Sid McFarland walks around the grounds of Stampede Park in a blue wig and a tall goldenrod-hued hat that seems completely unbothered by the wind. His face is painted red with white patches, the makeup seemingly unbothered by the sweat of the 69-year-old man in the sweltering 95-degree heat.
McFarland is a rodeo clown who, for 47 years, has made appearances off and on at the Cody Nite Rodeo. In 2021, he’s back to do it again.
“It’s always like coming back home when I come here,” the Alabama native said. “I guess a lot of it is just the sentimental value. I could step in this rodeo arena and for two hours, I’m still that young 23-year-old kid that was agile, hostile and mobile. I’m not them things anymore.”
Clowning has changed a lot in the last five decades. The biggest change, in McFarland’s view? The days of rodeo clowns diving in to save a cowboy trapped in the rigging of a raging bull are long gone. Clowns these days are strictly entertainers.
Of course, McFarland’s bullfighting days are long since passed, too. He stopped getting in the thick of it in his 40s.
“From the neck up, I’ve still got every move I’ve ever had,” he said. “But from the neck down, that don’t work anymore … A good friend of mine down south was a hell of a bullfighter … he said, ‘How did you get to a point where you realized you didn’t need to be out there trying to get around them bulls anymore?’ I said, ‘Well, hell, it was pretty easy for me. Every time I tried to get around one, they busted my a--. It was pretty easy to figure that out.’”
But McFarland couldn’t shake the clowning bug. He lived for just under a decade in the Cody area and clowned at the Nite Rodeo during the summer. In the winter, he worked as a truck driver. When that company was bought out and shut down, he turned to clowning and working elsewhere, carving out a career as a firefighter and working rodeos around the nation, from New York’s Madison Square Garden to San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
He keeps his punchlines written on one side of his hand. On the other, he writes down the states members of the audience are from. He writes the punchlines so he doesn’t reuse too many jokes from one night to the next and keeps his material fresh, material built up over a lifetime of wandering arenas and heckling announcers.
He could have hung up the floppy hat at any point and passed on the McFarland clowning legacy to his son, Trent, who he got to perform a show with in Cody a few years ago. But for him, clowning is a way of life, something that can’t be shaken so easily. And it’s a way to honor his friends who came before him.
“When you’re young, you think you’re bulletproof,” he said. “You never see far enough down the trail that you realize you’re gonna start losing friends.
In a way, that’s another reason I keep doing it. I’ve got so many great rodeo clown-slash-bullfighters that have gone under that taught me so much. So every time I step out in that arena, I try to honor their memory by carrying on the tradition.”