Clowns, like any other entertainer, prepare for the show with makeup and costume like actors bustling behind closed curtains. But rodeo clowns take both of their roles — comedian and athlete — very seriously. For them, backstage is also a locker room, full of muscular men and sweaty athletic gear. As the announcer’s voice echoes underneath stadiums in Austin and Houston and outside trailers in Edna, Texas, they prepare physically and emotionally. When the overture is over, after the national anthem is sung, it’s time to face the bulls.

“By the time you step across the plane of that gate, it’s on,” said Keith Isley, a self-described “clown, barrel man, rodeo entertainer.” He explains: “I’ve finally realized once you get the makeup on, you can do a lot of different things, and people expect you to be funny and do some weird things.”

Rodeo clowning — or bullfighting, as it’s more respectfully known — is a captivating mix of sport and entertainment. Rodeo clowns have painted faces and shoot each other out of cannons, but they are also carefully trained and practiced animal wranglers. On the floor of the arena their abilities can mean life or death for a bucked bull rider. That’s when the rodeo is no clowning matter.

“It’s the most paradoxical profession I can think of,” Gail Woerner, a rodeo historian, said about the rodeo clown. “Because on one side, he has to be afraid of nothing and stand in front of the bull and distract him and he could be killed. The rest of the rodeo, he’s trying to make people laugh at him.

“They make it look easy, and it’s a real art.”

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