It’s hard to tell when Scott Cameron is being serious. “I’ve been killed three times,” says the rodeo clown and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) bullfighter, who performed at the Western Montana Fair’s PRCA Bull-O-Rama Wednesday night and brings his acts to the fair’s PRCA Rodeo this Thursday and Friday. But when he says he doesn’t want to do an interview on his cell phone because it’ll eat up minutes, he means it. “These people are paying me to go out there and play,” he says, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a living as a clown.
“I averaged it out a couple years ago,” Cameron says from a landline in the administration office of the Montana Expo Park in Great Falls before driving to Missoula, “and in the time I’ve spent rodeoing, I’ve typically been gone 200 days a year”—these days earning about $600–700 per gig. He drives himself around the country in his newly painted red 1985 Ford pickup “with about a half-million miles on it” and sleeps in a horse trailer he says has living quarters.
“You get a lot of windshield time,” the 41-year-old Golden, Colo., native says of his 17-year rodeo career. “It used to be I loved getting on the road and going. Couldn’t wait to go. And then after four or five years, getting everything packed up was kind of a drag. That’s why I like getting home. When I get home, I stay home. I don’t go out. I don’t do nothing.”
Not this week, though. On Thursday and Friday he’ll be donning his trademark purple-and-black shirt (he’s gone through “easily” 20 in his career) and clown make-up (he can apply it in about 15 minutes) and bringing his Man-Eating Chicken and Smarty Pants acts to the Western Montana Fairground’s arena.
What’s a Man-Eating Chicken? We’ll get there in a second. Cameron has one more serious point to make first: the distinction between a rodeo clown and a bullfighter.
The bullfighter is the clown who’s distracting the bull from the rider, he says; the rodeo clown is the guy who’s doing comedy during a rodeo or bull-riding event. When Cameron first started bullfighting, he was usually the only clown in the ring and had to both bullfight and do comedy. Today there are generally two bullfighters and one clown in an arena; the clown sticks to comedy unless one of the bullfighters becomes “incapacitated.”
“Bullfighters are pretty adamant about making that distinction,” says Cameron. You go to school to be a bullfighter, he says, but there’s no school for clowns: “Comedy is a hard thing to teach. You either are [funny] or you aren’t. I don’t know that I ever thought I was, but other people thought I was. Talk to me long enough, and I’ll say something stupid.”
But Cameron is no dummy. He segued from bullfighting to rodeo clowning four years ago in part because clowns make twice what bullfighters make, and also, he says, “because [rodeo clowns] are rarer—people who can actually do comedy. And there’s a lot of guys who want to be bullfighters, so there’s a bullfighter under every bush. It’s kind of a glory thing. It’s a guy thing.”
Cameron started out as a bullfighter when he was 24, having had “pretty limited success” at bull riding. He went to bullfighting schools in Abbeville, Kan., and Gunnison, Colo., and started amateur bull fighting in late 1986. That first year, he made it to the finals of every amateur rodeo he entered and figured, “Well, there’s nowhere else to go here, so I bought my PRCA card and started working PRCA rodeos as a bullfighter.
“A lot of my family thought, holy smokes, what is this idiot doing, because I was working making pretty good money in construction,” he says. “And I just kind of threw it all down and quit, because if I didn’t do it then, I would never have been able to do it.”
Staying serious, Cameron calls rodeoing a young man’s game. “The road kills more cowboys than the arena ever thought of doing,” he says. “So just staying awake and putting in the time that it takes to go to enough rodeos to make a living at it—and the injuries of course. It takes me a lot longer to [heal] now. I can remember in my twenties, you could break my leg clear off, and in three days I was OK. Now I stub my toe, and I limp for two weeks.”
Luckily for Cameron, he’s missed only one rodeo due to injury: broken ribs from a bull’s horns. Ask him about insurance and he laughs. “Next to none,” he says. “I mean, what kind of insurance could I get?” Cameron says he does have “pretty limited” insurance through the PRCA, but finds more security in sticking to his mantra: “Just don’t get hurt.”
So back to those Man-Eating Chickens. “They’re just really mean chickens,” he says. “I take them out in the arena, and they’re supposed to be Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they’re a little underdone, and so they come out of the box and they beat the dog snot out of me.” [Insert laugh-track here.] Bare-handed, Cameron rounds up the two man-eaters while the crowd watches. “I bleed considerably during that act,” he says. “But it’s just small bleeding, not big bleeding. They don’t often get to an artery.”
Believe what you want.
Cameron’s other main act—the one he says distinguishes him from other clowns—is a horse-shoeing act with his horse Smarty Pants (“he’s obviously not Smarty Jones,” he says), who was previously named Saturday Nite Racket (a pun on the triple-crown runner Sunday Silence; Cameron says he’s updated the act because no one knows who Sunday Silence is anymore). “I take him out there, and I’m going to shoe him,” says Cameron, “and I use some rather unusual shoeing tools, like a chainsaw.
“Nobody else runs this horse act,” he says. “I know of two horses in the world that you can lay down and start a chainsaw over and they’ll lay there, and I own them both. One of them is dead, the other one’s penned outside.”
These days, Cameron is teaching his girlfriend’s colt a few tricks, too—she stayed back home in Fort Collins but sent her colt on the road with him. “You can teach them a lot on the road,” Cameron says of horses, because when you’re around animals 24/7 they act better than the “heathens” they can become when they’re penned up alone all day.
As for his girlfriend home alone, Cameron stays positive. “I’ve actually hooked up with someone now who I think is going to be able to deal with this,” he says, admitting that his travel schedule over the years “has had a tendency to hamper any domestic life. “I don’t understand it.”—he’s joking now—“I thought it would be a really good deal. You’re hooked up with somebody, you’re gone all the time, it’s not like my dirty socks are on the floor, and they can do whatever they want. But for some reason, women don’t look at it that way.”
But in fairness, Cameron might have better instincts for bulls than for women. In 17 years, he’s seen a lot of the “independent-minded” animals and says he’s learned how to read them. “I can see a [rider] coming off a bull three or four jumps before they actually come off,” he says. “I can look ahead a little bit. I understand what [the bulls] are doing.”
He knows something about what the bulls are seeing, too—and it isn’t red. Bulls are color-blind, he says, making their attraction to red flags a misconception as widespread as the notion that a bullfighter and a rodeo clown are the same guy. “The bull fighters don’t do nothing except during the fighting,” he says, half-joking, half-serious, “and then they get credit for the chickens.”
Rodeo clown Scott Cameron performs at the Western Montana Fair’s PRCA Rodeo this Thursday, Aug. 12, and Friday, Aug. 13, at 7:30 PM. Tickets cost $15 ($20 for limited VIP seats), and can be purchased at the Fairground entry gates, or by calling 721-3247.