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Canby Rodeo: Clown defends political satire after Missouri mask stunt


Keith Isley says a fellow entertainer's act mocking President Barack Obama was blown out of proportion.

by: JEFF GOODMAN - Award-winning rodeo entertainer Keith Isleys energizes the crowd during the 56th-annual Canby Rodeo. Isleys act includes a variety of tricks and jokes, including political satire.Award-winning clown Keith Isley was warming up the crowd with a few jokes during the first night of this year’s Canby Rodeo as he explained to announcer Wayne Brooks how he got his horse.

“I bought it from a poor man in Texas who was out of work and needed money,” Isley said over the loudspeakers.

“Who?” Brooks asked.

“George Bush,” Isley replied, drawing a mixture of laughs and snarls.

Later in the show, after he and his horse had executed a series of tricks, Isley was walking away from the center of the arena when Brooks called after him.

“Wait — you’ve got to ride your horse out,” Brooks said. “You can’t just walk it.”

“But Obama’s in charge now,” Isley shot back playfully, pausing momentarily before delivering the punch line. “We can change our minds!”

The good-humored gags were nothing out of the ordinary for Isley, a longtime entertainer who often peppers his rodeo acts with political satire. But he has felt the need to defend his brand of comedy since a politically charged stunt mocking President Barack Obama at an Aug. 10 rodeo in Missouri has attracted national attention and scorn.

During a rodeo performance at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo., an unidentified clown wearing an Obama mask stood in the arena as fellow entertainer Tuffy Gessling asked spectators if they wanted to see Obama get run over by a bull.

“There have been Clinton, Nixon and George Bush masks — I have seen them,” Isley said. “And nobody said anything about it. What’s the big deal now? It’s a joke. It’s something to laugh at. Those presidents, if they were to see it, they would probably laugh, too.”

Although the stunt was well-received by the audience, it has been met with condemnation since video footage was posted online. Gessling said in an interview with a Missouri-based student-run news service that he has received death threats as a result of the skit.

“I never tried to be a racist or anything like that,” Gessling told digitalBURG. “I love all people no matter their background. I live to make people laugh. ... TV comedians are doing it every day, Rush Limbaugh is doing it every day, people on Facebook are doing it every day 10 times more than me. I was just trying to make light of the situation, that’s it. Nothing racist was ever implied.”

Intent aside, the stunt has been widely criticized. Politicians from both major parties have decried the act. The president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, which sponsored the event, has resigned. Sensitivity training will be required for future entertainers.

In a statement, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association denounced the stunt as “offensive” and reiterated that the incident took place at an event outside of the national governing body’s authority.

“The sport of professional rodeo is based on American values, and disrespecting the office of the President of the United States is un-American,” the statement read. “While it has no jurisdiction in the punishment of this particular incident, the PRCA shares the overwhelming national disappointment that this display of poor taste has caused. It does not represent the patriotic Americans from all walks of life and all political parties who love, participate in and follow the sport of professional rodeo.”

Meanwhile, many others have come to the defense of Gessling and the sketch. A Facebook page in support of Gessling had more than 37,000 fans as of Aug. 14. Texas politician Steve Stockman invited the unidentified masked clown to perform in his state.

And Isley, a nationally renowned rodeo entertainer, wondered aloud why this particular episode was attracting so much derision.

“I see nothing at all wrong with this,” he said. “It’s a joke. It’s entertainment. I guess some people look at entertainment differently than other people. But you can turn the TV on and see a lot worse, I guarantee you that.”

Isley, who has been named the PRCA clown of the year six times in his career, said he was involved in a similar situation a few years ago when his comments at a rodeo were taken out of context by a reporter.

“I live in North Carolina, and I had newspapers from Texas calling me,” he said. “People just blow stuff like this way out of proportion.”

Isley said he’s been bombarded with phone calls and text messages regarding the stunt in Missouri. But he doesn’t feel pressured to change his routine, which he considers appropriate for spectators of all ages.

“I’ve had no problems,” he said. “I try to keep it family-oriented. I’ve had people comment on my Obama stuff, but I also throw some George Bush stuff in there, too.”

Isley’s rodeo career can be traced back to 1972, when he was a bareback rider and bull rider in the junior ranks. He also tried bullfighting, which he ended up enjoying more than the competition itself, and slowly developed his clown act.

He’s now an acclaimed regular on the professional rodeo circuit.

“And there’s a reason why,” Brooks said. “I’m the president of his fan club. His timing his great, and he has a comedic feel for the crowd he’s working with. Some guys are born with that, and some guys aren’t. Part of it is an acquired talent, but it seems to me like the good ones just have it.”

Brooks, a well-respected announcer in his own right, said he’s seen rodeo clowns pick on political figures for decades without any uproar.

“I see (Obama) get beat up on Jay Leno and on the other late-night comedy shows, and it’s certainly done in jest,” he said.

For Isley, the job that will take him to Washington state, Texas, Louisiana and New York before the end of the calendar year is taxing but rewarding.

In particular, he said, he enjoys interacting with viewers. During his stint in Canby, he was approached at his trailer by a fan and her family. He ended up helping the young woman onto his horse and organizing a photo session.

“I really enjoy being a part of their lives,” Isley said. “Everybody’s got to make a living, but things like that mean more than money.”

As for the incident in Missouri, Isley said he hopes it doesn’t keep Gessling from being able to make a living as a rodeo clown.

“I’m sorry that people can’t find something else to complain about,” he said. “I’m sure it was a joke. Who’s to say Obama himself wouldn’t have laughed at it?”