He may have the most dangerous job in the United States.
John Harrison is a rodeo clown. And he risks his life around the country to save cowboys and entertain thousands of rodeo fans.
“I grew up and always wanted to trick a ride and roman ride in the industry,” Harrison said. I got my first less when I was 6, started in PRCA in 1999. Roman riding and trick riding. A couple years later. I worked the bull riding as a clown and started doing some comedy acts.
Harrison worked the Last Chance Stampede the past three nights, entertaining a bustling, sold-out crowd each night at the Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds. Entertaining a crowd for three nights takes a certain level of talent. Harrison, with his five appearances at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, is that commanding presence, and he’s held Helena’s attention.
“You do demographic study,” Harrison said of catering his act to each rodeo. “You don’t want to run up in St. Paul (Oregon) and do a bunch of Democratic jokes.”
Harrison’s act feeds off the crowd, looking for participation where he can find it. Saturday night, donning a long, gold tee and brown pants, resembling a sheriff, Harrison held the crowd. He poked fun at folks on their cell phone and made a variety of jokes that kept folks engaged.
Part of that -- holding a captive audience -- came from a mentor. Harrison was sure to thank Keith Isley, a former rodeo clown who’s bestowed wisdom and an act to Harrison over the years. His nearly non-stop willingness to banter is evidence of that.
“I met him as a specialty act,” Harrison said. “I saw him perform as a clown at the rodeo. He held the audience in his hand. His timing was immaculate. He’s one of the guys you look up to. He won awards in Vegas.”
Part of Isley’s act, a series of trick rides, is an installment Harrison broke out twice in Helena, riling up a capacity crowd.
“The more fun it throws more fuel on my fire,” Harrison said. “I had a fellow clown that I worked with a lot. He always told me that if you’re having fun, they’re fun they’re having fun. It’s kind of true. If you’re enjoying it I like to, then a lot of stuff off-the-cuff works.”
Harrison prides the off-the-cuff nature of his act, saying it would get boring if he scripted every element of the show. And, perhaps the most relatable element to fans is his willingness to incorporate his family, eventually earning the title of “Clown Family.” Harrison, who was in essence destined to be in rodeo after he began trick riding at age 6, has always had a hand in rodeos. His grandfather, a solid bull rider in his own right, exposed him to the sport at a young age. His wife, Carla, supports his career and then some. His whole family travels around the country with him.
“She says nobody wants to marry a rodeo clown,” Harrison joked. “I like having a family on the road. It makes my day. Having the kids there.
As Harrison watched the bronco riders on Saturday, he watched an unlucky contestant tossed to the rodeo arena dirt early and remarked, “He got thrown off that horse like a United Airlines passenger.”
He keeps it fresh.
He switched into a bright yellow and a red accented uniform, performing his acts and also serving double duty as a barrel man, perhaps the reason his career has reached the heights it has.
“The economy… a lot of rodeos are on a budget,” Harrison said. “They can’t afford a specialty act and a clown -- 99percent of the time they will hire a clown first. I looked at it as a job security. That’s exactly what got me in the door.”
As far as keeping it fresh, it’s a pickle for Harrison.
“It’s super difficult to do,” Harrison said. “The car act I did the first night here is a satire on rodeo queens They’re great ambassadors to our sports. There are always one or two that give us a bad name. I came up with that act by poking fun at them.”
His entertainment accentuated a strong last-night rodeo performance.
Great Falls’ Jesse Kruse battled a bronc and came out with a fourth place finish, a somewhat remarkable finish considering two cowboys on Thursday set arena records in the event. Kruse finished with an 82 in the ride.
Maybe most notable, and a as rodeo emcee Wayne Brooks said, “Nobody works harder in rodeo than the women.” Those women performed on Saturday.
Shelly Anzick of Shepherd thrilled the crowd with a 17.29 second run in the barrels on Saturday night.
Local rodeo product Timmy Sparing had a spill on Saturday, and wasn’t able to defend his title in the steer wrestling.