Julio Torres & Friends Toast Their Latest Bizarro Creation

By Callie Holtermann
New York Times
From left: the artist Martine Gutierrez, Julio Torres and Tomás Matos, an actor and dancer, at a reception before a screening of the first two episodes of Torres' new HBO show 'Fantasmas'. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times

With his new HBO show Fantasmas, writer, comedian and actor Julio Torres has created a surreal contemporary comedy full of critique. Callie Holtermann attends the launch party for the show and captures a scene buzzing with young creatives.

“It’s not a bag,” said Julio Torres, indicating the purse that dangled

Whatever it was, it was shaped like a fish, and roomy enough to carry a small shell or maybe a couple of grapes. Torres had purchased the non-bag at a flea market in Paris and brought it to a reception in Manhattan on Saturday for his new HBO series, Fantasmas.

Torres, 37, is a former Saturday Night Live writer whose galactic visual sensibility extends to his Instagram handle, @spaceprincejulio. He wrote, directs and stars in Fantasmas, a string of vignettes set in an eerie dreamscape that appears to be situated somewhere between Williamsburg and Roku City.

Perched in a bright corner at Jungle Bird, a Chelsea cocktail bar near the theatre where the first two episodes of Fantasmas would be screened that evening as part of the LGBTQ+ film festival NewFest Pride, Torres explained how he had recruited Steve Buscemi to play the letter Q in a sketch about the alphabet: Easily.

Julio Torres writer-director and former SNL star. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times
Julio Torres writer-director and former SNL star. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times

“He read the script and got back to me within, like, half an hour,” Torres said.

Near a disco ball roughly the size of Jupiter, a row of murals dotted with abstract nipples faced Eighth Avenue. The room was soon filled with Torres’ friends and collaborators. (The Venn diagram between the two was practically a circle.)

Ziwe Fumudoh, a comedian who sparred last year with former Representative George Santos, rushed past a setup of vegetarian dumplings. She greeted Tomás Matos, an ebullient actor and dancer whose long fingernails were painted like watermelon wedges. Julia Fox, best known for being Julia Fox, posed for photos outside the theatre later in the evening standing alongside a blue robot on wheels.

Actor Tomás Matos. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times
Actor Tomás Matos. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times

“Okay, robot!” an onlooker holding a cigarette shouted.

All have roles in the show, even the robot, whose name is Bibo and who dreams of becoming an actor. Beneath its ample gags, Fantasmas is a rumination on the trade-offs required to make art, and the creative compromises that arise for young artists seeking financial security, a larger audience and health insurance.

“I feel like everything I do is some kind of a negotiation,” Torres said.

The sentiment would have been familiar to almost everyone in the room, a group of up-and-comers running a constant cost-benefit analysis on their ascendance. Martine, an artist known for her shape-shifting work, described the show as “a documentary about hustlers coming of age in New York City.”

“There’s the creative that is a commercial pursuit, and then there is the creative that is for you,” said Fumudoh, who hosted two seasons of the Showtime variety show Ziwe. “When it’s for you, you live freely and do whatever you want. When it becomes a commercial pursuit, you have to listen to the people that fund the art.”

Artist Martine Gutierrez. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times
Artist Martine Gutierrez. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times

Sam Taggart, a comedian and a host of the podcast StraightioLab, said he had long joked that all creative paths eventually lead to a job in advertising. “The further I get in my career, the more I feel that to be true,” he said. “Like, I really thought I was a wild one.”

In Fantasmas, shoe company Zappos has a streaming service and cereal company General Mills operates a luxury apartment complex. The show portrays an entertainment industry that recruits queer people and swiftly pigeonholes them.

Comedian, writer and satirist Ziwe Fumudoh. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times
Comedian, writer and satirist Ziwe Fumudoh. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times

“Give us a trauma, give it to us funny, give it to us en español, por favor,” a streaming executive played by Natasha Lyonne tells Torres’ character in one episode.

Between their passion fruit cocktails, guests praised Torres’ aptitude for reaching wide audiences without diluting his eccentricity. As a writer on Saturday Night Live, Torres was responsible for screwball sketches such as “Papyrus,” in which Ryan Gosling portrays a man driven to the brink by artless typography. His film Problemista, starring a manic Tilda Swinton, was released by A24 this spring.

“He has really taught me how to move my way through these channels in order to get something made,” comedian Spike Einbinder said of Torres. “He’s helped me reframe it in a less selling-out way, and more like a subversion, infiltration type of thing.”

Comedian Spike Einbinder. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times
Comedian Spike Einbinder. Photo / Ben Sklar, The New York Times

Tomás Matos, who plays an anarchic ride-share driver named Chester, said Torres had brought few requirements for the character beyond having a hairdo that resembled a poodle.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, who I am, and sometimes I feel like I have to compromise me as a person to fit into these roles,” the actor said. “Compromises are just silly. We can have it all. Abundance, down. Period.”

The group maneuvred four blocks uptown to the SVA Theater, where more than 400 fans had lined up for the free screening. Two hours later, audience members emerged into the dim blue glow of a Citibank on West 23rd Street, giggling.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Callie Holtermann

Photographs by: Ben Sklar


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