Clownin’ Around at the Rodeo
By Jennifer M. Aguilar
Most people visit the rodeo for the high-octane excitement. From barrel racing to bull riding, there is surely plenty of suspense that happens in the ring. But it’s hard to imagine those death-defying acts being much fun to watch if it weren’t for the other man in the arena, the clown. Rodeo clowns serve an important role, both helping to make sure the cowboys stay safe and the show goes on. Kelly Clark is one cowboy and clown that takes both his jobs very seriously, silly face and all.
For Clark, competitive rodeo is in his blood. His dad was a world champion all-around cowboy and bull rider during his childhood, and for decades he followed in those legendary, boot-clad footsteps.
“I rode bulls for 32 years,”
Clark said. “I rode bulls in high school. I went to college on a rodeo scholarship. I applied my entire life and being to bullring, and I think I had some success with that,” Clark said.
After graduating from Tarleton College, Clark traveled to nearly every state in the United States riding bulls, and barrel racing, though he’s quick to admit that was never his forte. “I focused on the bull riding so I could go further and faster.”
“I won a lot of titles, and did some good in the bull riding field. But Mr. Age is undefeated,” Clark said, with a laugh. “So I had to get out
before it wiped me out. I had to get out of riding bulls. At 46, he was finally ready to make that tough call. I won the last bull ride I went to, and I walked out of the arena and said I’m done,” Clark said.
Clark’s retirement from the rodeo scene didn’t last long, though. Not a man of leisure, instead of lounging, he looked right back to the place that felt most like home, the rodeo, to help give him a newfound purpose. “I retired from bull riding about 12 years ago, and about 8 years ago my family started putting on bull riding events,” Clark said.
Together with his wife, Charlene, and his son, Ky, he helped create a company called Chute 2 Productions, which plans and produces rodeo events throughout Texas and Southern United States.
“Bulls on the Beach” in
Granbury is just one of their annual events, and it’s a good example of what they do best, by bringing the excitement and the rich history of the rodeo to people and places that might not otherwise get to experience it. “We set them up (rodeos) to go anywhere and everywhere… city parks, parking lots… we can set up where a traditional rodeo can’t.”
Next year’s docket, for instance, will include a rodeo at the First Baptist Church in Wylie.
Though the family was already enjoying success as rodeo planners and producers, they soon found that they needed to do more than just work behind-the-scenes to help their events run smoothly. They needed someone who could step into the ring, as a rodeo clown.
“As we put on the events, if something came up where maybe a bull wasn’t ready or something, someone needed to stall for a minute, so I just started doing the clowning deal so I could regulate what was going on in the area.”
From that need, though, Clark quickly found a new calling: clowning.
“When our shows got pretty big, I hired one of the best guys in the business. But all my guys said, ‘Hey, we’d rather see you out there.’” So, he listened, and he’s been happily clowning ever since.
Though it might seem like a rather unlikely journey, Clark is quick to point out that he’s not the first cowboy to transition from role of competitor to clown. “Lots of guys started in competition, and then moved over. A lot of guys knew me from my riding days, and knew what kind of rider I was. I think I’m still respected for that, but I also want to be known as one of the best clowns there is,” Clark said. “I want to put forth as much effort as I can to be the best I can at anything I do… I take clowning very seriously.”
Clark’s work ethic, and natural knack for humor, helped him create a new name for himself within the rodeo circuit as a professional ”Funnyman,” as he likes to be called. In fact, when Chute 2 Productions isn’t putting on a rodeo, Clark now eagerly clowns for other rodeos throughout the U.S., including the Wylie Chamber of Commerce’s annual fall rodeo.
It was Clark’s friend and colleague, Wes Ward, whom first suggested he would be a great asset to the event. Ward himself was an award-winning bareback rider before becoming a Professional Rodeo Announcer. “He hired me three years ago for Wylie,” Clark said of Ward. “He told me he’d been doing the rodeo for 15 years, and I was the best guy he’d had there.”
The Wylie rodeo enlists other clowns to help during bull riding; these clowns’ primary job is to help keep the competitors safe. But Clark is the only clown who is there throughout the entire show. “I stay out around the barrel, and entertain between the gaps,” Clark said.
This year will mark Clark’s third time helping in Wylie, where he says he’s built friendships, and he gets to enjoy making the rodeo a family affair. Both his wife and son have helped in the past, as well, making it a fun event for all of them.
And Clark makes it easy to understand why he and his family continue to put as much time into the rodeos as they do. “Through rodeo I’ve gotten a lot,” Clark said, mentioning the titles, endorsements and travel that the rodeo life afforded him as a competitor.
“I want to preserve what rodeo has been for 120 years,” he said. “I’m a big rodeo fan. I want to preserve the story and all the stuff that goes along with it.”
The Wylie Rodeo, in particular, has become a source of joy for Clark precisely because of how it celebrates the classic rodeo that has been such a huge part of his life.“I think the Wylie Rodeo is the persona of the traditional rodeos that are out there… it’s a really good representation,” he said. “I’m really proud of it, whether I’ve been a part of it or not.”
When asked if he was always seen as the resident clown in his circle, Clark said that he had always aimed to be funny, but quickly learned that professional clowning is something different, altogether.
“I would say that it’s my personality to try to be funny. Sometimes it doesn’t work.. When I go into the arena, it’s a different funny. You’ve got to be professional funny,” Clark said. “Contrary to what some might believe, clowning around isn’t all fun and games… being a clown isn’t that easy, honestly. The timing is a great deal of it.”
“You don’t want to say something funny at a bad time, like being caught telling a joke while someone gets hurt. I’m thinking all the time, is there time to do one right now? I don’t want to break the flow; I wanna keep it going,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to it; I put a lot of time into my acts and skits.”
Though Clark knows that many of the guests at each rodeo will be seeing the show for the first time, he still likes to work diligently to keep his act fresh, fun, and family-friendly, for any repeat visitors. “We want to give them something they haven’t seen,” Clark said. “I work hard at the craft of it. I worked very hard as a competitor, to try to be the champion, and I work equally hard trying to be the best rodeo clown I can be.”
Fortunately, it seems that hard work has paid off. These days, Clark is as confident in his clowning shoes as he was in his cowboy boots. In fact, he says many people now see him as a clown first, and a bull rider second. “I will tell you, the transition is people forget that you were a bull rider, and they just assume you’re always been a clown, which I guess that’s okay, ‘cause it looks like you’ve done a good job with it,” he said.
At the very least, Clark can always fall back on his signature line, “This isn’t my first rodeo,” knowing that in his case, it’s no bull!