Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
They dress in clown clothes. They wear clown faces. And part of their job is to clown around and tickle your funnybone.
But behind the costume and makeup are serious, professional athletes who put their safety on the line to protect the cowboys competing in the rodeo arena.
After a rider falls or jumps from a bucking bull, the rodeo clowns — bullfighters and barrelmen — give the bull something else to go after so the rider can make it to safety. The bullfighters are in the arena on foot. The barrelman is inside a barrel and provides a barrier for the rider to duck behind.
Here are five nationally known rodeo clowns. The first, J.J. Harrison, will be working the 2012 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which starts this week and runs through Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.
If life had gone a little differently for J.J. Harrison, today he might still be teaching social studies and science at a middle school in Walla Walla, Wash. Or he might still be a dean of students at an alternative high school there.
But four years ago, Harrison traded the classroom for his first love: professional rodeo clowning. After proving to be a crowd-pleaser at rodeos nationwide, Harrison was voted in by his peers this year as clown/barrelman for the NFR.
"In my eyes, this is the world championship for a clown," Harrison said. "It's the pinnacle of my career. It's the biggest honor."
Harrison said he likes to dance in his acts to entertain the crowd between events. But at the NFR, he won't get to perform as much because the events move more quickly than at local rodeos. He doesn't mind if most of what he'll do is protect the cowboys by distracting the bull from inside a barrel.
"National Finals Rodeo is about the contestants, our stars," he said. Still, when he gets in front of the crowd, "I hope to hit a home run."
Justin Rumford knows what it's like to be a professional rodeo cowboy — he wrestled steers and rode saddle broncs as a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association competitor from 1998 to 2008.
Four years ago, however, he decided to switch gears, put on the makeup and make his living as a rodeo clown. And it's worked out well — Rumford was picked as the NFR 2012's clown/barrelman alternate.
"Just to be selected as an alternate is quite an honor," the 30-year-old Ponca City, Okla., resident said.
The former competitor says being a rodeo clown is financially better for him. Good rodeo clowns can make more than $100,000 a year. Competitors might be able to make more than that, but they have to enter more rodeos and have more expenses, he said.
"You know what you're going to get paid every rodeo, where in competing, you never know," Rumford said.
Rumford, who has a business finance degree from Northwestern Oklahoma State University, spends his off-time buying and selling cattle. But he prefers his time in the rodeo arena.
"I like traveling; I like working with crowds," he said. "I like rodeo people. They're good folks. Every weekend, it's a new place. It just doesn't get old."
If you see a performance by rodeo clown Keith Isley, you might feel like you're at the circus.
Not only does he use comedy in his roping and bullwhip acts, but he has several animals who perform with him in the arena: a horse, a miniature horse and a dog.
"The dog, if you 'shoot' him (with blanks), he'll fall over dead. He'll roll over, back up, jump through your arms and run the barrels," Isley said.
His horses will pick up a rope or a hat, lie down, sit up and roll over like a dog.
His crowd-pleasing performances have won him the title of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year from 2006 to 2011. He's nominated for the title this year, too.
The 55-year-old Isley, who is from Goldston, N.C., began competing in junior rodeo bareback riding and bullfighting at age 15. Later, he found he enjoyed bullfighting more than competing, so he decided to become a rodeo clown.
"Whenever you laugh, that's good medicine, and you forget about everything that's gone wrong that day, that week or that month," he said.
He still has a letter a woman sent him in 1997, telling him how his show helped her laugh again after her husband's death.
"Things like that, money just can't buy," he said.
Dale 'Gizmo' McCracken
"I'm really more of a comedian than a cowboy," said Dale "Gizmo" McCracken, 50, who has been protecting cowboys from bulls since he was 15.
McCracken, who lives in Wheaton, Mo., has been with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association since 1992. After he married his high school sweetheart, Janice, when he was 18, he started college, planning to pursue a vocational-agriculture career.
But "after starving the first year," he decided to go back to the rodeo circuit as a bullfighter. He began developing his stand-up comedy routine during the 1980s onstage in Branson, Mo.
McCracken created the character of "Gizmo, the World's Greatest Inventor," whose gadgets and gizmos always seemed to go awry on stage. He's taken that character to the rodeos across the country. He was a feature act at the 2005 NFR.
Most recently, McCracken created an act that's a parody of characters from the History Channel's "Swamp People" reality show.
McCracken will be at this year's NFR, but he won't be wearing the greasepaint. He'll be working with the PRCA media staff in the NFR press room.
Ash 'CrAsh' Cooper
Ash Cooper, a Canadian rancher who wears tattered costumes as "CrAsh Cooper," is the only Canadian ever selected as a clown at the National Finals Rodeo, where he appeared in 2011.
But there's another side to the man behind the greasepaint from Senlac, Saskatchewan, which is about 300 miles north of the Montana border. Cooper also is an accomplished painter.
Take off the clown makeup, give him some watercolors and pencils and he becomes Ash Cooper, Western-theme artist.
Cooper plans to be at this year's NFR to sell his paintings and drawings and to work in a booth with other artists from Leanin' Tree, a Western-theme greeting card company.
But he will be doing some cowboy work, too. His family raises bucking horses, and he is bringing a horse to participate in the rodeo.