GUNNISON, Colo. – For a man who spends much of his life on the rodeo trail, entertainer Keith Isley feels right at home inside the arena.
“I thoroughly enjoy watching people have a good time and enjoy what I do or what I say,” said Isley, 59.
He is one of the most decorated clowns in rodeo, and he will be part of the festivities during the Cattlemen’s Days PRCA Rodeo, set for 7 p.m. Thursday, July 13, to Saturday, July 15, at Fred Field Western Center in Gunnison.
“Just seeing people enjoy it and have a good time,” he said. “Sometimes later in the year, you’ll get home and have some letters for you and have some pictures of you that kids have drawn.
“It’s the little things that really make me feel like I’m accomplishing something.”
He has accomplished much. He’s been named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year six times, the Coors Man in the Can five times, the PRCA Comedy Act of the Year six times and PRCA Specialty Act of the Year three times. For three straight years, from 2009-11, he won the funnyman’s trifecta: Clown of the Year, Coors Man in the Can and Comedy Act of the Year.
In addition to being one of the best funny men in the business, he also has some of the top acts in rodeo. He’ll have it all with him when he arrives in Gunnison.
“I enjoy what I do, and it’s a lot of fun when you’ve got a good crowd and a good announcer,” said Isley, who will work Cattlemen’s Days with announcer Andy Stewart, a top five announcer each year. “When you see people with smiles on their faces, and then people come up to you and appreciate what you do, that makes what we do a lot more worthwhile.”
Isley sees a lot of smiles and has for much of his professional life. Though he was considered a class clown, being a comedian didn’t come easily.
“Oh, it was natural if I knew you, but if I didn’t know you, it was really hard,” he said. “When I started the comedy, that was really hard for me to get used to because I didn’t know those people watching me.”
He has since overcome his stage fright to become one of the most sought-after entertainers in the game. There’s good reason for it, too. Part of a good clown’s job is to fill any down time that could some during the event. If there’s a pause in the action, Isley knows it’s his turn to step up to the plate.
“I like to play on the crowd,” he said. “I like to have fun with people that like to have fun.”
It works, but Isley has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. He loves working with animals and allowing them to steal the show. When it’s all put together, it’s an award-winning showcase that reaches so many people.
“Back in 1999, I worked a rodeo in Belle Foursche (S.D.); during the trick riding act, I was talking to the announcer and was just looking around,” he said. “That’s when I saw the contestants standing all around the arena just watching.”
When Isley left town, he reflected on that image and still considers it one of his greatest honors. Later that year, he earned was named the Specialty Act of the Year for the first time.
“Since then, I’ve won it a few times,” Isley said. “I’ve undoubtedly been the most blessed man who’s ever bought a PRCA membership.”
The fans are blessed, too.