A wife joke is a joke like this one:
"First guy (proudly): "My wife's an angel!" Second guy: "You're lucky, mine's still alive."
It doesn't make me laugh, because I live in a world where people who are unhappily married get divorced. Murder is unnecessary; just hire a good lawyer.
But wife and husband jokes are funny when they contain an element of truth. When people yearn for - but can't achieve - an escape from unhappiness.
If this is true, then they should be more popular when divorce is more difficult.
Dave Allen is an Irish comedian, and was popular in the 70s and 80s, well before Irish divorce laws were reformed in 1997. So his fondness for wife jokes is consistent with the marital discord theory.
Is there any broader evidence?
I did a google trend search for the words "husband jokes" and "wife jokes". What is interesting about these results is where the searches for husband and wife jokes originate from - overwhelmingly from Pakistan, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
(As 'husband joke' and 'wife joke' are very low volume searches, the rankings shown here are not stable over time - India and Pakistan flip the number one spot, and countries enter and drop out of the 5 to 10 slots).
To some extent, the popularity of 'husband jokes' and 'wife jokes' searches in India and Pakistan just reflects the popularity of searches for husbands, wives, and jokes in those countries:
But the number one country for wife jokes, Pakistan, does not appear on the top 10 list for joke, husband or wife searches. So that doesn't explain what is going on.
It could be that these Indian and Pakistani wife joke sites are really something else, such as mirrors of North American sites, but I don't think so. Sites like this one have wife jokes with a distinctly South Asian flavour:
'Its funny when people discuss over "love marriage" and "arranged marriage" It is like asking a person if he would like to "hang himself" or "shoot himself".'
(Ironically, the paid advertising at the bottom of the site where this joke comes from is for shaadi.com "Marry a like minded person".)
So why are wife jokes and husband jokes so funny in Pakistan, India, and the UAE?
In the United Arab Emirates, consanguinity - marrying relatives - is common. A 1997 study of the UAE found high rates of consanguinity, as did a 2010 study. Consanguinity is also common in Pakistan: "A majority of women are married to their close relatives, i.e., first and second cousins." And marriage is for life "The divorce rate in Pakistan is extremely low due to the social stigma attached to it." Some have argued that consanguinity brings benefits such as improved social status for women (relative to an arranged marriage with strangers), closer family ties, and greater marital stability. Still, fond though I am of my various cousins, marriage to one of them would have me googling husband and wife jokes too.
But I don't believe that the popularity of wife jokes in Pakistan, India and the UAE reflects traditional marriage patterns. Because I'm looking at English-language searches, I am more likely to be picking up searches from bored ex-patriates and the educated elites, who are likely not representative of the population at large.
I wish I could find a better metric of the popularity of husband jokes and wife jokes. Is their popularity inversely related to the divorce rate? Correlated with factors that tend to increase marital stress, such as unemployment or economic hardship? Correlated with factors that increase the cost of divorce, such presence of children?
There's not enough variation in the google trends data to look at these factors. Take the US trends, for example:
Husband jokes appear to have an annual peak on Valentine's Day; wife jokes are searched for all year round.
Make of that what you will.