July 19, 2024

A few weeks after Kenny DeForest died, a group of his friends gathered in an apartment in Los Angeles. The mood was somber — Mr. DeForest was only 37, and he had died from traumatic brain injuries after falling off an electric bike in Brooklyn.

But Mr. DeForest was a professional comedian, and his friends were all comedians, and any gathering of comedians eventually comes to feel like a party.

They were playing a game where everybody gets a card with a single word and then gives clues to help their teammates guess the word.

Will Miles, one of Mr. DeForest’s best friends, plucked a card from the deck. He read it and immediately said, “Kenny should have worn a … ”

His teammates gasped then blurted out the answer in unison: “Helmet!”

“So we did win,” Mr. Miles recalled a few weeks after the party. Then he pivoted to a bracingly dark punchline: “But at what cost?”

In the world of comedy, one question undergirds the darkest jokes: “Too soon?” The best bits — the jokes that make an audience gasp before dissolving into laughter — walk right up to the edge. Was it “too soon” to joke about Kenny? It turns out the answer, even for those who had gathered around his bed in an intensive care unit, was probably “no.”

Kenny DeForest died too soon to get truly famous. Yet after his death, his comedy gained wider praise than he ever enjoyed when he was alive. Seth Meyers and Bill Burr posted tributes to Mr. DeForest on social media. The Comedy Store, incubator of famous comics dating back to Richard Pryor and George Carlin, spelled out “R.I.P. Kenny DeForest” on its marquee in Los Angeles. His death was reported in Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and USA Today.

“If you had talked to Kenny a few weeks before his death, he probably would have said, ‘Nobody knows me, and I’m not going anywhere,’” said Lane Pieschel, 36, one of Mr. DeForest’s many close friends. “That clearly was not true.”

Mr. DeForest was beloved in the Brooklyn comedy scene partly because he embodied what that scene strives on its best nights to become. Rather than the rapid-fire jokes of traditional stand-up, their sets are almost monologues, the occasional laugh line woven into narratives about shortcomings and loss. Mr. DeForest was also eager to help out anyone who asked — possibly to the detriment of his own career.

“He radiated joy,” said Lizzy Cassidy, a comedian and a friend of Mr. DeForest. She described that quality as “very rare for a comedian.”

But while Mr. DeForest’s kindness may have drawn his friends to his hospital room, they were still comedians, for whom there is no higher prize than landing a good joke — even at the expense of a friend with a traumatic brain injury. Before the swelling in Mr. DeForest’s brain overwhelmed him, his friends crowded his bedside, alternating between tears, outpourings of love and relentless teasing.

“Oh, yeah, we did bits,” said David Drake, a comic and friend of Mr. DeForest. “He’d love that. I wanted to call him later that day and say, ‘You’re not going to believe what this person did when you were dead.’”

Mr. DeForest struggled for years to find career success, but his entry to the comedy world seemed to come easily. After graduating from Drury University, a small “church-related” school in his hometown of Springfield, Mo., he moved to Chicago in 2009 to become a stand-up comic.

He signed up for open-mic night at the same bar where he worked as a bouncer, an obvious job for a 6-foot-4 former basketball star (he helped lead his high school team, the Kickapoo Chiefs, to the state championships in his junior year). His jokes were bad, his parents and his buddies agree. But within months, Mr. DeForest was organizing stand-up shows of his own.

“It drove our friends crazy: He’s such a tall, handsome, stupid bastard, and now he’s starting his own show?” Mr. Pieschel said. “But he had the right attitude, and he had stage presence.”

Within weeks Mr. DeForest became part of the scene, and he quickly became close to Will Miles and Clark Jones, Chicago natives with more comedy experience. After they’d hit all the clubs in town, Mr. DeForest persuaded his friends to move to New York.

They drove a U-Haul to Brooklyn, but when they arrived in Bushwick, Mr. Jones and Mr. Miles both recounted, the landlord took one look at the two Black men accompanying the tall white guy and turned them away. They three of them spent the night on the floor of a rat-infested warehouse space above a realtor’s office, watching John Mulaney’s just-released comedy special “New in Town.”

Their careers got a boost in 2014 when Hannibal Buress became a star and asked Mr. Jones to take over a show Mr. Buress had started at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg. Mr. Jones invited his friends to help. “Two Black Dudes and a Microphone” became a hit among Brooklyn comedy fans, with Mr. DeForest’s role as unnamed white co-host signaling the organizers’ comfort with complex issues.

“That was the hottest show in the city,” said Amy Hawthorne, a talent booker and comedy show producer.

Mr. DeForest developed an act rooted in progressive politics. Instead of outrage, his jokes landed on notes of self-mockery: the confident basketball player who used alcohol and drugs to mask his social anxiety, the big white guy who learned — excruciatingly slowly — that his life was charmed.

“For the longest time I just thought I was really good at job interviews,” went a bit about his dawning awareness of his privilege as a white man. “Eight for eight! That is incredible for someone so bad at jobs.”

Comedy didn’t pay much, so Mr. DeForest got a job moving furniture. Meanwhile, if he had not become quite famous, he was at least fame-adjacent.

He and his co-hosts met with producers at MTV and Comedy Central to develop show ideas. He won solo spots on late-night shows with Mr. Meyers and James Corden. He was a contestant on a Netflix reality show about competing stand-ups, Mr. Miles said, but shooting was canceled because of the pandemic. He hung out with comedy luminaries including Dave Chappelle, and in 2015 he started dating Sasheer Zamata, a comedian and cast member on “Saturday Night Live.”

In 2018, Mr. DeForest and Ms. Zamata moved to Los Angeles together to pursue television and movie auditions, Mr. Clark and Mr. Miles said. Ms. Zamata declined to be interviewed for this article.

And for the first time in Mr. DeForest’s life, his career stalled. He had natural onstage talent but stubborn difficulty as a writer at landing a joke with the perfect word. His natural skill set — putting a restless crowd at ease with his “basketball confidence,” as a friend described it — left him stranded in a city where stand-up is mostly a side hustle for comics competing to win jobs writing TV shows and movies.

“Kenny’s writing didn’t come like Patton Oswalt, who has a mastery of the language,” Mr. Pieschel said. “Kenny came up with the right concept and knew that, coming out of his mouth, it will work.”

In March 2023, with his relationship with Ms. Zamata over, his friends said, and his career in neutral, Mr. DeForest returned to New York. He was 36, and many of his contemporaries were quitting comedy for families and real jobs.

“He was basically starting from zero,” said Mr. Drake, who worked alongside Mr. DeForest at the moving company. “He viewed coming back to New York as one last big push to make it happen before the realities of life set in.”

Mr. DeForest’s second run at comedy fame was more disciplined than his first. After years of telling jokes about his alcohol and drug abuse, he committed to yoga, bonding with Ms. Cassidy, his fellow Brooklyn comic, over their new sobriety. He shot a second hourlong special at the Gutter, a bar in Williamsburg, wrote enough material for a third and had enough jokes left over to keep his Instagram and TikTok pages updated.

Mr. DeForest also took time to organize group shows in bars and even a laundromat near his apartment, giving many younger comedians their first stage time. It wasn’t without risk.

“It can hurt you in this business,” Ms. Cassidy said. “You help your friends get on, and their set goes more viral than yours. That would bother a lot of people. That didn’t bother Kenny.”

After years of living in apartments his friends described as “war zones,” Mr. DeForest spent weeks decorating his new place in Crown Heights. In his living room he put up a large whiteboard. He wrote positive mantras and ideas for bits, including “Skinhead” and “PC Police.” He wrote “Branson, ep. 2,” for a sitcom he hoped to pitch about life in Branson, Mo. Under “Standup” he reminded himself to start booking shows around the country in 2024.

“Kenny was really growing up,” said Ryan Beck, a comedian, friend and fellow self-deprecating Missourian who lived across the hall from Mr. DeForest. “He was coming into his own as a man and a comic. It was really nice to see.”

The first sign that something was amiss came on Dec. 8, the day of Mr. DeForest’s bicycle accident, when he failed to arrive for his shift at the moving company. This was concerning, Mr. Pieschel said, since Mr. DeForest had texted a co-worker that he was on his way to work. The next day, he was a no-show at a party for a friend who was leaving New York, something Mr. DeForest would never do, his friends said.

Concerned, Mr. Beck tried to check on Kenny. When there was no answer to a knock on the door, he climbed through the bathroom window.

“I’m worried that I’m going to find my friend on the floor,” Mr. Beck recalled.

Instead he found the apartment spotless. Mr. DeForest’s bed was neatly made. Mr. Beck called the closest hospital, Kings County, and discovered that Mr. DeForest had been admitted two days before. When Mr. Beck arrived, doctors said Mr. DeForest had a serious head injury, but he probably would recover.

Mr. Beck contacted their mutual friends. Many of them canceled their performances, and a few interrupted national tours to come to the Brooklyn hospital. They arrived to find Mr. DeForest badly bruised and heavily sedated. He was also bald. After years of fretting about his thinning hair, Mr. DeForest had decided recently to shave his head.

The jokes started almost immediately.

“No!” Ms. Cassidy said when she reached his bedside. “He just figured out his hair!”

Mr. Drake hopped on his bike and headed to the hospital, arriving with a bike helmet under his arm. It got a laugh, his friends assuming he was doing a bit. He greeted them as if he was arriving for brunch.

“‘Hey! How’s it going?’” Mr. Drake said, recalling his entrance. “You start laughing because it’s the worst.”

Mean jokes don’t generally play well around a deathbed. But for comedians, what else is there to say?

“I think normal people are like, ‘Oh, my God. How are you able to joke right now?’” Mr. Miles said. “But that’s common in this community. We’re grieving in our own way.”

Mr. DeForest’s parents, Roger and Pam, had flown in from Springfield. They found 25 comedians packed into the hospital waiting room, and 10 more upstairs in their son’s room.

“We knew that he was performing coast to coast, but he wasn’t making the big bucks and he wasn’t known,” Roger DeForest said. “Then we’re in this city of eight million people, and we’re running into strangers who knew our son? It was mind-blowing.”

Despite his initial good prognosis, Mr. DeForest was unconscious by the time his parents arrived. Five days after the accident, he died from a brain injury on Dec. 13.

Throughout the ordeal, Mr. DeForest’s friends displayed fierce loyalty to him and care for his family. Before any of them agreed to speak for this article, each asked permission from Mr. DeForest’s parents. His friends and parents also worked together to plan DeForeFEST, six days of events featuring sets by Mr. Buress, Liza Treyger and a number of Mr. DeForest’s comedian friends.

The festival started Tuesday (which the mayor of Springfield declared “Kenny DeForest Day”) and ended Saturday night at the Blue Room Comedy Club in Springfield. The official hashtag for the event: #belikekenny.

It was only after Kenny died that the DeForests went to their son’s apartment in Brooklyn. Before they arrived, Mr. Beck inspected the place to remove anything untoward. It was cozy and neat, and Mr. Beck made only one adjustment. Propped up next to Mr. DeForest’s turntable was the album cover of the last record he played, the band’s name written in big white letters. It stood facing the apartment’s front door like a billboard.

The band’s name: OH HE DEAD. In a panic, Mr. Beck swapped it for “Rumours,” by Fleetwood Mac.

Months later, when he learned about the switch, Roger DeForest paused. Then he laughed.

“Oh,” he said. “That’s funny.”


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