'Nothing Racist' Implied In 'Obama' Act, Says Rodeo Clown

Aug 14, 2013
Originally published on August 16, 2013 7:40 am

Tuffy Gessling, the rodeo clown at the center of the controversy over the skit at the Missouri State Fair in which a man wearing a President Obama mask was mocked, says "nothing racist was ever implied."

"Comedians all over the country have used political figures to make fun of current events, it's nothing new," Gessling has told digitalBURG, a student-run news service from the University of Central Missouri. "I never tried to be a racist or anything like that. I love all people no matter their background. I live to make people laugh. When TV comedians are doing it every day, Rush Limbaugh is doing it every day, people on Facebook are doing it every day 10 times more than me. I was just trying to make light of the situation, that's it."

As we've been reporting, many others — including Republican and Democratic politicians — have condemned the act as being both disrespectful and racist.

Gessling and Kansas City Star reporter Dave Helling (during a conversation the journalist had Wednesday with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish) have now added some details to the story.

It had been known that it was Gessling's voice that could be heard telling "Obama" that a bull was "gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha!" and saying that it's the president who acts like a clown. It also had been known that another voice briefly heard during Saturday's performance was that of then-Missouri Rodeo Cowboys Association President Mark Ficken.

Now, thanks to Gessling and Helling, it's become known that it was a third man in the Obama mask. Previously, the speculation had been that it was Gessling in the mask and that he had been wearing a wireless microphone.

Gessling, according to digitalBURG, "refused to disclose the identity of his colleague behind the mask because he said the prank was his idea and because of the negative attention he's received." He's been banned from performing again at the state fair.

Helling, from the Star, says he's been hearing from many in Missouri who have strong feelings about what happened and how Gessling's now being treated. The clown's supporters, Helling says, believe he was just having fun and exercising his right to free speech. Some also claim that clowns performing at the fair have lampooned other politicians, including President George W. Bush, and not faced such a backlash. Helling says he hasn't turned up evidence of that happening before at Missouri's fair.

Critics of the act, Helling says, believe there's no room for what they see as such offensive conduct.

"There are fairly passionate views on both sides," Helling says. "Both sides sort of see it through their own prism of politics and race."

We'll add the as-broadcast version of his conversation with All Things Considered to the top of this post later.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Controversy at the Missouri State Fair. Last Saturday, a rodeo clown donned a mask of President Barack Obama during a bull-riding competition. The crowd cheered and applauded. Video of the event was posted to a local political website and has since gone viral. The event's sponsors and organizers have been fielding criticism ever since.

For the latest on this story, we're joined now by Dave Helling. He's been covering this for the Kansas City Star. Dave, welcome to the program.

DAVE HELLING: Good afternoon.

CORNISH: So we just heard a bit of tape from the event, from the announcer there, but describe the scene. What happened that night?

HELLING: Well, you heard the voice of a rodeo clown named Tuffy Gessling, who was sort of the informal MC of this rodeo event. And what actually happened is that a so-far-unidentified rodeo clown put on a Barack Obama mask, a cowboy hat, and went to the center of the rodeo ring. And then the announcer made some comments about President Obama and suggested that maybe one of the bulls in the rodeo might run at the Obama figure.

And then at some point, a bull came out, ran toward the Obama figure - again, this is according to witnesses, people who were there. He runs away, the crowd applauds, and that was the entertainment at the fair.

CORNISH: And not such a big deal at the time but once the story hits the Internet and goes viral, there's this huge kind of backlash, right, and criticism for the event. What has been the response by the Missouri State Fair?

HELLING: Well, as you suggest, the reaction really from both sides has been extraordinary. Monday morning, the Missouri State Fair board met and ratified a couple of decisions by its director. One of them was to ban the announcer clown, the Tuffy Gessling, from ever participating in any events at the fair ever again. He was permanently banned.

And then, the board also voted to require the sponsoring organization, a group called the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, to provide proof of sensitivity training for its members and for subcontractors before they could hold a rodeo at the fair again.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the reaction from people in Missouri. What are people saying on the street?

HELLING: Well, Audie, as you might imagine, there are fairly passionate views on both sides. There are lots of people in Missouri who found the skit racially offensive. The model was not, you know, in black face or anything but did have an Obama-like mask. And there were lots of voices Sunday and Monday who suggested that the combination of that, you know, fact with the announcer's voice, who continually urged the crowd to sort of get whipped up against the president, that, in their view, was over the top and offensive and potentially a difficulty for the state.

But then, you heard the other side who said, look, this thing happens all the time at state fairs and at rodeos and that there was no racial overtone at all, as far as they could see, from the incident.

CORNISH: When people have defended this saying, essentially, that political figures are obviously the target of ridicule all the time, even at the rodeo, when you actually looked back at past years, did you find that?

HELLING: Not necessarily at the state fair. And in fact, a lot of people who called me said, well, this happens all the time. And I asked them, well, has it ever happened at the Missouri State Fair before? And there were no real examples of that. But I have had people tell me that, yes, there have been George Bush figures and Bill Clinton figures in past years.

But supporters also make a broader point that, you know, making fun of public officials isn't just limited to the rodeo, you know, in movies, in television, in skits and plays and that this was no different from that. Again, I think both sides sort of see this incident through the prism of their own political views and they are strongly held, believe me.

I mean, my email box and phone messages filled up rather quickly after these stories ran.

CORNISH: That's Kansas City Star reporter Dave Helling. He was talking about the controversy at last Saturday's Missouri State Fair when a rodeo clown wore a mask of President Barack Obama. Dave, thank you.

HELLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.