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3 Great Specials to Stream Over the Holidays

Kenny DeForest, ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’

Stream it on YouTube

When I was 9 or 10, I was picked last for a football game and, because of my thick glasses, immediately given a nickname: the Brain. This was no compliment. The quarterback on my team, after steering clear of me for most of the game, couldn’t continue to ignore that I was being left uncovered and grudgingly tossed a long spiral that fell firmly into my hands for a touchdown, changing my name. The Brain became the Brain Who Could Catch. This remains probably the greatest moment in my life.

The absurdity of glorying in such minor athletic triumphs has never been captured more lovingly and amusingly than in a special released this year by Kenny DeForest. This hour of jokes, which begins and ends with a game of one-on-one basketball, is titled “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” When DeForest died this month at 37, in a bike accident in Brooklyn, most didn’t.

It’s a peculiar kind of cruelty when a young comic dies, which only partly explains the outpouring of love on social media. DeForest, who took over as host of the Sunday show at the Knitting Factory years ago, was beloved by comics for his generosity, infectious spirit, easy smile and love of the craft of stand-up. The stories that have emerged about him offering support or simply brightening up a room are as inspiring as they are legion. One of the many awful elements of this tragedy is that he was exactly the kind of joyful, skilled comic who could help ease the pain of it.

“Don’t You Know?” is about coping with the end of something important, in this case his athletic career. “I really appreciate you being here,” he says at the start. “It’s a real honor to be able to pursue my second dream.” His first was basketball. That ended after he was dunked on by a future N.B.A. player in a high school game. Athletes struggle to move on, he says, because they don’t know what to do with their intensity, which he explores, along with struggles with depression and alcoholism.

With silky ease, DeForest turns these dark subjects into humor. His laid-back delivery makes them seem manageable, in part through punchlines and charm. But also a clear belief in the power of jokes. The end of his basketball career is reframed as the start of his comedy career. He finishes his special with an amazingly romantic story recounting New York playground glory.

You may relate to how he turns the memory of a step-back jumper on a Brooklyn street into something monumental. You may find it goofy. But it’s a wonderful example of how a story can be more powerful than a dunk, how it can provide solace and inspiration and even hope.

Some are lucky enough to have memories of DeForest. The rest of us have his work, his two superb late-night TV sets (the one from “Late Night With Seth Meyers” is the funniest, in my opinion) and this recent hour, which ends with him breaking the fourth wall, looking at the camera and flashing a preposterous smile.

Dina Hashem, ‘Dark Little Whispers’

Stream it on Amazon Prime

In a mustard yellow hoodie and jeans, Dina Hashem couldn’t be more unassuming, opening her debut special with a “hey” and a little wave, resembling the shy kid in class raising a hand but only getting halfway there. She nods to how her introspective, quiet personality is an odd match for stand-up. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she says. “I’m supposed to be depressed at the library.” And yet, those who follow comedy in New York know that she would kill at the library, just as she does at clubs.

One of the best deadpan artists working, she delivers a handful of superb, often dark premises, most of which emerge in a low-key offhanded style, as if she’s spitballing. There’s a clever one about the marketing meeting to come up with “Never forget” after Sept. 11 and an elaborate bit about how it must be weird to meet God in the afterlife if you have had plastic surgery. “God would be looking at you like, you didn’t like my work?”

A Muslim comic, Hashem delivers clever bits about religion, including a tricky one about the meaning of jihad that seems to be going one way, then spins out into a surprise that will delight language nerds. Maybe her soft-spoken vibe allows her to get away with more than a loudmouth would, like a line about Jeff Bezos going to hell, delivered on an Amazon platform. I bet he would laugh.

Pete Holmes, ‘I Am Not for Everyone’

Stream it on Netflix

In his latest special, Pete Holmes makes a forceful counterargument to atheist comics like Ricky Gervais who mock belief in God. It’s a smart joke, but what I will remember from this hour is the one that followed: “Ever have to poop so bad that you pee second?”

For better and worse, my kids see a lot of stand-up, and so my 9-year old was watching this joke with me. I have never heard her laugh so loud. A full-body guffaw, followed by her pointing at the screen and saying, “I know exactly what he means.”

There’s a power in that moment of recognition in stand-up, especially when it’s about something you’re not supposed to talk about in class or at the dinner table. Reaching comedy heaven is more about finding those jokes, lowbrow as they may be, than arguments about God.

Holmes, who has a gaping mouth and stuffed-animal physique, did dad jokes before he was a dad. In midcareer, he remains plugged in to the bountiful pleasures of the silly, the throwaway pun, the goofy word choice, the prank. Has becoming a dad made him more scatological? Maybe. And yet, even though he has very funny bits about the very young and very old, he isn’t aiming for a demographic.

You should watch him with kids only if you’re holding a remote tightly, because there’s enough yelling about dildos that you will need that fast-forward button. That his comedy mixes the sweetly innocent with the dirty, the stupid with the sophisticated, the warm with the spiky may not help him commercially, but I respect it. His art is an honest reflection of his sensibility with a minimum of pandering. As dumb as this sounds, his jokes about poop and pee have integrity.

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