BEING CHASED BY A BULL IS MARTIN KIFF’S JOB. AND, YEAH, THERE’S AN ART TO IT. BUT THE BIGGER QUESTION IS, HOW DOES MARTIN KIFF FIT 26 RODEO CLOWNS INTO ONE TRUCK?DUNCANS MILLS IS a speck of a town and is located in Northern California's Sonoma County, 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Alongside the highway, the annual Russian River Rodeo is about to start its second day of action.
Barbecue smoke rises into the air, mixing with the earthy odors of dust, sweat, and livestock. Booths offer knives, hats, and other cowboy gear. Although we’re only two hours north of San Francisco, we could be anywhere in rural America — except the bartenders here are serving Chardonnay.
Behind the rodeo arena, Martin Kiff sits in front of a mirror in his trailer, calmly dabbing white makeup around his eyes. He’s been a rodeo clown since 1981, and he’s carrying on a long-standing tradition that we all recognize but that few of us really understand.
I grew up in a rodeo family, and I have to admit that the most interesting aspect of any of it was always the clown. As a kid, I watched those country comedians entertain crowds with wacky and corny routines, which usually involved little cars, toilet seats, suitcases filled with lingerie, brooms, burros, birds, monkeys, or chickens. In one case, there was even a Chihuahua named Pimiento. Today, Kiff has graciously accepted my slight obsession and agreed to explain the world of rodeo clowns.
OVER THE YEARS, Kiff, 44, has worked rodeos around the United States, including the Professional Bull Riders tour and the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo. He’s worked with some of the biggest clowns in the business — people like Leon Coffee, Shorty Gorham, and Loyd Ketchum.
But he still loves to do the smaller rodeos, and today’s event is definitely small. There are no ESPN camera crews, no bigname professional cowboys on the schedule, just local guys and gals competing against one another.
“What you’re going to see today, this is what it used to be,” he says, pulling on a pair of garish yellow-and-black-striped socks. “This is how it started.”
One bonus of a smaller rodeo is that the clown actually gets more time. “I’ll be doing two bits today. Usually, I just do one. At the big rodeos, they want it done in two hours,” he says, and then adds, chuckling, “Give me the opportunity to goof off a little!”
The key to any rodeo-clown act is material the audience recognizes, Kiff says. “You try to keep it somehow age-related. One of the funniest things about comedy: Pain sells. I do a bit with a little fire truck; I have to rescue a cat out of a tree. Everything breaks, and there’s a chance I could fall off the ladder. Your classic comedy. All those Jackass movies — if those guys weren’t getting hurt, you wouldn’t be watching it.”
He recalls a performance of one of his favorite routines, in which he announced to the crowd, in great detail, that inside one of the chutes was a vicious fighting bull and that he was going to release it into the arena. The chute opened, and out charged his trained Great Dane, outfitted with fake bullhorns.
“He came running out at 90 miles an hour past all the chutes,” laughs Kiff. “Cowboys were killing themselves to get out of the way, falling over the fence. I just howled.”
Kiff believes that rodeo clowns are even funnier than circus clowns. “We work in front of more people. You’ve gotta play it by ear; you’ve gotta deal with the elements — I’ve been in snow, I’ve been in 110 degrees, I’ve been in pouring rain.”
And when the bull-riding event starts, the job gets serious, because a clown also must help protect a cowboy from getting trampled.
Bull riding is considered one of the most dangerous sports in the world. A rider attempts to hang on to a powerful 2,000-pound animal for eight seconds, and if he gets hit by the kicking hooves, the force can break bones, puncture a lung, and even kill him. The pro-rodeo circuit averages one or two deaths each year.
Fortunately for the riders, clowns study the psychology of the animal and learn how it moves, how it turns. A bull running at full speed is easiest to avoid — you simply step out of the way. But the smart ones, Kiff says, will walk slowly toward the clown, because they know the human has to wait until the very last second to run away.
Sometimes, being chased by a bull can be very entertaining. Kiff recalls one rodeo in Salina, Kansas, where it was inevitable that the bull was going to catch up to him. “I knew I was gonna get it, and I just started yelling as loud as I could: ‘AHHHHH!!’ He hit me right in the butt, and I went up and hit the top rail, flipped over and rolled, and landed in the seating area. I got up and kept going up the stairs, and there was this big lady coming down with a tub of popcorn. I stopped and thought to myself, clear as day, You shouldn’t do this.”
But Kiff couldn’t help himself. “I yelled twice as loud, turned around and ran back into the arena, and jumped over the bull, who was still standing there at the fence!” he says. “She was angry. But the crowd went nuts, you know? I got in trouble, but it was just perfect.”