Chuck E. Cheese after a princess-themed birthday party, is Jessica. She lives in L.A., works in PR and begins and ends all her emails with "ASAP!"
And that small cactus? It's suffering an existential crisis.
The parade of ingenious absurdity, which premiered Saturday, is only the latest strange offering from Torres, a virtuoso of extraterrestrial humor.
The openly queer comedian and regular "Tonight Show" correspondent recently appeared on the Jimmy Fallon-hosted program during Pride month to address complaints from the straight community that it was being excluded. His solution: The Straight Pride Parade, with floats such as "A Salute to Polo Shirts, One Size Too Big."
And that's about as conventional as Torres gets.
His preposterous wit also has given birth to "Los Espookys," HBO's first primarily Spanish-language series, co-created by and starring Torres, Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega. The comedy follows a haphazard troupe of horror enthusiasts who stage hauntings, demon possessions, alien autopsies and the like.
And he's behind such memorable "SNL" sketches as the faux commercial for "Wells for Boys," co-written with Jeremy Beiler: a play set "for sensitive boys to wish upon, confide in and reflect by." As narrator Cecily Strong explains over an image of a thoughtful boy staring down a plastic well, "Some boys live unexamined lives, but this boy's life is full of questions."
In another skit written by Torres, "Melania Moments," the first lady gazes out the window of Trump Tower, pondering the meaning of sand and wondering if the woman who will replace her is being born somewhere in Latvia.
"My Favorite Shapes" – part performance art, part stand-up and part therapy session – highlights Torres the twisted storyteller.
The show takes place before a studio audience, most of whom appear transfixed and charmed as Torres brings scraps of paper to life by describing them as players in a "Flintstones" episode, conjuring up a deep-seated conflict between Fred and Betty that we never knew existed ... until now.
Torres' specialty is projecting complicated feelings, relationship traumas, self-esteem issues and failed career tracts on his subjects, and his targets on the comedy special range from a weathered McDonald's Happy Meal toy to a piece of bent wire to a couple of Ferrero Rocher chocolate orbs.
Sometimes he tells stories of his own childhood as a boy who performed rituals on damaged toys, transferring their souls to a new "vessel," or as an immigrant who does what he does onstage because "no one else wanted the job."
The special's minimalist-meets-space-age-modern set – clear Plexiglas, neon swipes and white Formica – was designed by his mother and sister. They also designed his weird translucent plastic shoes.
Other contributors to the show include Lin-Manuel Miranda, who provides the Spanish-speaking voice of the cactus; Ryan Gosling as the Blue Penguin; and Emma Stone as the Shoe. Each subject gets its own short breakout video, where it ponders the purpose, or futility, of its existence.
Torres got his start in the Brooklyn comedy scene after emigrating to New York a decade ago. He began posting skits on YouTube and eventually broke through as a stand-up comedian, landing regular appearances on "The Tonight Show." He joined "SNL's" writing team two years ago, before co-creating "Los Espookys."
In the quirky comedy series, which is inspired by "Scooby-Doo" (Torres talks about his love of cartoons throughout "My Favorite Shapes"), he plays the blue-haired Andres, heir to a chocolate fortune and part of a gang of misfits who arrange spooky happenings for paying customers.
They're hired by a priest who needs to fake a successful exorcism in order to stay relevant among his younger rivals, and a mayor who hopes to boost tourism in his town with sudden sea monster sightings.
The performer's multifaceted approach to comedy doesn't exactly fit in one box, square, oval or cactus pot. "My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres" is a great example of how this odd upstart is a master at spinning the mundane and morose into defiantly unique comedy.
Everything has a bittersweet back story in Torres' world, even if it arrives mangled, on a conveyor belt.
And all of it, no matter how sad, is funny.