In small towns across the American West, a favorite form of entertainment is the rodeo. It's a show and competition in which a ranch hand's skills are on display. Cowboys ride bucking horses and ornery bulls. Cowgirls in colorful outfits race on horseback around barrels. Calves are roped and tied in a matter of seconds.

And there's a special corps of rodeo performers right in the middle of the action. They're lifesavers who are also comedians. They're called rodeo clowns.

A bull rider atop an agitated, 500-kilo bull can easily get into trouble. Deadly trouble. That's where two cowboys in clown outfits enter the scene. Like the competitors, they usually have on broad-brimmed hats, boots and blue jeans. But they also wear gaudy shirts, big red neckerchiefs, and often, funny face paint.

Between events, rodeo clowns act silly to entertain children in the audience, just like circus clowns. But their critical job involves whistling, shouting, flapping their arms, and running about crazily to distract a furious bull from a fallen rider.

There was a time when many rodeo clowns were washed-up competitors, slowed by age, injury, or alcohol abuse. But rodeo clowning has become such a well-paying specialty that most clowns are young, vigorous and agile, and not particularly muscular. Some are as tiny as Thoroughbred jockeys. When they're too banged-up, or too old, to rodeo any longer, most of these men find work anywhere they can around a rodeo ring. They'll tell you -- no clowning around this time -- that once rodeo life grabs you, it never lets you go.