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A Barrel of Laughs: Go behind the makeup with NFR’s rodeo clowns

Call most people a clown to their face, and you’re just asking for trouble.

Heck, some actual rodeo clowns don’t want to be associated with the word.

“They wanna be ‘entertainers,’ ” John Harrison says. “But the gist of it, I mean, if you wear makeup on your face, you a clown.”

Harrison, 45, of Soper, Oklahoma, may have a slight chip on his shoulder when it comes to rodeo clowns getting their due. After all, last year he was named PRCA Clown/Barrelman of the Year for the first time, Coors Man in the Can for the fifth time and Comedy Act of the Year for the seventh time, making him just the third triple-crown clown in history. He won all three awards once again at Wednesday’s 2023 PRCA Awards Banquet at the South Point.

Still, he has a sense of humor when it comes to his profession. “As my wife says, ‘No woman ever grows up saying she wants to marry a rodeo clown.’ ”

Harrison descends from rodeo royalty. He’s the grandson of Freckles Brown, the National Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee who famously broke Tornado’s 220-cowboy undefeated streak.

When it came time for Harrison to enter the business as a trick rider, that family connection served as a foot in the door. But while something like that may get you a job in the beginning, Harrison says, if you don’t have the talent, you won’t get hired again.

In 2002, he made the transition to clowning once he realized that not every rodeo could afford a specialty act like his, but they’d always find the money for a clown.

Enter ‘Rumpshaker’

Justin Rumford is surely the only link between rodeo and the late ’80s, early ’90s musical phenomenon known as new jack swing.

Growing up, Rumford worked a ranch with two other Justins and a Dustin. To avoid confusion, the four of them were given nicknames, and he became Rump. Later, he was grooving at a high school dance when a friend said something to the effect of, “Hey, look at Rumpshaker,” referencing the smash hit by Wreckx-n-Effect. He’s been known as “Rumpshaker” ever since.

Rumford, 43, of Ponca City, Oklahoma, is third-generation rodeo. He’s ridden saddle broncs, wrestled steer and worked as a bullfighter. Behind the scenes, he’d make the cowboys laugh with recycled Chris Farley bits.

“Everybody was, like, ‘You should be a clown,’ ” Rumford says. “I’m, like, ‘Nah, that’s dumb.’ ”

Then he filled in for a clown at the last minute and had a life-altering revelation: “I’m going to school to be a banker, but this is more fun and pays better.’”

Rumford made some calls, and without even seeing him, Cervi Championship Rodeo hired him for 10 events. That was in 2011. The next year, he was named Clown/Barrelman of the Year for the first of 10 consecutive times.

“I think rodeo was ready for something new and something different,” Rumford says of his success. “I don’t do what anybody else does, and I think that’s why a lot of people liked it. I don’t act like anybody else does. I don’t dress like a cowboy; I wear Motley Crue T-shirts.”

‘Backflip’ takes a different path

In his prime, “Backflip” Johnny Dudley would backflip off his barrel and just about anything else. He’d even backflip over bulls. As he gets older, though, he’s no doubt wishing he had a more sedate nickname to live up to. “Cozy Sweater” Johnny Dudley, perhaps. Maybe “Sippin’ a Tall Glass of Sweet Tea” Johnny Dudley.

“When I was 23, it was an awesome name. Now I’m 45, and it’s starting to catch up to me,” Dudley admits. “But I’m still doin’ ’em. For now.”

Dudley, of Denton, Texas, served eight years in the Marines. He watched a cousin ride once in elementary school, but his first real rodeo exposure wasn’t until one came to South Carolina’s Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. He couldn’t take his eyes off the clown.

In 2000, once he’d left the Marines, Dudley moved back to Texas and found a nearby bull arena that new riders were using to practice. He approached the man running things and said he wanted to be a rodeo clown. To his good fortune, the man was Mutt Neuman, a clown who’d been enshrined in the Louisiana Rodeo Cowboys Association Hall of Fame. He soon took Dudley under his wing.

“By the time I graduated from college, I was making enough money being a rodeo clown that I didn’t have to get a real job,” Dudley says, referencing his degree in international business from the University of Houston.

“I was thinking, alright, I’m gonna try this rodeo clown thing for about three or four or five years, you know, for the fun of it, for the parties and for the — you know, pretty much just the parties,” he says. “Then I’ll settle down and get a job. … But here we are, 20-something years later, still being a rodeo clown.”

‘Everybody wants to see the clown get hit’

Dudley, the 2019 Coors Man in the Can, is a different person once he applies the grease paint.

“I’m a very quiet person. I’m a loner. I stick to myself,” he says. “But I’m comfortable performing. … Whenever I put the costume on and whenever I put the makeup on, then I kinda come out of my shell. It’s like I’m hiding behind something that’s letting me be the person who I wanna be, that I’m maybe too embarrassed to be without the makeup on.”

For the clowns, it’s all fun and games till the bulls come out, they enter barrelman mode, and their main job becomes providing what Harrison calls “an island of safety” for the riders. Once a cowboy hits the dirt, it’s up to the clown to pick up his barrel by the handles inside it and run into harm’s way, either to distract the bull or take a direct hit from all 1,800 pounds of it.

“Let’s face it, everybody wants to see the clown get hit,” Harrison says. “The announcer will ask that question, everybody cheers.”

When a bull charges, a barrelman needs to hunker down, stay tucked and push against the side of the barrel as hard as they can. Otherwise it’s easy to get knocked out. That’s when arms and legs can make their way outside the barrel and the real injuries can happen.

In his various rodeo pursuits, Rumford has torn his right ACL and MCL, along with his left ACL, MCL and meniscus. He’s also suffered two broken legs along the way and had his colon punctured. And those are just the injuries he talks about.

So far, Harrison’s biggest injuries have been cumulative, the result of taking a pounding over the years. He’s had rotator cuff surgery, both knees replaced, he needs a new hip and has herniated discs in his neck that can cause his arms to go numb while he’s driving. Of the times he’s been hurt, Harrison says, “You get to where you don’t count stitches.”

As for what it feels like to take a direct hit from a charging bull, the phrase that keeps coming up is “like a car wreck.”

“You may get hit three times in the same weekend by the same contractor’s bulls,” Harrison says. “Rafter G, or Benny Beutler, Sammy Andrews, those guys that haul those kinds of bulls, you’re gonna probably get hit. And then you might go to a Pete Carr rodeo or a Stace Smith rodeo and not get hit all weekend.

“I would say every about three weeks or so, you’re just guaranteed probably one good whoppin’. And then sometimes you might get three whoppin’s in one night and make you second guess what you chose for a livin’.”

Bringing the funny

It’s nowhere near as difficult to deal with as a good, solid whoppin’, but one of the biggest challenges clowns face is telling jokes in the current political climate.

“I’ve said this jokingly, but I mean it with all my heart,” Rumford shares. “If I say, ‘Hey, everybody. The color red!’ There’s gonna be people (saying), ‘Well he never said a word about the color blue, and that’s my favorite color.’ Rodeo’s easy. Entertaining’s easy. Dealing with people’s hard.”

Clowns are there to entertain whenever there’s a pause in the action. They’ll even tell jokes inside the barrel. That’s a lot of funny to burn through each night.

“I have to entertain 5-year-olds all the way to 95-year-olds, with clean comedy,” Dudley says. “That’s pretty damn hard.”

Life on the road

Also hard? The travel.

Harrison spends 250 days a year on the road, putting 55,000-60,000 miles on his truck every 12 months. Dudley’s away from home 260 days a year, and Rumford tops out at 286 days.

The boredom is the worst part for Harrison. His wife and kids travel with him during the summer and on select weekends. When they’re together, they’ll stop at every national park along their route. When he’s alone in his living-quarters horse trailer, though, the hours can get mighty long.

“You sit in there, you’ve been watching TV for four hours, and the only other thing to do is work out,” Harrison says. “And other than that, you feel pretty worthless.”

Dudley flies home, or his family flies to him, as often as possible. He also stays busy bringing “Backflip’s Bully Stoppers” to elementary schools. Dudley says he’s performed his rodeo-themed anti-bullying program in front of more than 100,000 students and teachers.

Rumford and his wife, Ashley, are homeschooling their 10-year-old triplets, so they’re almost always together on the road. He also hosts the popular “Rump Chat” podcast with rodeo music director Josh “Hambone” Hilton. They’ll record that each day during the National Finals Rodeo in the Cinch booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The nomadic lifestyle isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it for these clowns.

“When the rodeo starts, for two hours, everything is perfect,” Rumford says. “When the rodeo starts, there’s nothing to worry about. Just have fun. Make sure the crowd has a blast.

“There’s no worries during the rodeo.”

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