DUNCAN, Okla. – Robbie Hodges takes his job seriously, even though it’s a bit of an oxymoron for a rodeo clown.
“I love to look up and see the contestants watching my acts,” said Hodges, who will be funnyman/barrelman during the Chisholm Trail Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15-Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Stephens County Arena in Duncan.
“I love for them guys to like what I’m doing. That’s my meter of what I judge my performance by, the guys that go to 120 rodeos a year. I try to bring something different. Every performance to me is different. My (attention deficit disorder) is so bad that I couldn’t handle it if I did it any other way or if I tried to go by a certain script every time.”
When rodeo regulars like Hodges’ work, then there’s a good indication the crowd will, too. That’s the main reason the Georgia man has long been considered one of the very best entertainers in ProRodeo. He’s been nominated as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s clown of the year, entertainer of the year and the Coors Man in the Can, which recognizes the best barrelmen in the business.
“I love to work the barrel,” said Hodges, who was selected as the barrelman for the 2010 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. “That’s the most important aspect of being a barrelman, not necessarily the comedy but being there to help protect the bull riders and the bullfighters. If you’re going to be a barrelman, go get those guys. That’s been my reputation.”
It’s one that was forged in rodeos in the Southeastern United States, where Hodges got his start in the late 1990s. His strong Georgia accent is an avenue of pride, but so is the work he does inside the arena.
“I worked a lot of (Florida) rodeos in Okeechobee and Kissimmee, and that was a very mean place to learn,” he said. “When you leave there, you’d better be ready. Them bulls will just keep coming at you.”
But being inside the specialized barrel isn’t the only thing Hodges has done in rodeo. In fact, he rode bareback horses for 16 years before he started wearing greasepaint and making crowds laugh at his antics.
“I was always the guy who played tricks on everybody around me, doing things to make everybody else laugh,” Hodges said. “Everybody told me I needed to do it.
“I called a local stock contractor in Georgia about working some rodeos. The next thing I know I was doing five rodeos, then the next year, 20. I’m very lucky.”
He also is very talented, and a key ingredient in his work is how he interacts with the crowd.
“I tried to back off a lot of the traditional stuff,” he said. “A lot of my stuff is audience participation.”
That aspect of his performance allows Hodges to showcase a natural talent of being funny in a moment’s notice. Through observances and being keenly aware of what’s going on during each performance, he not only celebrates rodeo, he helps engage fans into the game with his humor.
It’s a trait he’s held tightly since a youngster. In addition to sharing his life with the crowd while in the arena, he also realizes he can provide a special gift with individualized attention.
“What would it have been like if you were a kid and one of the great sports heroes came up and talked to you at the game?” he asked. “I try to do that. I want at least one person to come up and say, ‘Hey, that guy came up and talked to me.’
“When I’m in the arena, I am larger than life. I’m the attention. I love to take that and give that back to someone. When I was a kid in about the fourth or fifth grade, I was bullied pretty bad. I try to pick out a kid and sit with them. I always think that it would’ve been great if that had happened to me when I was a kid, so I want to give that to someone.”
That’s a fascinating part about how Hodges goes about his business. He understands his role as part of the rodeo production, and he wants to add to it. He wants fans to be part of the rodeo experience and to go home after each of the three performances in Duncan knowing they enjoyed the show.
Rodeo is a unique mix of family-friendly entertainment and world-class competition. Hodges has lived both sides of it, and he sees each show through the audience’s eyes. He also knows how special it is to work the Chisholm Trail Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo.
“That is the Prairie Circuit, and those are real cowboys out there,” he said, recognizing the fact that a number of qualifiers for the finale also are NFR regulars. “You get to work with the best, and that’s always great.”