Chumel Torres is not a journalist.
Nevertheless, his comedy, which is based on commentary of news, culture and politics, is consumed by hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans.
His YouTube channel El Pulso de La República (The Pulse of the Republic) has 1.84 million subscribers and publishes videos that regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views. “Chumel con Chumel Torres,” the HBO Latino show that grew out of that YouTube channel, recently began its second season. (YouTube videos from that show pull in similar numbers). The comedian also recently released a book, “The History of the Republic,” about the history and politics of Mexico.
Torres’ shows and humor are in the same vein of The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, John Oliver’s program that’s also on HBO in the U.S.
Yet, as a Fusion journalist explained: “his style is not just an homage to Comedy Central’s successful formula. Torres has also incorporated his own brand of nerdiness and irreverence, with an undeniable dose of Mexicanness.”
The Knight Center caught up with Torres on March 12 at the SXSW interactive media festival in Austin where he was speaking about new online media in Mexico. Torres explained his rise to fame, the motivations behind his comedy and why he is not a journalist.
Torres, a former mechanical engineer from Chihuahua, wrote a Tweet in 2012 that would change his life. That tweet, a sexually explicit joke about a proposal from a Mexican presidential candidate, went viral thanks to a re-Tweet from another politician who would subsequently throw his hat in the ring for the presidency. That Tweet led to a regular column for Expansión editorial group.
Eventually, Torres launched El Pulso de la República on YouTube after he pitched it to other media, but was denied. The show is still going, with new episodes posted every Monday and Thursday.
But, Torres said he hasn’t always had an interest in politics. He doesn’t align with a particular party, either. For him, the commentary comes from common sense.
“So I started writing about politics from a non-expert point of view and that became huge because I was writing about how I felt about it,” Torres explained, adding that people started to read because he was talking to them directly.
He agreed that some of the popularity could be traced back to people being frustrated with politicians and the political system. However, “At the same time, you need somebody to look at things from a distance. But at the same time, that has responsibility and that not only says how he feels, but you have to say what you feel with numbers and statistics and real news,” Torres told the Knight Center.
Creative independence was a factor in making the decision to join HBO for “Chumel con Chumel Torres,” which started in July 2016.
“They’re more willing to talk about things and to let me prove that I know how to deal with the audience,” Torres said.
Along with a writing team, the show has a team of three journalists who conduct research. Once a story is decided on, these researchers get to work and provide the pieces, the “Legos” for the show.
“Then you assemble all these toys they gave you, with a comedy perspective,” Torres explained.
Later he added, “They prevent me from going to jail because they do their homework really well and really balanced.”
In the show, comedic observations of society and politics are sprinkled with data and statistics from scientific studies, governmental organizations and news articles.
When Torres delivers the jokes, he is expressive, incisive and biting. He also performs over-the-top bits like fellow HBO comedian John Oliver. At the end of a September 2016 episode about science and beliefs in the supernatural, a choir in robes stood behind him as he “healed” people in the name of science, sending them to pharmacies and hospitals to cure their ails.
Like Oliver rejects that his show is doing journalism, Torres said he is not a journalist.
“I read what journalists do, and I put jokes on it, on the top,” Torres said with a laugh. “And I think we're so alike because people want you to say, they want you to say, I mean ‘I know the truth,’ and they just give you this medal, ‘you are the future of journalism.’ No, no, no, no, no. I‘m just doing jokes, the things is that people like jokes, they don’t like the news.”
The comedian describes his program as a “common sense show”: satire, dark humor, for people with common sense.
“In a world that makes no sense at all, we are lone wolves,” he explained.
He looks at comedians like Andres Bustamante as inspirations: “What he did was the single most important piece in comedy history, which was his interview with Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN.”
For his HBO show, Torres is talking to all of Latin America. He acknowledges there has been some criticism of that, but said the reception among Latin Americans has been “unbelievably good”: “We started pointing the issues at home. And If you talk about yourself first, you set the example.”
“It is that we’re not that different. Corruption stories or organized crime or politicians lying, that just happens everywhere. The thing is that we focus on the things we have in common and then we stretch the script to that point,” Torres said. “If you talk about corruption, we may not say the same name, but we have the same situations and that doesn’t change, not only in Latin America, I’m talking globally. And if it matters to you because it affects your children, or your health care system or your education or your retirement, at least you want somebody to say something, even if it’s a clown on a television, you want him to say, to tell it like it is.”
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.