DODGE CITY, Kan. – Over the last four decades, no ProRodeo clown has received more honors than Keith Isley.
His brand of humor is a hit no matter where he is, and it’s been that way since he started working at his craft so long ago. Whether he’s near his hometown in North Carolina or in the far-reaching communities of the Northwestern United States, Isley resonates with spectators and contestants alike. It’s a reason he’s earned so many awards in his lifetime.
It’s also why local organizers are bringing him back to this year’s Dodge City Roundup Rodeo, set for 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3-Sunday, Aug. 7, at Roundup Arena; Dodge City Xtreme Bulls is set for 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2.
“When you have a chance to get someone as talented and as appreciated as Keith Isley, you make sure you get him,” said Dr. R.C. Trotter, president of the volunteer committee that produces the annual event. “Keith has been to our rodeo several times, and we get people who are always asking when he’s coming back.
“Keith has the kind personality that fans thoroughly enjoy, and he adds a lot to Roundup when he’s here.”
Over his career, Isley 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, most recently in 2020.
“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.”
He continues to live his dream, the preeminent rodeo clown in the game. Even as his career is closer to winding down than getting its start, he is still one of the most sought-after entertainers in the sport. Returning to another major rodeo is proof of that.
He wasn’t naturally funny, but he has a talent and strong work ethic, which helped him develop a comedic sense and amazing timing. He’s also had some memorable acts.
“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.”
He got his start like many clowns. He was a bullfighter, and while he may not still have the skills needed to keep everyone in the arena out of harm’s way, he’s still quite athletic. It’s come into play in his acts as well as his comedic genius.
“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.”
In addition to entertaining the crowds that will pack Roundup Arena, Isley is also a big part of the production. He utilizes his rodeo-savvy in order to know when there’s a lull in the action, then he will capitalize on his strengths: a smart-aleck nature with a Carolina accent and a quick-hitting attention to detail
“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.”