The Persistence of Birther Humor

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What does Obama have in common with God? Neither has a birth certificate.

Donald Trump’s recent embrace of the birther conspiracy has been a bonanza for political comedians. He even received a hearty thank you at the top of Conan’s monologue last night. Though Trump is getting notoriety for bringing the controversy back into the spotlight after repeated and thorough debunkings last year, the birther issue never really went away. When not being discussed as a serious question for debate, it has persisted in the form of birther jokes.

The birther joke is particularly popular among Republican leaders, and not just the local email forwarders. With a year and a half still to go before the election, birther jokes have already been told by almost all the major Republican Presidential candidates. Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s joke has become an established part of his repertory: “Now, I’m not one who questions the existence of the president’s birth certificate. But when you listen to his policies, don’t you at least wonder what planet he’s from?”

Frontrunner Mitt Romney went on Letterman in February and read his Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Mitt Romney. Number two: “I have absolutely no idea where my birth certificate is.” Last month, possible Tea Party candidate Michelle Bachmann joked to a conservative radio host: “I think the first thing I would do in the first debate is offer my birth certificate so we can get that off the table.”

That leaves Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, who don’t need to make jokes about Obama’s birth certificate. They make actual serious birther allegations: within the past six months, both have said that Obama was

“>raised in Kenya

and therefore

“>harbors an anti-American mindset

. Their extremist position has been overshadowed by Trump, but after Huckabee first said it Colbert Report ran with the issue.

Colbert’s commentary gets to the heart of the strategy behind all the jokes about Obama’s birth certificate and the frequent accidental “misspeakings” about his upbringing: “The important thing isn’t where the Mau Mau revolution happened, the important thing is for people to start associating Barack Obama with the words Mau Mau.” When the news isn’t reporting on Obama’s forged birth certificate, jokes are a helpful way to keep the issue in voters’ minds.

Birther jokes were also the hit of this year’s CPAC, the conservative political conference. Rush Limbaugh quips about it on Obama’s alleged birthday. It is becoming such an entrenched punchline that even Obama has acknowledged it in jokes on occasions like the Gridiron dinner, or anywhere the president can be expected to make a joke. The president has joked about wearing his birth certificate on his forehead and instructed the Marine band to play “Born in the U.S.A” instead of “Hail to the Chief.”

He needs to stop. Obama has not had many attributes become required comedy targets. For the birther jokes to start appearing so frequently means they may just turn into Obama’s signature caricature — the way Bush and Biden were stupid or Clinton was horny. We are close to this being the first thing we associate with him. Comedians should define and shape our presidents’ funny flaws. But just like ‘flip-flops’ became a thing comedians picked up from John Kerry’s political opponents, comedians risk ceding their territory on Obama to the birthers.

It shouldn’t be hard to see why this is a problem. When caricatures work it should be because the comedy reveals a kernel of truth about their character. These political tactics are trying to accomplish that in reverse. If we start automatically identifying Obama with birther jokes, then there has to be something to it, right?

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.