In 2018, does pointing out that Donald Trump is president still count as a joke? In his new show, Sean Bedlam’s well-crafted goofball persona is put in service of scattershot political commentary.
In Death to America, Bedlam unfolds a sprawling act that touches on swordsmithing, smartphones, hipsters and heroin addicts with fine-tuned disorganisation. An enfant terrible who relentlessly paces, poses and stop-starts, Bedlam’s signature manoeuvre is intentionally flubbing a joke in a way that somehow enhances it. In a comedy scene overpopulated with would-be wackaloons, it’s a pleasure to encounter a comic with an authentic flair for the chaotic.
The downfall of Death to America is Bedlam’s reliance on topical shock humour that doesn’t actually seek to shock. Provocation depends on context – routines about paedophile priests and racist cops might deserve a laugh for their audacity in Minnesota or in Mareeba, but not here. In Melbourne, suggesting that the election of Donald Trump could herald the end of the world isn’t inciting bedlam – it’s preaching to the choir.
The temptation to substitute agreement for amusement, a phenomenon Seth Meyers termed “clapter,” is understandable. Jon Stewart has founded a 30-year career on a similar type of pandering-as-provocation. Few mentally healthy people would really want to mount a stage and risk being savaged by punters from the far side of the partisan divide. All the same, Sean Bedlam’s audaciously loopy persona doesn’t fit well with staid semi-jokes about punching Nazis.
Bedlam finds real laughter in the moments that rely on his off-kilter personal perspective, insistently referring to blacksmiths as “sword bakers” and arguing with a noisy Croft Institute ice maker as if it were a heckler. With luck, Bedlam’s substance will live up to his style next time around.