RODEO CLOWNS TRACE to the early 1900s, when organizers would provide comic entertainment to keep people in their seats during a lull in the action. The early acts dressed like actual clowns, hillbillies, or inept police officers, and performed rope tricks and riding stunts. Many were performers from circuses or Wild West shows, or they were cowboys who wanted to make extra money between events.
The clown’s additional duty of protecting the cowboy from an angry bull began in the 1920s, when rodeos started using Brahma bulls from Texas, a breed known for its distinctive humped back and its nasty habit of attacking a man on the ground. Barrels were later added to clown routines, both to distract the bull and to protect the clown from harm. (One of the most famous clowns from this era, Slim Pickens, eventually starred in dozens of movies, including the classic film Dr. Strangelove.)
Until the late 1970s, there was only one type of rodeo clown — the kind that did comic bits, joshed with the announcer, and protected riders from a wild horse or bull. Then Wrangler began sponsoring bullfighting competitions, and the events were so popular that a subset of clown evolved that was more bullfighter than rodeo clown. These guys dressed like clowns but usually didn’t wear makeup. They didn’t tell jokes or brandish wacky props. Their sole task was to protect the cowboy by running around the bull and distracting it away from the rider.
As a result, the clown became known as the barrel man, or the man in the can. Today, most rodeos feature bullfighters as well as a barrel man, and, with the duties divided up, clowns now have more time and freedom to develop their material.
Utah native Troy “the Wild Child” Lerwill features trick motorcycle riding as part of his routine. Nebraska’s Butch Lehmkuhler incorporates a trampoline into his act. Dale “Gizmo” McCracken, from Missouri, has created the character of a crackpot inventor and introduces a series of homemade contraptions. Montanan Flint Rasmussen, perhaps the most famous rodeo clown working today, uses his natural athletic skills to perform acrobatic comic bits based on rock music and popular movies. “
Flint has basically put us back on the map,” Kiff says. “He has dance moves … and he’s a funny, funny guy. It’s nice to have someone at the top represent you whom you really have a lot of respect for.”