Clowning Around

Before meeting John Harrison, I was told that the current, correct term for his job is “entertainer.” That, however, isn’t how he introduces himself. 

“John Harrison, rodeo clown and barrel-man,” he says.

“I didn’t think we called them clowns anymore?” I ask. 

He answers in an easy Oklahoma drawl. “Well, you know, some people get offended by it.” There are people, he tells me, who prefer terms like entertainers and athletes. “But some of the best rodeo clowns in this world that I grew up watching were some of the best athletes in the world. They were called clowns, and they were pretty damn good at their job.” 

So is Harrison. As good as it gets, really. 

Last year, he was honored with three huge industry awards. He won Comedy Act of the Year for the second time, the Coors Man in the Can for the fifth time, and his first Clown/Barrelman of the Year award. Only two other guys have ever won all three in the same year.

Harrison describes himself as “blessed,” though others might add “smart,” “talented” and “hard-working.”  

He comes by it honest. The grandson of legendary bull rider Freckles Brown, Harrison began his career twenty years ago as a trick rider, only later adding barrelman and clowning to his repertoire. 

Plenty of pain has come with his success, of course. “If you’re in the arena, messing with large farm animals, eventually you’re going to get hurt,” he says. He’s had two knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery and  a compressed disc in his neck, and he’s got an upcoming hip replacement. This for a man of forty-four. 

None of that mileage was evident at the American Royal, though, where Harrison pranced, strutted and lept around like a kid. Beyond dodging bulls in his padded barrel, he did an enormous amount of homespun crowd work. He bantered with announcer Garrett Yerigan. He jumped into the bleachers for fan interactions. He ran a silly mock Kentucky Derby. He dropped a Kid Rock reference. There was an extended riff on chocolate-covered strawberries.  At one point, he traded hats with a lady in the crowd. When she blanched on realizing how sweaty his cap was, Harrison, quick as a whip, asked if she wanted to trade shoes, too. 

Throughout the night, above all else, he was intensely and utterly fun. Fun, after all, is the essence of the job. And whatever you may prefer to call that job, he just might be the best in the world at doing it. 

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