UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Who's ready for the Adirondack Stampede?
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Rodeos are booming. We're talking NASCAR big. And with the bulls and bucking broncos, danger is similarly built into the sport. That is where the rodeo clown comes in helping to defuse fears and keep fans smiling. NPR's Brian Mann profiles Rob Gann, one of the top rodeo clowns in the country.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I want to start with this crazy moment. A cowboy perches in the chute on a massive enraged bull, horns like steak knives. The gate flies open and the bull explodes, all muscle and mayhem. The rider lasts maybe two heartbeats, then crashes to the ground. And the entire time, through the whole rodeo, Rob Gann is in the arena cracking jokes about the danger.
ROB GANN: Well, that's exactly how I felt today trying to get my wife out of Walmart.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Would you stop?
GANN: The result was the same, too. I got my butt kicked.
MANN: Picture goofy, oversized pants, a bright red nose, a cowboy hat. Whenever an athlete lands hard - and that happens a lot - Rob Gann springs into action. His job is to spin the crowd's fear into a gag.
GANN: Why is he trying to protect the brain that just told him to get on a bull? He may not even have any brain left for that matter.
MANN: Rob lives in Arkansas, but he's on the road most weekends.
GANN: How's everybody doing on Saturday night?
MANN: Tonight, he's clowning for a sellout crowd in a converted ice hockey arena in Glens Falls, a town in upstate New York. Rob's traveled the circuit his whole life.
GANN: So when I was born, my parents were rodeo-ing, and so as a kid, I got drove around the rodeos with them, fell in love with it.
MANN: Rob tells me one reason he's comfortable joking about the dangers of this life, he's been there. Rob rode bulls for years.
GANN: Knowing that you're fixing to nod your head on an animal that could quite possibly kill you, it's a feeling like no other. I mean, I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it. It's cool.
MANN: Cool and brutal. Most bull riders these days wear helmets and chest protectors. But Rob says serious injuries are part of the sport.
GANN: I separated my pelvis when a bull hit me and throwed me in the air. And when I landed, kind of landed with my legs split, and it cracked my pelvis.
MANN: That just makes me cringe hearing you describe that.
GANN: Well, I mean, you asked. I'm telling you, you know?
MANN: Rob says he knew he had to do something different, something safer if he wanted to stay in the show. He tried just about every job in rodeo, and in his mid-30s, he finally reinvented himself as a clown.
GANN: When I put my makeup on and I put my costume, it's like I get to be somebody that I'm not.
MANN: He used to be a shy, quiet cowboy. Now age 41, Rob's this larger-than-life cartoon.
GANN: When I walk in that dirt, it's just like (snapping fingers) game on. I'm ready.
MANN: Rob's humor is goofy and slapstick - think Three Stooges. At one point, he fumbles a giant stick of red dynamite down his oversized pants.
GANN: Everybody, now, for real, stick your fingers in your ears.
MANN: You can tell Rob is having a great time. And the crowd loves it when Rob goes sprawling in the same dirt where the cowboys crash down.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Folks, how about it for Mr. Rob Gann?
MANN: Rob says this latest act of his rodeo career isn't easy or glamorous, but clowning keeps him in the life close to the bulls and the cowboys and the danger he loves. Brian Mann, NPR News, Glens Falls, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SVEN LIBAEK ORCHESTRA'S "RIDE A WHITE HORSE")
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