Los Espookys is going to stick out in HBO’s lineup like gratuitous gore in a B-movie. For one it’s grabbing headlines as HBO’s first crack at (mostly) Spanish language programming with English subtitles. Language shouldn’t be much of a barrier, though. The late-night comedy is a loving homage to horror and the paranormal viewed through the lens of its creators: Julio Torres and Ana Farega, two comedians with blindingly bright futures, and Fred Armisen, who continues to attach him name to inventive alternative comedy projects (the brilliant Documentary Now! and recently concluded Portlandia among them).
The series is set in Latin America, where a group of friends with a passion for horror turn their love of the genre into a business. In the first episode, which debuts June 14th at 11 p.m, the group orchestrates a staged exorcism for a long-tenured priest who wants to one-up the new, hot priest in the parish (hot priests are all the rage in comedy these days, see: Fleabag). Farega and Torres, who serve as executive producers, also star alongside Bernardo Velasco and Cassandra Ciangherotti. Armisen has a recurring role as Uncle Tico, who lives his dream as an ace valet parking legend in Los Angeles.
We spoke to Armisen, Torres, and Fabrega about the series’ conception, its spooky subject matter, and crafting comedy that works for both English and Spanish speakers.
How did this collaboration between the three of you develop?
Fred Armisen: Well, it was kind of through Broadway Video through Más Mejor. The producing partner, Alice Mathias, showed me a video of Ana’s and then we ended up working together. We did some videos together. We did a pilot too. And then same thing with Julio. I saw his work, I saw your stand up videos and then he started working at SNL. SNL, which by the way, goes back to 1975.
What does that stand for?
Ana Fabrega: No one knows.
Fred Armisen: Yeah, just an acronym. I think it’s someone’s name. David Snl. And so everyone just started working together and then as I started working on this project, I just wanted to work with them.
Who came up with the idea for Los Espookys?
Ana Fabrega: Fred had approached us when he already knew I wanted to make a show in Spanish about a group of friends that love horror. And so, yeah, that was our logline.
Julio: Yeah. And then the idea very quickly embraced other ideas.
Why is horror and the paranormal such a rich place to mine for comedy?
Fred Armisen: It’s not just horror and the paranormal, but the love of it. Fans like that imagery. So it’s more about someone who wants to put it to practical use. And it’s about optimism. Just the optimism of it would make no sense to have a career like that, to scare people, but I think in groups, people can support each other and go, “Oh, we can do this.” It was a little bit like the idea of a band, when a band gets together: “I know we make music that is terrible. I already know it’s not commercial music, but let’s go for it. Let’s go on tour.”
With this being a Spanish-language show, watching the pilot was a new experience for me because growing up in the U.S. as an English speaker I never really had the experience of watching shows with subtitles. What were your personal experiences like watching shows that had English subtitles? And how did that ultimately affect how you made this project?
Julio Torres: Being from El Salvador, most of what you consume is American TV. And that is always either dubbed or subtitled. So you get used to the idea that television and movies is made somewhere else by other people and it’s not meant for you, but you have access to it. So the language thing was always something that people, I feel, in Latin America are used to things not being in Spanish. At least originally. So then doing the reversal here was a fun thing.
Fred Armisen: His experience with The Simpsons is he heard totally different voices. And his assumption, which isn’t wrong, was that was Homer’s voice, the Spanish voice. So he was surprised.
Julio Torres: Yeah. When I heard The Simpsons in English for the first time in 2009, I was just like bewildered.
Which one do you like better?
Julio Torres: I mean, the Spanish one is the one that feels like home to me.
When you’re writing these scripts, how do you factor in what American audience is going to take away versus the Spanish speaking audience?
Ana Fabrega: I think there are certain references in this show that are very specific to Latin America that an English speaker might not recognize, but they’ll get it. And when we were writing, we’d write in English and then the script would be translated to Spanish. There were definitely times where we had to mindful of “Will this joke translate in Spanish?” And if not, then we have to rework this.
Julio Torres: And also because we were always mindful of “Will this be funny in Spanish?” That also allowed ourselves to free us from the one, two, three structure that you would see in American comedies because then that wouldn’t necessarily be funny.
On the comedic side, what were some of the shows that influenced you? From watching the first episode, my first takeaway was how distinct these characters were from the start and that got me interested in seeing how the group dynamic plays out across the rest of the episodes.
Julio Torres: It wasn’t shows, it’s just bits and pieces of things that we like that inspired the people in the show and the situations in the show. A lot of people that we know.
Ana Fabrega: Yeah. I feel like it’s mostly based on people that we know and things that we have seen.
Fred Armisen: Like the architecture of the math of the casting, for me, was “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” That there’s four principles and Danny DeVito’s sort of around them. It’s a great show, but that was the sort of physical design of [Los Espookys].
Since the show is based on people you know, that must mean Fred is excellent at parking cars since his character on the show is one of the best in the world at it?
Fred Armisen: I think I’m really good. Others would argue. Some people think I think that I’m too slow when I park, but I’m very careful and I don’t mess with scrapes, I really do a good job parking. I use all the cameras and stuff, so I think I’m really good at it. I don’t like to valet park my car. If I go to a restaurant in L.A., I always try to find street parking. Because it’s the principle of it. I can do it. It’s my park, I’d like to do it myself.
Is there a particular bit of Latin American lore that you worked in that you’re proud of?
Yeah. So I grew with Chocolates Popeye, right, which is a copyright infringement of Popeye. And they truly tasted like dust. It was incredible. Yeah, so that was [inspiration] for “Charlie Wonka’s” chocolate in the show.
Los Espookys airs Fridays at 11 p.m. on HBO.