Combining the death-defying bravery of the Spanish bullfighter with the fleet-footed, comedic antics of a court jester, the rodeo clown is a unique and well-loved American tradition. It’s hard work, requiring nerves of steel, a quick wit and an honest-to-goodness love for rodeo.
Just ask Walla Walla, Wash., resident J.J. Harrison while he’s on a break this Saturday. He’ll be making his fifth straight appearance at the Hawaii Horse Owners’ annual Panaewa Stampede.
Considered one of the nation’s top rodeo clowns, Harrison, 37, initially pursued a career path in teaching, having obtained a master’s degree in education, said Nancy Cabral, an organizer and secretary of the event.
“He’s one of the very best, most sought-after,” she said. “We’re really lucky to have him.”
In December, Harrison served as the rodeo clown for the 2012 National Finals Rodeo — popularly known as the “Super Bowl of rodeo.”
In a phone interview from his home last week, Harrison said he came to rodeo clowning relatively late compared to others, but his drive to perform and to use his gifts to invoke laughter while honoring the work done by cowboys was too much to ignore.
“I was a rodeo competitor for a lot of years. But I first worked as a teacher for eight years. I just kind of fell into this (rodeo clowning). This job just kind of presented itself to me,” he said. “You don’t really know you want to do a job until you’ve tried it, and once I did, that was it. I’ve been doing it ever since, and it’s just been great.”
Rodeo clowns fill a variety of jobs at rodeos, but originally their purpose was to serve as protection for riders thrown from bulls.
By distracting a bull from a rider who has been thrown and may already be injured, the clowns prevent further injury. They also provide comic relief for the crowd in between events. Now, that job tends to be split in two, with rodeo clowns either doing a full-time entertainment act, or working in barrels to distract bulls from thrown riders.
Harrison said he’s done both, and he much prefers his niche as a “walk ‘n’ talk” clown.
“I don’t do much work with the bulls when we’re in Panaewa. I get a microphone, and I keep the action going. I just wing it, I’m very off-the-cuff,” he said. “I’ll have fun with the cowboys, poke fun at them. You try and get local icons and bring them into it. It’s about making the comedy fresh and more personal.”
One of Harrison’s more popular gags involves donning a fat suit and tutu and riding around the arena. He’ll also ski through dirt behind a speeding horse. It’s great fun to watch, but can be a little tough on a clown’s body, he said.
“I have to watch out for the horses, and be cognizant of my surroundings at all times,” he said. “And I’ll get the torn ligaments and torn shoulders and things. Skiing behind a horse is not easy. And when I’m sitting on the horse in the fat suit, that can freak the horse out and it will try to buck me off.
“Not one rodeo does it to you. I do it every weekend, and every weekend I get beat up a little bit. It adds up,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got all kinds of injuries.”
Another unfortunate drawback to a job seemingly steeped in mirth are the long hours away from home. By its very nature, rodeo clowning means plenty of travel, and that means time away from his 4-year-old son, Huck, and wife, Melissa.
But there’s still plenty to enjoy, and his annual trip to Hawaii has become a highlight, both for Harrison and his family.
“They come out with me,” he said, “and they just have a ball. We have so many friends there now, it’s more like we’re just going to go visit friends than going to work.”
Having worked some of the biggest rodeos in the country, which draw thousands and thousands of spectators, East Hawaii’s little rodeo offers a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with fans, he said.
“The No. 1 thing I like about it is that I get to be closer to the crowd than I am at most rodeos,” he said. “I’ve worked rodeos with 18,000 people in the stands, but the relationship you build with the fans is much less than you get to do in Hawaii. And to entertain people you know is fun.
“My first year, people didn’t know what I was about,” he added. “But now people see me, they recognize me, and we have fun together.”
Harrison encourages his fans not to be shy.
“I want to make sure people know I’m approachable and they should say hi. Come get an autograph if you want. I love meeting new people. You’re never bothering me if you want to introduce yourself,” he said.