The face of a rodeo clown

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Keith Isley has always enjoyed his times in Gunnison, from the first time he worked the Cattlemen’s Days PRCA Rodeo in the 1990s to his return this year.

Isley brings his comedy, personality back for Cattlemen’s Days

GUNNISON, Colo. – Watching Keith Isley entertain crowds at any rodeo across North America, it seems as though entertaining was just a natural fit.

The truth is far from reality, though. He wasn’t necessarily funny; he was, however, talented and has always had an amazing work ethic. With that, he developed a comedic sense and has been recognized for it.

Over the last 40 years, no other clown in the PRCA has received as many accolades as Isley, who has been named Specialty Act of the Year five times, Comedy Act of the Year six times, Clown of the Year six times and Coors Man in the Can five times, including last year when he earned the honor at the PRCA Awards Banquet in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The acts were tough to come by for me, because I was not interested in the acts in the beginning,” said Isley of Goldston, North Carolina. “I was not interested in being funny. I was interested in protecting cowboys and getting people out of a bind.”

That was four-plus decades ago, and he’s still defying his own odds as one of the greatest entertainers in ProRodeo. He returns to Gunnison this summer for the Cattlemen’s Days PRCA Rodeo, set for Thursday, July 15-Saturday, July 17, at Fred Field Western Center in Gunnison.

“Back in that time of rodeo, you were expected to do some comedy and fight bulls, too,” he said. “Now I’m in my 60s, so I don’t get as close to the bulls as I used to. The brain says I’m willing, but the body definitely says I’m not able.”

Instead, he entertains, and he’s good at it, too. He first found himself in the Gunnison Valley four decades ago, and he loves returning.

“When you go to some rodeos like Gunnison, you get to meet a lot of people,” Isley said. “I met a few people that were on the committee when I first went there in the ’90s, and I get to see them when I go back. It’s always good to visit my friends.

“And the weather’s pretty good, too.”

The cool, mountain air is in contrast to his home in central North Carolina, which features high heat indexes – mixture of warm weather and high humidity. Gunnison a good setting for a veteran rodeo clown and the animals he uses in his acts.

 If you ask him, Isley can’t tell you when or how he developed his comedy. It’s a mixture of influences that have packaged themselves into the smart-aleck with a Carolina accent and a quick-hitting attention to detail. He also understands the necessity of utilizing physical comedy.

“You can get someone to tell a joke, but a comedian will know how to make it funny,” Isley said.

He’s developed that touch, and while he has a backlog of jokes in his repertoire, he oftentimes finds the humor in the moments that transpire throughout each performance. He’s an addition to the action that takes place in the arena, not a distraction.

“I try to keep my mouth shut and not do anything that will disrupt a contestant; I want to make sure the contestants have their time,” he said. “The sponsors and the fans like to hear that person’s name, so let that person have that moment. But if there’s a lull, I like to keep things moving.”

That’s just part of what makes him so good at his job. When he’s filling time or helping through a transition in the show’s lineup, he’s doing so comedically.

“Before each rodeo and during the national anthem, I say a little prayer,” Isley said. “I thank God for giving me the talent and giving me the opportunity to make people laugh and have a good time. Everybody has problems at some point in their life. If you can make people laugh, at that point, they will have forgotten their problem.”

For the past 40 years, Isley has done that. Long after he’s retired and decided to spend out his days with his wife, Melanie, he will be remembered by many for his greatness in and out of the arena. For now, though, he’ll enjoy his time working in rodeo and hanging out with friends, whether it’s in Gunnison or somewhere else down the rodeo road.

“With what I’ve won and with as blessed as I’ve been, I’ve already been recognized for what I do,” he said. “It’s been way more than I ever dreamed of. When I was a kid, you always wanted to go to Calgary (Alberta), Cheyenne (Wyoming), Pendleton (Oregon) and the NFR. I’ve worked every major rodeo there is and a lot of really good smaller rodeos, too. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It’s been an amazing venture.”


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