- What the bulls eye: Gizmo McCracken.
"My main job is in the barrel," McCracken says matter-of-factly. "I'm in [the arena] with the bull, so I have to make friends with him once in a while. Their personalities are just like people: Some of us are easy to get along with, and some of us ain't."
Born and raised in Wheaton, Missouri, McCracken got his start helping his father break horses -- and playing to schoolhouses as class clown. "I was the little kid in school that they pinned notes to his shirt that said, "Don't send him back until these problems are corrected,'" he jokes. "Well, I made a career out of that." Now in his late 30s, McCracken has been on the rodeo circuit for more than 20 years, and has been pulling more toward the comedy and less the bull since the beginning.
"Animals have always been a part of my life," McCracken says. "But I would consider myself more of a comedian than a cowboy. I could take the best-trained animal there was and have him ruined by night, because I just don't have that kind of working relationship with animals anymore."
Not that rodeo bullfighting requires one to understand the finer secrets of animal psychiatry, just as long as the bull follows you and keeps his horns away from bucked riders. McCracken likens the bestial tango to a game of cat-and-mouse -- only it's an 1,800-pound cat that's not in a very good mood. "It's freestyle," McCracken explains. "Your main goal is the protection of the cowboys. The bullfighter's job is to distract that bull away from the cowboy, to give him a second after he hits the ground to look around and see where he's at and where he needs to go."
McCracken played the game for almost six years after high school, upon realizing he couldn't ride the bulls, but was certainly enough of a clown to get in the path of one. Slowly, he "got to doing more [comedy] and got to concentrating more on the specialty act end of the deal." He compares his current show -- which serves as filler between segments of the rodeo -- to a cross between Robin Williams and Jerry Lewis, with a little Wile E. Coyote thrown in.
"It's not the same old stuff you've heard at the rodeo before," he says. "But if I can help that guy that came home from work a little frustrated, and things just ain't going right at all -- if I can help him forget about his troubles for two hours and have a great time ... That's my goal."
There's also incentive to stay in good health: The barrelman sometimes has to do more than wave his arms and dive inside a wooden cauldron. So, even as his youngest daughter (Cassie, age 16) learns the ways of the bullwhip for her own place in the rodeo, McCracken and his wife have begun operating "the rodeo clown's retirement plan" -- a convenience store.
"It's been a great life for me," McCracken says of spending 280 days a year on the road. "But you've got to be cut out for it. As long as I'm in good enough shape to get in and out of the arena, and people are still paying for my comedy -- hopefully I'll be able to do this for a long time. If not, I'll have to get a job."
Still, one could argue it's better to join the rat race than run with the bulls.