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Clowning around with the bulls at Fort Worth Stock Show is serious business

James Phifer/James Phifer/Rodeobum.com

The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo is finishing up its annual run this weekend. But before the midway shuts down and the last little dogie is rounded up, we wanted to talk to a participant who could capture the essence of this quintessential event that puts the “Cow” in “Cowtown.”

We were lucky enough to catch up with rodeo clown, Matt Merritt last week between performances at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. Matt’s been a professional rodeo clown for 20 of his 41 years. It’s his job to do the comedy and entertain the crowd when there are gaps in the show and during commercial breaks. Besides being an entertainer, Matt’s also a barrel man, meaning that during the bull riding portion of the rodeo, he gets inside a padded barrel and distracts the angry bull long enough to for the cowboys to make their escape.

Matt filled us in on his unique brand of comedy, rodeo life and why young people might want to consider a career as a rodeo clown.

In your opinion, why is being a rodeo clown a better gig than riding bulls?

Well, multiple reasons.

From my opinion, I get paid every time. I don't have to win anything. My family is supported completely and solely by this profession and I negotiate my contracts for different events that are planned. I get to choose how I travel when I travel.

I know for a bull rider, it’s luck of the draw. It's almost like you're gambling for a living as a contestant, which is really cool and really fun. But, for me. I've known no other way other than being an independent contractor, basically doing it the way that I do.

And they [bull riders] can win. You know, you can be a millionaire riding bulls. I'll probably never make that kind of money, but I know exactly what I'm going to make. And there's also a lot of guys that make nothing in bull riding.

What’s a useful skill for a rodeo clown that some might find surprising?

I think public speaking is a very underrated skill. I’ve been able to hone that skill being in front of people constantly and entertaining them. I think you would find there are very few people that are comparable, and I still get nervous about it in front of thousands of people. But I think I'm way advanced on public speaking more than anyone would ever imagine. When you think rodeo clown, you wouldn't think public speaking, but I feel like I could. I could stand up and give a speech at the Governors Ball if I needed to.

When are you most afraid?

Three things make me afraid.

The first would be when I'm introduced in front of a large crowd and I have to do public speaking. It makes me nervous, just like it would anybody else. It's a thrill. I love it. It's part of why I do what I do.

The next one is, not when I'm getting hit by a bull in the barrel, but in those moments leading up to it. When he's on his way to hit you and you're expecting it. It kind of feels the same as public speaking. It's a thrill and also part of what I do.

The third one is travel. You know, you let your mind wander about getting hurt in an accident or something with an airplane or driving down the interstate. Stuff like that. That stays on your mind a little bit because I have a family and I go a lot of miles.

My wife and kids are driving here from North Carolina to see me. And I worry about them driving. And, you know, I'm a dad, so you can imagine.

So those are the three things that I worry about. Two are my thrills that I live for, and the other one is just a nagging worry that I think anybody that travels a lot has.

Do you have a ritual that you do before the rodeo that brings you good luck?

Well, I have two things I do.

So, there’s my makeup, I put initials on my face. They are my daughters’, my wife’s, my dad's, my grandfather's, mine, and a guy named Gary Crocker that helped me when I was first starting. He's passed away now. So, it's like my moment when I incorporate all that into my makeup. As I'm putting that on, I think about those people, what they mean to me, things they might have taught me, or I might learn from them all that. So, it's kind of my headspace moment.

And then I pray every performance. And I also will pray a lot of times with different groups like the bullfighters, and I'll might say something together, and then the announcers and some of the production crew and I might have a private little moment, kind of a, you know, where two or three are gathered together and His name kind of thing.

This can be a dangerous job. What makes you stay with it?

Well, I feel very safe with what I do. I have very seldom been truly injured. I've had some pains, bruises and stuff, but I’ve never had a reason to even consider quitting. And there are people in my profession who have done it into their eighties. They'll just quit using the barrel at some point and do the comedy and the entertainment portion. And it's a very accepted path to take. If I were a bullfighter’s version of a rodeo clown, where I had to do the athletic stuff as the sole way of making a living, yeah, I would probably not still be going too strong at 41 years old. Occasionally, there are guys that will last up to 50 years old fighting bulls. It's just up to each person and what they're facing that day.

Here's an animal question: Do rodeo bulls have good or bad reputations that can be dealt with accordingly? Or are they just all unpredictable and crabby?

I don’t think they are all crabby. I’ve sat my daughter on the back of a world champion bucking bull one time when she was three, because he's a pet until he goes in the chute and he knows his job. There are bulls you can pet who are never going to hurt you, but also, in doing what we do we remember that they are animals, and they can flip on a dime any second, even the ones you trust.

There are some that are very mean. And our bullfighters will give each other hand signals and warn me and other judges and people that are in the arena—"Hey, get ready. This one's mean--this one's got a history of trying to hit people.” But yeah, there are definitely bulls with reputations.

What was your most memorable bull?

I don't remember his name, but when I was starting this career 20 something years ago, the first bull that ever hit me in a barrel. I'll never forget that.

I was new. So, everybody's telling me what to do and how to do it in the barrel. And this is how you hang on. This is how you squat down in there and all that. And it was a big, crossbred bull, so he probably weighed 1200, 1500 pounds. And when he hit me, he just rocked it. And I can tell you his name, but I can draw a picture of him. I know what he looked like, and he hit me so hard that I'll just never forget.

I kind of felt like--I did it! You know, so proud of myself that I was okay. And I realized it's not that bad.

if a young person were to come to you about wanting to be a rodeo clown, what would you tell them?

I would say absolutely!

I don't know if you could say it's a dying art, but there are not many people that do this for a profession. I bet I can't name 100 people in the whole world. And I work events in New Zealand and Australia and Canada. I've been in Mexico and all of the U.S. I know two guys in Brazil. I think there's one guy in Australia, a handful in Canada, and then a number here in America. But, please join in and learn from the best and try to be the best you can be and put some true work into it because we need people, actually!

How do you get into this line of work?

Well, the fun answer is, a series of bad decisions.

The truth is, it's kind of available to anyone that wants to try it. Just go find someone in your area that's having events, ask to get involved at the lowest level, hang out, watch how the rodeo unfolds. Find out what it is.

I've tried to be both [riding bulls and being a rodeo clown]. I found out that God gives you fight or flight--and I froze up. I couldn't be a bull rider. I don't have the mental fortitude for it.

But I love entertaining people. As you can tell, I love talking. So, I worked really hard, just kind of forcing my way into rodeos and being around it and finding people that were nice enough to help me. I didn't treat it like it's just some rodeo clown thing. I gave it a very healthy respect. I worked hard on every detail to be the best that I could be at it. And I still work hard every day. And I guess that's the best advice I would have if somebody wanted to learn how to do it.

What about the rodeo clown costume? Have you ever wanted to change it to maybe a Spanish Bullfighter look with tight pants and cape?

Yeah. No, I like to stick to the American rodeo clown look.

A lot of it has to do with comedy and a lot of it's got to do with mobility. Like the tights. I go buy women's tights and I wear those and you wouldn’t know I have them on, but if the show broke down and I needed to do something funny, I could run around in those tights and give everybody a laugh for just a minute.

When I have to describe what I do sometimes, I have to think, “Oh my gosh, that's what I do.”

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Probably Oreos. A sleeve of Oreos.

I'll go through the whole sleeve and a bottle of milk. And if you eat Oreos without milk, something's wrong with you. I can't eat them unless there's milk.

The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo continues through Saturday.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at tpowell@kera.org.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Therese Powell