Tasks and skills
The primary job of the bullfighter is to protect a fallen rider from the bull by distracting the bull and providing an alternative target for the bull to attack, whether the rider has been bucked off or has jumped off of the animal. These individuals expose themselves to great danger in order to protect the cowboy. To this end, they wear bright, loose-fitting clothes that are designed to tear away, with protective gear fitted underneath. Rodeo clowns require speed, agility, and the ability to anticipate a bull's next move. Working closely with very large, very powerful animals, rodeo clowns are often injured seriously, and, sometimes, fatally.
In some venues, rodeo bullfighters still wear clown makeup and some may also provide traditional clown entertainment for the crowd between rodeo events, often parodying aspects of cowboy culture. But most modern bullfighters no longer dress as clowns, though they still wear bright, loose-fitting clothing. At larger events in the USA, the job is split, a bullfighter (sometimes two or more) protects the riders from the bull, and a barrelman and clown (sometimes one person, sometimes two) provide comic humor. Some barrelmen provide both comedy and support to bullfighters, but the job of a bullfighter is generally distinct from that of the comic.
Rodeo clowns date to the beginnings of competitive rodeo in the early 1900s, when promoters hired cowboys to entertain the crowd between events or if the competition was delayed. These individuals began wearing oversized, baggy clothing and eventually developed more outlandish gear. When bull riding competition began to use ill-tempered Brahma bulls in the 1920s, the need for a person to distract the bull from fallen riders fell to the rodeo clown. The use of a barrel for protection began during the 1930s when a rodeo clown named Jasbo Fulkerson began to use a wooden barrel with a solid bottom. Earl W. Bascom became a famous cowboy artist and sculptor using some of his experiences as a rodeo clown and bullfighter.
In Australia, rodeo clowns were a part of rodeos and agricultural shows for many years. They were hired to entertain the spectators between events and to help manage the bullocks, steers or bulls in the arena. In the 1930s, with the introduction of aggressive Brahman bulls and Brahman crossbreds, the job became much more serious. In the late 20th century, acknowledging the great danger faced by the profession, the term bullfighter began to replace the name rodeo clown in formal use. The comedy aspect of clown work, as opposed to protection of rodeo athletes, began to disappear in the USA by the late 1970s.
The rodeo clowns enter the rodeo arena on foot, before the bull is released from the bucking chute. They stand on either side of the chute as the bull is released and work as a team to distract the bull and thus protect the rider and each other. Their role is particularly important when a rider has been injured, in which case the rodeo clown interposes himself between the bull and the rider, or uses techniques such as running off at an angle, throwing a hat, or shouting, so that the injured rider can exit the ring. When a rider has been hung up, they face the extremely dangerous task of trying to free the rider, with one team member going to the bull's head and the other attempting to release the rider.
Typically, at larger rodeos, rodeo clowns work in groups of two or three, with two free-roaming bullfighters and a third clownish-behaving team member, who is known as the barrel man. The barrel man uses a large, well-padded steel barrel that he can jump in and out of easily, and the barrel helps to protect the rodeo clown from the bull. In Australia, rodeo clowns generally do not use barrels.
All members of the protection team wear loose, baggy clothing. The comic may wear the most outlandish clothing in bright colors, which may include things like wearing an inflatable female costume, and uses noisy colorful props such as rubber chickens and exploding garbage cans.
Typically, the clown carries a microphone and heckles the rodeo announcer, the crowd and anyone else he recognizes. During the bull riding event, the clown supports the bullfighters, including taunting the bulls by calling them names and waving props at them, usually from within the safety of the barrel. Rodeo clowns may also tell jokes and use topical humor, though in one case, a clown told a racist joke about Michelle Obama, which offended many and for which he and the rodeo's organizers subsequently apologized.
Bullfighting has grown in popularity, so that in addition to being a job in its own right, it is a competitive event at rodeos around the United States. When not working to protect bull riders, rodeo clowns also have their own performances. Bulls are turned into the arena and the clown works with the animal, evaluated based upon the aptitude he displays in controlling and maneuvering the bull, precision in jumping the bull, contact with the bull, and handling of the barrel. Similar skills are sometimes displayed at traditional rodeos in intermission acts. A typical format is a 60- or 70-second encounter between bull and bullfighter, in which the bullfighter scores points for various maneuvers. In contrast to the older sport of bullfighting, no harm is done to the bull in rodeo bullfighting.
From 1981–2000, Wrangler Jeans sponsored the Bullfighter of the Year contest at the National Finals Rodeo, The California Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association designates a Bullfighter of the Year annually. Other titles include the American Cowboys Association Freestyle Bullfighting Champion and the Ultimate Challenge Freestyle Bullfighting Champion. Schools exist to provide training for potential rodeo clowns.
Famous rodeo clowns and bullfighters
- Jimmy Anderson, Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Earl W. Bascom (1906-1995), Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, Rodeo Hall of Fame, California Rodeo Hall of Fame, Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame, Lethbridge Sports Hall of Fame, Raymond Sports Hall of Fame, Utah Rodeo Hall of Fame, Utah Sports Hall of Fame, Victor Vallege College Alumni Hall of Fame, Marion County Cattlemen's Hall of Fame
- Joe Baumgartner, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Ken Boen, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Bobby Clark, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Gene Clark, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Felix Cooper, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- George Doak, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Quail Dobbs, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Rex Dunn, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Jasbo Faulkerson (1904-1949), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Dudley.J. Gaudin, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Lecile Harris, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Hoyt Heffner (1911-1977), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Homer Holcomb (1896-1971), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Chuck Hensen, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- John Lindsey (1906-1974), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Junior Meek (1936-2006), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- George Mills (1912-1964), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Dixie Lee Reger-Mosley, Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Wick Peth, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Slim Pickens (1919-1983), Rodeo Hall of Fame, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Wilbur Plaugher, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Flint Rasmussen, PRCA Clown of the Year
- Jimmy Schumacher (1920-2010), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Charley Shultz (1891-1985), Rodeo Hall of Fame
- Rob Smets, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Jon Taylor, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Steve Tomac, North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
- Andy Womack, PRCA Hall of Fame
- Rick Young, Rodeo Hall of Fame, Rodeo Hall of Fame