• Image about Martin Kiff
TERENCE FORD

KIFF GREW UP in the nearby town of Healdsburg, and like most young adults in the 1970s, he loved the zany wit of that era’s comedians. He absorbed everyone’s work, from Richard Pryor’s to George Carlin’s to Woody Allen’s to Bill Irwin’s to Monty Python’s.

While studying at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Kiff got involved with the school’s rodeo team. He paid his dues, and when rodeo expanded to include bullfighting, he chose to remain a barrel man.

“Some people like the pain,” he says. “I was always a wimp in that sense. I thought if I had a shot to keep going in the business and stay around, that was where it would be.”

He quickly learned how to transfer comedy he loved into an act that worked in the arena. Kiff tells me one of the bits he’ll do today is a classic circus-clown car routine that he’s adapted for a rodeo crowd. He loads his  lip with a pinch of chewing tobacco, and I follow him out of the trailer.

The afternoon progresses through broncriding and roping events, and throughout, Kiff wanders around the arena, carrying a hockey stick. When the announcer asks what he’s doing, he explains that he’s looking for pucks. “The green ones,” he adds helpfully.

After the team roping finishes, the action stops, and Kiff drives a tiny yellow truck into the middle of the arena. Bales of hay are lashed to the back of the vehicle. The announcer again asks what he’s up to, and Kiff replies that he has a truckful of rodeo clowns. The announcer acts like he’s skeptical and makes him a bet: He’ll give Kiff $20 for every clown he can produce.

Kiff says that’s no problem and opens the door. A stream of children pours out of the truck. The announcer counts each one out loud as he or she emerges, and in the end, there are an amazing 26 kids in total, all laughing and fidgety. It’s hard to describe in words, but it’s really hilarious to watch.

“Okay, but I thought you said these were rodeo clowns,” says the announcer. “They have to be funny.”

“Oh, they’re funny,” Kiff answers. He gathers all the kids and says he’s going to teach them all to walk like a bulldogger — a burly tough guy who jumps off a horse and wrestles a steer to the ground by the horns.

The kids all scoot their rear ends down, hold out their arms as if they’re rippling with muscles, make tough faces, and swagger about like a group of apes. The crowd roars with laughter.

Kiff says they’re now all going to walk like a barrel racer — a female rodeo competitor whose stereotype is that of a stuck-up beauty queen. As one, the children all point to the sun, take their index fingers and push up their noses into the air, and strut about the arena. Again the crowd goes wild.

Being from a family of barrel racers, I myself feel slightly guilty for laughing along. But not much.

The routine ends, and the kids dash out of the arena, faces beaming with excitement. I catch up with Kiff afterward, and he tells me proudly, “Every one of those kids falls in love with rodeo.”

After 26 years, Kiff no longer works the clown circuit full-time. He is busy raising a family and running a custom-metalwork business. But he still does several rodeos each year around the country, and he’s the current president of the California Pro Rodeo Circuit.

“If you’re good and you show up and you’re nice to people,” he says, wiping the paint off his face, “it’s a hard job to screw up.”