‘Los Espookys,’ a Spanish-Language Comedy for an HBO Audience
How to summarize the breezy sensibility of “Los Espookys,” a new HBO comedy about a group of friends in an unnamed Latin American country who earn a living by staging fake horror events?
In a scene from a coming episode, two members of the team (played by Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres) are shopping for a mirror that could look like the gateway to an alternate dimension. As they browse, Fabrega’s character reflects on her career of unfulfilling short-term jobs.
“You know,” she confesses, “my dream is to be Cirque du Soleil.”
Torres asks her, “You want to be in Cirque du Soleil?”
“No,” Fabrega replies, “I want to be Cirque du Soleil,” explaining that she wants to be the acrobats, the tents, the audience and the merchandise.
Like the rest of “Los Espookys,” it is earnest, eccentric and casually surreal. It is also performed principally in Spanish, making it a rare HBO series that is delivered in a language other than English.
“Los Espookys,” which will make its debut on Friday is created by Fabrega, Torres and Fred Armisen, a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus who has also helped create the comedy shows “Documentary Now!” and “Portlandia.”
Their new series, they said, is an attempt to pay homage to their Latin American roots, to ever-so-slightly expand the boundaries of what American viewers might watch and to transcend what they see as a double-standard in TV programming.
As Torres put it, “If a show’s in English, it’s meant to be consumed by the entire world. If a show is in any other language, then it’s just for those people. ”The comic spirit of “Los Espookys” might be offbeat, Torres said, but the language spoken by its characters should not be a barrier to anyone’s entry.
“It’s intended for as wide an audience as it can reach,” he said of the show, “but with a very specific, un-broad sensibility.”
During his “S.N.L.” tenure, Armisen wove in the occasional Spanish-language sketch, like the soap-opera parody “Besos y Lagrimas,” and played characters inspired by Spanish TV, like the wisecracking drummer Ferecito. Some of these performances were tributes to his mother, who is Venezuelan, and the culture she exposed him to growing up.
More recently, Armisen said he wanted to create a Spanish show “that isn’t an explanation of Latino culture, that’s moving past the foreignness of it.”
“It’s not as if people haven’t heard of Latino culture before,” he added. “It’s a part of American culture. It’s a shorthand with everyone.”
He said he also wanted to create a show that was fundamentally optimistic in its outlook. “I just don’t like conflict on TV,” Armisen said. “Every time I see a problem on a show — a dramatic problem, a storytelling problem, I’m always like, oh, just get to the good stuff.”
Near the conclusion of his IFC sketch series “Portlandia” — another comedy show that presents an exaggerated depiction of an idiosyncratic locale — Armisen took a research trip to Mexico City.
There, he encountered a youth culture that was fascinated with Gothic fashion, horror movies, death metal and rockabilly music. He wanted to incorporate these ideas into his new show, and even toyed with the idea of calling it “Mexico City (Only Good Things Happen).”
But that plan evolved as Armisen refined it with the help of Fabrega (who has appeared on “Portlandia” and “At Home With Amy Sedaris”) and Torres (a current writer for “S.N.L.”).
Fabrega, who is of Panamanian descent, and Torres, who was born and raised in El Salvador, shared Armisen’s vision that the characters they played should all speak Spanish. “Why would we shoot something and say we’re all Hispanic but no one is speaking Spanish?” Fabrega said.
Providing English-language subtitles, the creators felt, would be enough for viewers to follow along.
“It feels like 90 percent of the world can watch a ‘Transformers’ movie subtitled in their own language,” Torres said. “Children have no problem doing it. Let’s see how malleable the American adult is. I don’t think it’ll be much of a challenge.”
The performers also shaped the characters they would play on “Los Espookys”: Fabrega cast herself as a trusting jack-of-all-trades named Tati. “She’s very naïve and kind and open, but to a fault,” she said. “I just wanted to explore someone who has the best intentions but is lost.”
Torres plays Andrés, the enigmatic heir to a chocolate confectioner’s fortune. “There’s a very narrow scope of people that I can and would play,” he said. “This falls somewhere in that range.”
The “Los Espookys” team is rounded out by the levelheaded Úrsula (played by Cassandra Ciangherotti) and Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), the team’s founder, who wears gothic choker necklaces and mesh tops but has a good heart underneath.
Armisen plays the role of Renaldo’s uncle, a virtuoso parking valet, but Fabrega suggested that the characters could be connected in other ways. “I feel like there might be a little Fred in Renaldo,” she said, “in how unwaveringly happy or excited he is about things. He’s like, ‘This is what I’m going to do. Let’s figure out how to make it happen.’”
The initial specificity of the show’s setting became more ambiguous, to reflect its mixture of different Latin American accents and traditions: a world where the mundane and the fantastic — a frustrated dental assistant, a haunted house, a multilevel marketing scheme and an ethereal spirit obsessed with the film “The King’s Speech” — can comfortably coexist. The initial six-episode season of “Los Espookys” was shot in and around Santiago, Chile, though the show never says exactly where it takes place.
Armisen said he once envisioned that “Los Espookys” would land at a Spanish-language cable channel like HBO Latino. But HBO expressed interest in the show for its main channel, where it has recently aired programming like its Italian-language adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel “My Brilliant Friend.”
Amy Gravitt, an executive vice president of programming at HBO, said that she never questioned the decision to present “Los Espookys” in Spanish.
“As a comedy executive, I’m always going to support any choice that reinforces the tone of the show,” she said. “Of course this group of characters would speak Spanish — that’s who they are.”
Among the few consequences of this decision, Gravitt said, was that the show’s English subtitles had to be more carefully calibrated so that “as you’re reading them, they’re not stepping on the joke that the performer is trying to deliver.” Also, Gravitt said that scripts for table reads were printed in Spanish and in English “because I don’t speak Spanish all that well.”
Lorne Michaels, who is an executive producer of “Los Espookys,” said that the meticulousness of the universe in which the series takes place, and all the elements it uses — including language — to create that universe would help it stand out.
“The normal thing you used to hear from networks was, how do you make it broader?” said Michaels, the creator and longtime executive producer of “Saturday Night Live.” “But we don’t live in that world anymore. The audience is much more adventurous and open. People will find it, and none of it is too hard to understand.”
To the extent that there is any overt political commentary in “Los Espookys,” it is light, and largely embodied by the character of an airhead American ambassador (played by Greta Titelman) to whom the protagonists turn in search of United States visas.
Fabrega said that the series had no larger agenda, “other than saying, ‘Do you think this is funny?’”
But Torres, who has an HBO stand-up special premiering later this summer, said he could anticipate any number of reactions to “Los Espookys.”
“I think a lot of people will see the mere existence of the show as inherently political,” he said, “in the same way that I’ve done work that I thought wasn’t political, but ended up being looked at that way.”
Armisen said that he had just one ulterior motive he wanted “Los Espookys” to fulfill.
“My hope is that it gets the goth movement riled up and motivated to take over the world — if anything, that’s the one group whose rights I’m speaking for,” he said. “One day all nations will have a goth as a leader.”