There are some gifts you have to be born with: mathematical aptitude, movie star good looks, a knack for entertaining—especially within spitting distance of a 2,000-pound bull high on indignation and testosterone. That’s what Flint Rasmussen, one of the most sought-after clowns in rodeo, has done successfully for more than 20 years. And to the easy-going, 40-year-old Montana native, it’s no big deal; he’s just like any other comedian, but with dirt and barrels instead of microphones and a stage.
“When I get asked about my job and tell people what I do, I get ‘Oh, that’s so dangerous!’ But that’s not really what I do—the dangerous part. I’m strictly an entertainer.”
For most of the year Rasmussen works exclusively during bull riding, one of the most popular, and most dangerous, events in rodeo. But during this year’s Calgary Stampede Rodeo July 4 to 13, he’ll be working the crowds for all six rodeo events, ready to jump in during lulls in the action—when a rider’s not quite ready, or an animal is being difficult—to entertain crowds with a combination of dancing, comedy and song. Much of his act is impromptu, though he does have a few standards, including impersonations of Michael Jackson, Elvis and hip hop artists, as well as his ‘Lord of the Clowns’ routine, a spoof of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance.
But for Calgary, Rasmussen says it’s a different ball game. The crowds are more varied and less educated about the sport of rodeo—no offence, he’s quick to add.
“You know, there’s people from all over the world, that don’t know the sport, so it’s almost entertainment and education at the same time. I just kind of roll into Calgary with an open mind, ready to play off the things around me that (hopefully) entertain people.”
Rasmussen insists his ease with rodeo and its untamed animals is part of his job. It was, not surprisingly, part of his upbringing as well. He grew up in Choteau, Montana, the youngest son in a rodeo family. His father Stan and brother Will are both announcers, and as a kid he travelled to rodeos across the United States, becoming something of a connoisseur. The reason he got into clowning, however, wasn’t because it was a life-long dream; like most entrepreneurs, he saw a need and decided to fill it.
“I always talked about how I didn’t think rodeo clowns were very funny, so my dad and brother kind of dared me to do it.”
That was back in 1987. Rasmussen took the dare, and starting working rodeos in the summer to pay his college tuition. After graduating he briefly became a high school teacher, but missed the thrill of rodeo and in 1996 made the transition to a professional, full-time clown. But, as promised, he did things “his way,” developing a persona and style that has won him eight Rodeo Clown of the Year awards from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and the opportunity to perform at prestigious events such as the National Finals Rodeo, the Canadian Finals Rodeo and the 2002 Winter Olympics. It has also allowed him to travel around the world and at the same time spend the majority of the year at his ranch in Montana with his wife Katie and their two daughters. In the world of rodeo, Rasmussen is at the top of his game, an achievement he attributes to knowing what the audience wants to see.
“When people picture rodeo clowns, they envision a big red nose and big red pants, and you know, do-dee-do-do. But I don’t make balloon animals, I don’t do birthday parties,” he says, adding, “I think probably my success is that I have broken away from that mould. I’ve incorporated an athletic style. It’s not the bumbling clown, it’s the dancing clown, the hip, contemporary clown.”
Rodeo clowns traditionally filled two roles: costumed sideshows when things got slow, and human shields after bull rides were over—a dangerous time for riders, who are disoriented and often the target of a bull’s righteous anger. Today the job has been divided into two, and the dangerous part given to two to three ‘bullfighters.’ Rasmussen is still in the ring, but his sole job is entertainment—which is fine by him.
“I just love to be in front of crowds and entertain. I’ve been to places where the economy’s not good—agriculture towns where people are grouchy because money’s not readily available. But they come to where I’m working and laugh and forget about their problems for two and a half hours. So, you know what? If I can do that, that’s great.”
Rasmussen is quick to downplay the dangers of life as a rodeo clown, and instead points to his co-workers in the ring—the bullfighters—as the real heroes. But when a bull decides to exact revenge, Rasmussen is there, mere feet away in his red-and-white makeup and signature stars and stripes. He’s quick to point out that he’s not in the thick of it, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to jump into the safety barrel—a padded container that offers refuge from a ramming bull—on more than one occasion.
“Getting in that barrel, it’s just part of the deal. And in today’s world, rodeo animals are bred to do what they do and aren’t like they used to be—not all these rodeo bulls are killers looking to hit everything. The percentage of bulls that come and knock me around in that big barrel has dropped in the last few years.”
Is he ever scared? Not in the moment, anyway. And he’s emphatic about the fact that, in the world of rodeo, there are more dangerous things he could be doing.
“That’s probably the most common question we get asked. But when you’re doing your job, sure there’s a little fear, that’s why you run. If you’re not a little scared, then you’re crazy. And people may think we’re crazy, but we’re not. We don’t do this for free.”—Sally MacKinnon