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ProFile: Johnny Dudley
Written by: Lily Weinacht< Back to Articles
Laughter is a precious commodity for “Backflip” Johnny Dudley. The rodeo clown, dubbed for his backward springs, has been splitting sides and spreading smiles at rodeos since 2006, but his dedication to his work is no laughing matter. “It’s my passion!” says the 37 year old from Aubrey, Texas. “I tell people all the time that I’d be a rodeo clown for free, I love it so much. I’m a certified air traffic controller, and I could be making $180,000 a year, but I love being a rodeo clown.”
Though built like a steer wrestler at 6’3”, Johnny’s only ties to rodeo were the local rodeos in Dayton, Texas, that he and his family went to in the summer. The antics of the rodeo clowns were a highlight for Johnny, but by the time he was in third grade, his parents had divorced and he and his mom moved to Groesbeck, Texas. No more rodeos or rodeo clowns until 1999 on the Marine Corps base in Beaufort, S.C.. Johnny was 21 and had joined the Marines immediately after graduating high school. A rodeo was being held on the base and Johnny, who had no intention of going, was volunteered into taking tickets at the gate for the first half of the rodeo. He found a seat in the bleachers for the second half and unknowingly met his future. “I was paying attention to the clowns, and this short, chunky, older guy runs into the stands and sits on a good looking blonde lady’s lap,” Johnny says, recounting one of his favorite stories. “Her husband laughed, and a light bulb went on for me.” Johnny met the clown after the rodeo and was offered a role in his clown act the following night. “I bought some big pants and makeup and showed up as a clown. In my mind, I was thinking I’d be a clown, not a prop,” Johnny recalls humorously. “The fire was lit!”
After getting out of the Marines in 2004, Johnny found the practice bull riding arena in his hometown of Dayton, Texas, and started learning to fight bulls twice a week. “I knew that bull fighting was my gateway to being a clown. I was young and athletic, and the guy who owned the practice pen also produced several local rodeos, so he hired me to clown for him. Cleveland, Texas, was my first rodeo. I made $50.” At the same time, Johnny attended San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, paying for his degree in international business with his rodeo income and Montgomery G.I. Bill. He also continued to attend rodeos and study how other rodeo clowns worked. The experience wasn’t always comfortable. Some people were more welcoming than others, and a few rodeo clowns wanted nothing to do with the competition. “I didn’t have any buckles or boots,” says Johnny. “I was just some guy out of the Marines that wanted to learn! I didn’t know the rodeo terminology – I just wanted to clown.” Yet the people who were willing to help Johnny influenced one of today’s funniest men in ProRodeo. These included Rudy Burns and Lecile Harris, two of Johnny’s rodeo clown idols. “Rudy helped me with anything I wanted and sold me one of his clown cars. I learned from the old guys, so I’m more of a traditional clown. I’m not much for dancing around or clapping – I like to tell jokes and do clown acts.”
Johnny has six different acts and a slew of jokes at the ready for what he calls “situational comedy”. “I don’t go out with a plan,” Johnny explains, “I just go out and wait for something to trigger a joke in my mind. It could be a girlfriend and boyfriend walking down the bleacher, or a guy with long hair. I want to relate to the crowd with a current situation that’s happening, not just tell little Johnny jokes out of nowhere.” None of Johnny’s banter with the rodeo announcer is ever scripted, and his title backflips are also spontaneous. The crowd pleasing maneuver is one of Johnny’s childhood talents that started with showing off for the girls at the swimming pool. Of the thousands of backflips he has made, only two have gone awry – once at a PBR event in Salt Lake City when the fence gave way beneath him, resulting in a broken neck, and one other rodeo where he slipped and barely made his rotation in time.
Johnny is also known for his electric blue wig and large foam cowboy hat, courtesy of any mall in Texas. One of his best known acts is Cow Patty, performed to Jim Stafford’s song of the same title, completed by a mechanical bull mounted on a three wheeler, blowing smoke out the nostrils and shooting water from the rear. Another favorite act involves Johnny’s skunk, Rosie. His first skunk, Flower, was in the act for six years before passing away, and now Rosie performs to the frightened delight of rodeo audiences. “Everyone thinks she’s trained, but I just act off her instincts,” says Johnny. “If I want her to lift her tail, I’ll run at her to startle her a bit, or jump around in front of her. Then I’ll throw a dummy skunk into the audience, and depending on where I throw, they scatter!”
Though the rodeo arena is a second home to Johnny, his home in Aubrey with his wife, Emily, and 18-month-old son, Jase, is still his favorite place to be. They recently purchased a 40 foot motor home so that Emily and Jase can travel with Johnny. The husband and wife first met in 2009 at a rodeo – Johnny clowning and Emily barrel racing. Emily is also the owner of Deuce’s Wild Tack, known by many professional barrel racers for its bright colors and bling. While helping Emily with the business, Johnny spends his time at home going to the gym, duck hunting, watching football and announcing barrel races, many of which Emily competes in. He recently became a certified hypnotist, and plans to do several shows during his off weekends. Johnny is also the cook of the family, having dinner with Emily’s parents several nights a week. “I have a killer lasagna, and I can put anything on a pit and smoke it,” he says.
Taking to the road again, Johnny will be performing west of the Rocky Mountains this summer, with rodeos from Utah up to Montana, and even several in Alaska. He’ll work the All American ProRodeo Series Finals in October for the second year in a row, and is also the PRCA Turquoise Circuit Finals barrelman for the second time. “Everybody wants to do the biggest rodeos for the money and prestige, and I do too, but my favorites are the small hometown rodeos that I grew up working,” says Johnny. “When it comes to prestige in this business, I’d love to work Fort Worth, Pendleton, and of course the WNFR. But the one I thing I want even more is the Coors Man in the Can award, because that’s about who’s best at protecting the bull fighters. I’m just a family guy that likes clean comedy and rodeo.”