I had the chance to speak with Thomas “Tuffy” Gessling, a famous professional rodeo man with thirty-five years experience in the business. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe his story from a few years ago will.
During my interview with Tuffy he came off to me as a great guy, someone who loves America, respects our values and traditions, and it really amazed me to see how after everything this man was put through he still has the can do spirit. He still loves his fellow man and would give the shirt off his back to help someone in need. This, even after everything that was normal to him was stripped away over a political tidal wave he knew nothing about and certainly did not start.
Back in 2013 Tuffy did a skit during a show at the Missouri State Fair where he wore a mask of then President Barack Obama. This set off a firestorm of trouble for the rodeo clown that nobody expected and continues to this day.
I started off by asking Tuffy about his experience in the business. He told me that he started out at 11 years old riding steers and calves, and said he eventually got into bull riding. He did that for a long time until he realized it just wasn’t for him. So, he became a clown, because as he put it, “I wasn’t that great a rider and I was better at being funny than riding.”
When most people think of a rodeo clown they think about the skits they do that make the audience laugh, and believe me, they can make you laugh.
Tuffy told me a little about his mentor, Larry Connely, from Oklahoma, the man who taught him many of the very skits he does to this day. They are old-school skits that still draw laughs from audiences around the country. This is where he learned to do skits using funny masks.
But the real purpose of rodeo clowns is to protect the rider from being trampled on by the animal he just fell off. They make themselves the target while at the same time doing it in a way that makes the audience laugh with a hushed anxiety for the safety of everyone involved. It’s tough work, and Tuffy is good at it.
I asked Tuffy about what happened when the firestorm hit from the Obama mask incident. He said he remembers being shocked by it all. He told me that over the years his rodeo used masks of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, both Bush presidents, and many other people, doing the same skits, and never had anything like this happened. “We’ve used all kinds of different things that folks could have picked fun at,” said Tuffy. “But it was only when we used the Obama mask that people actually flipped out.” He told me that the national reaction to it, “scared me to death.”
“I was immediately labeled a racist,” he said. From that he said, “I was labeled a right-wing activist and a radical.”
“Then the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, issued a blanket statement saying they did not condone or recognize what I did.” Tuffy told me he felt that this was the catalyst the Left used to jump on the attack bandwagon.
I asked him why he thinks people flipped out over the Obama mask when there was no reaction to any other president? He said he believes it’s because there was a heightened sensitivity toward the first black president, and that people in those days were just looking for anything to jump on because of it.
The fallout after the PRCA announcement was immediate and endless. Tuffy said the governor of Missouri banned him from ever performing again at the Missouri State Fair, banned for life.
Tuffy pointed out that every major news network in the country covered the story. “We were even mentioned on Good Morning America, and Time magazine even did something. It was everywhere.” He said you just couldn’t get away from the saturation of news.
After that he couldn’t get hired to do a show. “Look, like all comedians if you’re not working you lose your edge, ” Tuffy said. “Not being able to work frightened me.” He told me at one point he went along the highway and picked up cans just to make a few bucks. Anything to pay the bills. This is a man who has a profession he worked in for 35 years, all destroyed because of overblown and over inflated egos and political sensitivity.
Then the threats started. Tuffy said he received non-stop death threats over the phone and in text messages. People would yell at him on the street. He told me about the time he was in a Walmart buying things and a woman who recognized him spit in his face.
“Ferguson, I had so many calls and people yelled at me and screamed at me over the phone saying, ‘You need to be killed.'”
“I got blamed, and this is no joke, I got blamed because some white guy had on a mask of Obama at Ferguson.” Tuffy said he saw on several web sites that for what he did he was blamed for starting a movement. “I became a scapegoat.”
He told me about the time he wound up in a fist fight with three other guys while he was trying to get gas.
Tuffy talked about how no one wanted to hire him. He said there were people he associated with his whole professional life who abandoned him. Rodeo contractors he worked with for years no longer wanted to talk to him.
He felt the agitators not only wanted to ruin his professional career but they wanted to destroy his life personally.
I asked Tuffy about what toll financially this whole thing cost him. He told me that prior to the Obama mask incident his rodeo did between 45 and 50 rodeos a year. Since then, he hasn’t done 45 rodeos in the last four years. They’ve had to sell off their livestock and many things just to pay the bills.
He said, “At one point I went to McDonald’s to try to get a job, and even they wouldn’t hire me, because they said I was too well known.
“When an Obama effigy was hung from a bridge off the I70 highway, crazy people shut down the highway and also went to my house,” he said. “In fact, they got to my house before I did.”
I then asked Tuffy what he thought of what Kathy Griffin had done recently, holding up a severed head of President Donald Trump.
“I just thought that was horrible,” he said. “What I did was comedy. There was no comedy in what she did.” He continued, “I would never depict the Commander in Chief that way.” He added, “Here’s how I have always felt. Barack Obama was my president. Now Donald Trump is my president. And I would never take things to the level of where things are now. My president is my president.”
He told me he believes the country today is in trouble. “And I really believe that our country is completely divided now. Completely.” He added, “Friends that I have lived with, shared meals with, shared family time with and everything else, look at me completely differently now.” He told me he no longer gets invited to things he was always invited to. It’s as if he is a pariah. “Because of this. Because of this same thing, all the time.”
“What I did was for comedy. It was not malicious. It was not let’s turn a bull out and make President Obama run from a bull. No, not at all. It was just a joke in a skit that had been done for many, many years,” he said, “and by some very prestigious rodeos around the world.”
I asked if he thought people jumped the gun solely because it was Obama, and he pointed out that the PRCA recently had a young man at a rodeo wear a Hillary mask, in a pantsuit, carrying a Trump flag, riding a bucking horse. And nothing was said to him. The PRCA did not care.
After all this man has been put through I asked if he could do it all over again would he change anything, would he skip the Obama mask and do something else. He said, “I wouldn’t change a thing. What I did was comedy. There was nothing else to it.”
I asked Tuffy what he thought about what happened to the country that made something as innocent as his skit come to blows the way it has, and he said, “America needs to stand up and laugh again. The values need to come back again. Honor, values, and respect needs to come back.”
Amen to that.