Julio Torres’ ‘Problemista’ Tour Will Cure Whatever Color Ails You

Torres is currently promoting his new A24 movie, Problemista, and the live show is a real exhibition of the best surrealist comedians working today.

Julio Torres’ ‘Problemista’ Tour Will Cure Whatever Color Ails You

Hot Mic is a weekly column by Leah Abrams documenting, spotlighting, and reviewing live comedy in NYC. 

To borrow a construction from Julio Torres, on the evening of March 6, I was feeling very lilac—the dainty color you see right before you pass out or at the tail end of a light bruise. Lilac, the color of Hannah Horvath saying “I’m feeling just a little bit frail…” Not purple, the color that Torres praises as drama, the color of stepmothers, and a color that occurs “when red mocks navy blue.” I was feeling more down, more muted, exhausted by some dumb work stuff, and hungry because I missed lunch. You know, lilac. 

That Wednesday night Torres was at The Bell House in Brooklyn for his show, Problemista Tour: Julio and Friends. It was pouring rain outside; I had no umbrella; I was running late. By the time I stomped in with soaking wet hair, the show had already started. I grabbed an IPA to down on an empty stomach and shuffled into the completely sold out, standing-room-only crowd, a testament to the cult following Torres has built over years of writing and performing in Brooklyn. I would have given up on this trek halfway through the train ride had I not been a member of said cult myself. For Torres, I decided, I could be brave.

“I used to play a game with my Barbie dolls,” he said at one point during the show. “I would dress them in tattered white dresses and drag them along through the dirt. The game was called: ‘We don’t know what happened.’” 

Torres is at the center of a movement of surrealist comedians who set their sights on the fantastical and absurd. Blessed with some kind of magical spatial synesthesia, he creates believable storylines for the mundane colors, shapes, and objects that make up our every day, finding narrative momentum in the aesthetic. It’s very weird but there’s a grain of truth behind every observation. After hearing him declare that “navy blue is the color of law and order,” you’ll probably find yourself thinking: “It’s true, navy blue really is the color of law and order.” 

Torres’ Problemista Tour is to help promote his new A24 movie, Problemista, a comedy following an aspiring toy designer on his quest to get a work visa to remain in New York City. The “and friends” of Julio and Friends were members of the film’s star-studded cast: Spike Einbinder, River Ramirez, and Larry Owens, all members of this friend group of artists who, yes, put their stuff on social media but really thrive live on stage. I’ve seen them all perform before in various combinations but each time is a singular delight; you don’t know what will happen next.

“I live on the 14th floor of a 13-floor walk-up,” Einbeinder said in the first set, perfectly timed to the saxophone swells of the Taxi Driver soundtrack, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He does an inversion of classic comedy archetypes, old-timey Borscht-Belt stuff with a queer, magical-realist twist, like if Milton Berle did drag. “Man, this city has changed,” he said, “since I moved here in 2022.”

Most comedians these days are allergic to earnestness, choosing to wrap their material in so many layers of irony that it’s almost impossible to parse. But Einbeinder, Torres, and their peers disregard this trend—and rightly so. It’s much funnier to be earnestly weird than to be too cool to share anything at all. The next performer, Ramirez, another Problemista cast member who’s also collaborated with Torres on Los Espookys, proved how much more fun (and effective) this approach can be. They read a short story about Valentine’s Day, in which a little imaginary bilingual creature named Pumi—with a root body and human teeth—sent them flowers. They fell in love and then watched an Owen Wilson movie together in bed. At the end of the story, when Pumi died, I found myself tearing up?

They left the stage and brought on Larry Owens, the actor, singer, and comedian who plays the role of Craigslist in Problemista and Jacob’s boyfriend on Abbott Elementary. He sang a song about being “delulu” and adlibbed the timeless line “Maya Angelou-lou.” 

“Quick, somebody by the bar,” he said, “can I get a pineapple and espolón?” Someone with bright blue hair and a chic outfit pulled out their wallet. “Are you nonbinary?” Owens yelled. Yes, they called back, they were. “I knew it! I just knew this drink would come from a strong they/them!” He made a woman in the audience hold the drink up for him as he sipped it from the stage. He closed the set with a beautiful rendition of “Being Alive.” Once again, I felt the urge to cry.

Sitting on the couch and watching a video of Owens singing this exact same song in this exact same venue, I might have felt a vague facsimile of the emotions it generated in person—but the two could never compare. It reminded me why I wanted to write this column about live performance in the first place. I was very glad I left my house that night. 

Around the time that Torres came back up onstage to end the show with his reflections on colors, I bumped into my friends Molly and Jordan by the bar. After the show, I took a forgotten umbrella from the venue (sorry!) and we walked through the rain to get dinner. The show was incredible, we all agreed; a completely original thing. Related to the movie but also all its own. My lilac gave way to yellow. I think Torres would call that a happy ending.

You can catch the final stops of the Problemista Tour March 14 in Miami, FL and March 17 at South by Southwest in Austin, TX.

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