‘SNL’ Writer Julio Torres Explains His Melania Trump Fascination
In his new stand-up special, ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ most enigmatic writer steps into the spotlight.
Early on in his new half-hour stand-up special, comedian Julio Torres pulls out a bedazzled diary and reads a handful of entries “written by” first lady Melania Trump.
“I was burning letters from my family in Slovenia when I noticed my shadow for the first time,” he reads as ambient music plays in the background. “I enjoyed moving my fingers and watching it do the same. There’s not much in this world I can control, I thought to myself. But you, shadow, you must do as I say.”
The bit is an extension of the “Melania Moments” sketches Torres penned during his first season as a writer for Saturday Night Live. In those taped shorts, we see Cecily Strong’s Melania Trump gazing out of her window at Trump Tower or waking up from a bad dream as Beck Bennett’s narrator elucidates her inner monologue. Torres tells The Daily Beast that because the first lady, often seen but so rarely heard, is such a “blank canvas,” he loves the idea of imagining what is happening inside her head.
When I reach the comedian by phone a few weeks before Saturday Night Live’s 43rd season is set to premiere, he’s in his New York apartment. “I am contemplating cleaning it,” he says matter-of-factly. “And I may get to that eventually.” The mundanity of that statement belies the “fun fact” he likes to tell his audience from the stage. “I am almost always doing exactly what a Trump supporter imagines that I’m doing,” he joked when I saw him at SXSW this past March. “And let me tell you, it’s a lot of fun.”
For some reason, SNL likes to keep its writers anonymous, at least until they make the transition to cast members, as breakout star Leslie Jones did in 2014. Because of that, the first time many people heard the name Julio Torres was when he became the subject of a glowing profile in The New York Times in January.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting that,” Torres, who did not speak to writer Jason Zinoman for the article, says. “But yeah, it was just interesting to see someone dissect what I do and pay attention to what I do in print.”
That article revealed that the platinum blonde, gay millennial from El Salvador was the brains behind some of the 42nd season’s most beautifully bizarre sketches, including “Wells for Boys” and “Melania Moments.”
We talked to Torres, who describes himself as “the Sofia Coppola of stand-up,” about slowly yet surely moving from behind the scenes and into the spotlight, first with an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, where he made his TV stand-up debut in April.
In a direct message to The Daily Beast, Seth Meyers wrote of Torres, “There were sketches last year unlike any I had seen on SNL before. Every time I asked who wrote them the answer was Julio. It's so rare for someone to have a voice that stands out that quickly.”
Earlier this month, Torres popped up on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — where he delivered a brilliant rebuttal to Donald Trump’s DACA decision — and now there's his stand-up special, which will premiere on Comedy Central Friday night, Oct. 6 at 12:30 a.m.
How did you want to introduce yourself to people who maybe have never seen you perform stand-up before?
I think about that question a lot. I kind of like people going in a little cold maybe. I think I’m like most comedians in that the idea of describing the kind of things that we do is such a cringe-worthy exercise. It’s like, just watch it and maybe you’ll like it, as opposed to, I don’t know, trying to sell it in some way.
I feel like the first time a lot of people saw you perform stand-up is when you were on Seth Meyers’ show earlier this year. What was that experience like for you and what kind of feedback did you get afterwards?
I loved it. It was the first time that my stand-up was available to people who don’t physically come to a show. I don’t think I realized the significance of that until a little later. Because of course I have been doing stand-up and I think, well, I’ve done this before. But then, it’s like, no, this is relevant because it’s televised.
What was the significance of that for you?
I do like the idea that somewhere, people I’ve never met watched it and hopefully enjoyed it. I can’t say I’m very in touch with or aware of feedback. I usually just try to not do a Google search after to see how something was received. I have done that before and I have been burned before.
You don’t read the YouTube comments?
Oh, I do, but at that point I was definitely like, I won’t do that. Especially because what I do, some people find upsetting. In that, oh, I thought I was going to see stand-up and even though I am that and I do that, some people find it a little—I’ve experienced some people finding themselves a little unnerved by the pacing or the silences or all these things that are very important to me. Sometimes I feel like I’m the Sofia Coppola of stand-up. Just being this very quiet, patient, atmospheric thing that some people get a lot out of and some people are like, “I saw nothing.”
Yeah, I mean, your comedy is so unique in that way, but are there any comedians who you either watched when you were younger or more recently who have influenced your comedy?
I didn’t want to be a stand-up comedian until the day before I tried it for the first time. So I didn’t have that thing where I had a stand-up idol growing up and then, like, finally got up the courage to do it, or whatever. In my late teens, I understood that what I wanted to do was to be a writer, a comedy writer. Because that felt like the adequate vessel for what I wanted to do. I liked the idea of creating things. I think I landed on that because I felt like, well, I’m not really skilled with my hands so something visual’s not going to do. But this feels like I can do that and I enjoy that and I can create these little worlds. I always wished I’d have the type of career where I write screenplays or I write for television and people are excited to be in them. But then I had no idea how to get to that point, obviously. So one day I thought, what about stand-up? That feels like I would get to showcase my writing without asking anyone for permission or spending any money or having to collaborate in any way, because I don’t know anyone to collaborate with. So it was a very practical, very methodical choice. It wasn’t like a passionate, dreamlike choice.
You talk a bit in the new special about growing up in El Salvador and immigrating to this country. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to speak on behalf of immigrants, especially from Latin America, in your work?
I feel like I keep shifting on that question, because I think prior to the Trump era, I was wholeheartedly on the side of, no, I as a comedian have no responsibility on commenting on anything in any way and my homework isn’t to be The Daily Show, that’s not what I do. I always felt like, no, my job is not to hold a mirror to society or anything like that. If anything I resented the notion that because of who I am or where I’m from—and there are several different labels you can attach me to—I’m like, why do I have to speak or represent or do any of that when I just want to do these flights of fancy? But now I feel like I’m part of this group of comedians, and I see it in my peers too, whereas before we were completely apolitical, now it feels organic and reasonable to react to it in some way. I never sat down and said, now I have to comment, these things just came to me. And in regards to whether I feel a responsibility in representing, I don’t know. I never want to declare that I speak for other people. I feel like I speak for myself, and it is helpful for people to see someone with my experience or my point of view, but I never want to say, this is what all immigrants feel, this is what all Latinos feel. I can just tell what you I feel and see in the very particular way that I do that. And hopefully that speaks to someone, but I would never start a sentence with, “Us Latinos…” What do I know?
You joined SNL this past season for what was probably its most political year ever. So there must have been some pressure to write politically or come up with Trump-related ideas. Was that something that you experienced?
I feel like it all came organically. I know that I’m only successful doing what I’m passionate about. It’s never felt like, at any point, that now I have to do this.
You do a version of your “Melania Moments” sketch in the special. What is it about her that seems to fascinate you so much?
I think, first of all, the fact that we don’t really know much about her as a person, or her personality. Because we don’t see her speak a lot, unlike all the other figures, who may be wrong or may be right, but we have a pretty strong sense of their personalities. She’s still a bit of a shadowy figure. So that is stimulating because it’s sort of like a blank canvas. But also because it’s a strange position to be in, the one that she’s in, because of course being a first lady is not the direct result of her running to be first lady.
Do you get the sense that she didn’t really expect to be in the position?
I can only assume she didn’t. So because of that, it feels like it’s easy to make her some sort of a protagonist, in my mind.
One of your SNL colleagues Katie Rich was temporarily suspended for making a joke about Barron Trump on Twitter. Do you worry about going too far with something you say politically?
I obviously can’t comment directly on the Katie Rich thing.
Well I think the larger question is, do you think about that in your own comedy, whether it’s something you tweet or something you say on stage? SNL is so big that anyone involved in it ends up having to kind of represent the show. You’re not just Julio Torres, you’re “SNL writer Julio Torres.”
Yes, I am very thoughtful of that. And I feel like so far, everything that I’ve put out there, if anyone is familiar with what I do, it’s not very unfair or pointed. I think that what I do is not threatening, I guess?
As you said, you make Melania Trump a protagonist, so in that sense maybe more sympathetic than maybe a lot of other people do.
Yeah, and I don’t mean to give anyone a break, but I feel like that’s part of what attracts me to writing. Trying to connect with a subject. And I think it’s very difficult to do that going into it deciding X, Y, or Z is a bad person. I think it’s more productive to try to be more complex with your analysis than that.
So now that you’ve done this half-hour special, do you have other aspirations in terms of where you want to do with your comedy outside of SNL?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I keep wanting to do something that’s very visual. I don’t know what that would be, whether it’s a movie or videos or something. I keep having these ideas that are all like, shooting miniature interiors and I don’t know what I want to do with that exactly or what it is, but I do want to do things that are a little more visually strange. So I’ll keep trying to mold that and find the correct avenue or vessel for that.