Lawrence A. Zelenak, the Pamela B. Gann Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, shares his findings from watching dozens of hours of tax-related sitcom episodes.
This post has been edited for length and clarity.
David Stewart: Larry, welcome to the podcast.
Lawrence Zelenak: Thank you, Dave. Great to be with you.
David Stewart: Can you tell listeners a bit about yourself and what brought you to write about taxes and sitcoms?
Lawrence Zelenak: I’ve been teaching tax in law schools for a long time; since the mid-1980s. I’ve always had a pretty strong interest in pop culture. That’s another way of saying I’ve always spent a lot of time watching television. Randomly, I came across one or two sitcom episodes that involve tax and that made me curious about how many such episodes might exist.
About 15 years ago, I started a research project looking for as many tax-related sitcom episodes as I could find. It involved research techniques that I’d never learned in law school.
David Stewart: What sort of techniques did you have to employ for this?
Lawrence Zelenak: It was kind of everything. I think if I was doing it now, it would be somewhat easier. There’s more information online now about such things than there was then.
The single best source was a website called tv.com, which had very brief one or two-sentence plot descriptions of almost every sitcom episode ever. The problem was those plot descriptions were opaque to Google, so you couldn’t just ask Google to find all of them automatically for you. You had manually sort through every episode description of every show you were interested in.
For example, if it occurred to me, “Hey, there might be a tax episode in All in the Family,” you had to go through all of those to find it. That was just the first step, because that would alert me to the existence of the episode, but it wouldn’t mean I could find the episode.
This was pre-streaming. Some were available on DVDs. A lot weren’t. I discovered that the three great archives were the Library of Congress, the radio and television archives in New York, and the UCLA Film & Television Library. I made trips to all three of those, which was a lot of fun.
This all sounds so antediluvian. You could do all of this at home from your computer now, but I was traveling all over the country watching episodes on tape. I loved the project, but I knew that the research tools were sufficiently insufficient, that I was going to miss things.
I published the first survey in 2007 of all the 89 episodes that I was able to find by that point. Research has gotten a lot easier since then. Not only because the tools have gotten better, but because now people tell me. I’ll get an email every so often, “Hey, did you know you missed this episode?” That’s been great.
David Stewart: Your list of sitcoms goes all the way back to the 1940s and the radio plays. Is there some sort of history lesson we can learn from it?
Lawrence Zelenak: The really interesting historical accident, Dave, is that the income tax became a mass tax that applied to most of the population only in World War II. It existed of course since 1913, but between 1913 and the early 1940s, usually it applied to only about five or 10 percent of the population, which made it maybe not that good a topic for pop culture.
Sitcoms emerged on radio in the very late 1930s. Within a few years, we had the income tax emerging as a mass tax and sitcoms emerging at almost exactly the same time. From the very beginning, the sitcoms have provided commentary on the income tax. We have a perfect chronological match between these two phenomenon and it’s made for some really interesting sitcom episodes.
David Stewart: How much time did you really devote to this passion project of yours?
Lawrence Zelenak: Just to watch and listen to all the episodes would be about 50 hours, maybe a little less because of the ads. A hundred episodes times half an hour each. I wasn’t billing this to anyone, so I didn’t keep track, but it was certainly hundreds and hundreds of hours.
It was a labor of love, and a lot of the shows are really good, even apart from the tax angles. It was not unpleasant.
David Stewart: How are taxes coming up in these otherwise fun shows? I mean, taxes are fun, of course, but can you give some examples?
Lawrence Zelenak: Two ways of categorizing the shows are: what stage in the tax process did the show enter and what particular substantive tax issues are involved.
On the process side, it’s almost entirely two different stages. One is tax return preparation, and the other is audits. By the way, I have to say that the audit rate on television is orders of magnitude higher. But they’re almost all either tax return preparation shows or audit shows for kind of obvious reasons.
One thing that I think is interesting is individual federal income tax over this time frame we’re talking about, which is basically since 1940 on, has raised about half of all of the federal tax revenue. If you throw in state tax revenue, of all the taxes people pay, federal individual income taxes is significantly less than half.
But if you were arriving from another planet — we’ll get to 3rd Rock from the Sun later — trying to figure out what the U.S. income tax system was like from watching sitcoms, you would conclude that the only tax that existed was the federal individual income tax. I think that’s because it requires so much more taxpayer participation than any of the other taxes.
The other way you can sort of categorize the shows is the substantive tax issue. I’d say there’s three things that mostly come up. One is income inclusions, and there’s sort of substantive issues about whether windfalls are taxable and whether in-kind income is taxable. There’s also what you might call cheating issues, whether something is reported to the IRS by the third-party payer, and whether or not you should report it on your return if you think the IRS doesn’t know about it.
There’s also a lot of deduction issues. Pretty much every deduction that would occur to you as a widespread deduction comes up in the sitcoms. There are shows involving the alimony deduction, the charitable deduction, the business expense deduction, and so on.
Another thing that comes up a lot is illegitimate refunds. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of episodes where people are trying to take advantage to get bigger checks from the government than they should.
David Stewart: You’ve been cataloging these for many years. Have you noticed any sort of change over time of the way taxes show up in these episodes?
Lawrence Zelenak: I think the biggest change over time is that in the 1940s and 1950s, fiscal citizenship was a really big deal. The term fiscal citizenship is not something that ever shows in the shows; it’s my own term. That is, the shows talked a lot about how Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”
That came out in a lot of the 1940s and 1950s sitcom episodes. There’s an Ozzie and Harriet radio show from the late 1940s where Ozzie is about to mail his income tax return. He’s been not too happy while he was preparing it, but a neighborhood girl who’s been learning civics in school sees him at the mailbox. She says, “Oh, there you are about to file your tax return, Mr. Nelson. You’re happy to do it. No grumbling from you. You say ‘Here it is, Uncle Sam. Take it. There’s a lot more where that came from.'” There’s a laugh after that from the laugh track because she’s obviously been over the top. But at the same time, it seems pretty seriously intended.
There’s an episode from The Honeymooners, a Jackie Gleason sitcom from the early 1950s, where he complains as he is filling out his tax return because of how complicated it is. But at the end of the show, he says, “You know, all that bad stuff I said about taxes. We should be happy to pay taxes. We’re living in the greatest country in the world.” There’s really a lot of that in the 1950s, going up to the early 1960s.
There’s also sort of in connection with that two different episodes. One from the late 1950s called, Hey, Jeannie involving a Scottish immigrant. Then another, from the early 1960s, The Bill Dana Show involving a Mexican immigrant, both of whom decided that their income tax liability is too small given how great a privilege it is to be able to live in this wonderful country.
That pretty much disappears by the 1970s. It comes back kind of oddly in 2006 in a My Name is Earl episode, where the sort of punchline — not joke punchline — of the whole episode is that tax paying is as much a privilege as an obligation because of the things government does for the citizens. But that theme almost disappears.
I suppose the other big change is exemplified by what I think of as the three great working class sitcoms. You might have to throw The Simpsons in as a fourth.
In The Honeymooners in the 1950s, there’s actually two tax episodes, and in both of them Ralph is just scrupulously honest. In the second one from 1956 called “The Worry Wart,” he realizes belatedly that he hasn’t included some really minor types of income, mostly in-kind small value prizes, because it hadn’t occurred to him that in-kind small value prizes were income. But he decides he wants to report it because he would never cheat the government.
There’s an episode of All in the Family called “Archie’s Fraud” from the early 1970s, where Archie is exposed in front of his family as having driven a taxi on the weekends for $700 or $800 worth of tips that he didn’t report. Although Archie cheats, the rest of the family, including Edith, who, dingbat though she may be, is the moral compass of the show, is so scandalized by this that everybody persuades Archie that he needs to go down to the IRS office and basically confess.
Coming up finally to a Roseanne episode from 1990 called “April Fool’s Day,” in which Dan and Roseanne are preparing their tax return on April 15. They know that she earned several hundred dollars selling magazine subscriptions during the year. They want to report that only if the government knows about it. They end up going down to the IRS office because this is pre-internet days and they can’t get through on phone. They finally find out that the amount was small enough that there wouldn’t have been a 1099, so they decide not to report it.
You have one show, The Honeymooners in the 1950s, scrupulously honest taxpayer. Another show, All in the Family, about a decade and a half later, where Archie cheats. Everybody else is honest and they shame him, and he gets it. Then you have Roseanne, where it’s not even up for discussion of whether or not you cheat. Obviously you cheat if you think you can get away with it.
You can find honest and dishonest taxpayers in every time period, because after all, these shows are about bringing out the personalities of the individual characters. Although Ralph in the 1950s was scrupulously honest, Sergeant Bilko played by Phil Silvers was on another tax episode at the same time being tremendously dishonest.
There’s a lovely The Simpsons episode from the late 1990s called, “The Trouble With Trillions,” which juxtaposes Homer’s tax return preparation style with that of Ned Flanders. You can imagine Homer’s style. He says, “How many children do we have? No time to count. I’ll just guess seven.” Whereas Ned Flanders decides not to deduct cash register ink from his store, The Leftorium, because he enjoys the smell. He wakes up on the stroke of midnight on January 1 and prepares his tax returns.
I think if you watched all hundred episodes in chronological order, you would come away with the impression that overall people are a lot more willing to cheat than they used to be. Plus, people are a lot less impressed by the benefits of government or notions of fiscal citizenship than they used to be.
There’s another radio show called Life with Luigi from the mid-1950s, where there’s a discussion about, “Well, what do we get in return for taxes?” The answer is basically, “Oh, the army, the Navy, the streets, the veterans’ support, and so on.”
Fast forward to an episode of Ellen DeGeneres’s show Ellen from the mid-1990s, where a friend asks Ellen’s character, “Well, what do we get in return for taxes?” Her answer is, “You know, roads, national parks, PBS. I mean, I don’t watch myself, but I’ve heard good things about Nova.”
Even back to that episode of The Simpsons, Ned Flanders is asked by one of the boys, “Daddy, what do we get for paying taxes?” His answer is “Why, everything. Taxes to pay for the police. They pay for the trees and the sunshine. And let’s not forget the people who just don’t feel like working, God bless them.”
David Stewart: Would it be fair to say that the depictions of people paying their taxes in these shows is sort of a mirror on the way the greater society is looking at these issues?
Lawrence Zelenak: I think so. You could make a pretty good argument that if you’re looking for something in pop culture that holds a mirror up to society, you could do a lot worse than sitcoms. I can’t prove this, of course. I think the belief in fiscal citizenship has waned and willingness to cheat on taxes has increased. Sitcoms are reflecting some real changes.
David Stewart: I know there’s some things about return preparations and such. Are they discussing specific issues within tax or is it more of a generalized setting for the story?
Lawrence Zelenak: As you could imagine, there aren’t too many that get into detail on substantive tax issues. But there are a lot of episodes where the plot turns on some aspect of taxation.
There’s a an episode from The Odd Couple in 1973 called, “The Ides of April,” where initially Felix gets audited. Without quite realizing what he’s doing, he says, “I’m the most honest taxpayer in the world. You shouldn’t be auditing me. You should be auditing my roommate, Oscar,” who’s an incredible slob and pays no attention to how he fills out his tax return.
Because he says this, they decide to audit Oscar. It turns out that Oscar has a big deficiency, which he doesn’t have the money to pay until at the very end of the episode, Felix runs in and says Oscar had these huge alimony deductions, which, because he was so slovenly about the way he prepared his tax return he never bothered to take. The government actually owes him a refund.
There’s shows about business expense deductions as well. One thing you find in these old episodes is that plots tend to repeat on the shows that ran a long time because they did so many episodes a year. Usually in the 1950s and 1960s, they were doing 39 episodes a year. If you have a long-running show, it gets hard after a while to come up with literally hundreds of new ideas.
The Jack Benny Show, first on radio and then on television, did four episodes with basically the same plot, which was that friendly IRS agents show up at his house to ask him about his tax return. They’re concerned that he hasn’t claimed enough business expense deductions. The joke being, of course, that he was supposed to be so incredibly cheap. He explains, “Yeah, that’s really right. I never spend money even as business expense deductions,” and that’s why he didn’t claim them.
There’s one particular tax episode in The Twilight Zone. I know I’m sort of cheating because nobody thinks of The Twilight Zone as a sitcom, but about 10 or 20 percent of the episodes actually are sitcom-ish.
This is one of them. It’s called, “The Man in the Bottle.” It’s from 1960 and it’s about an income inclusion. The whole plot turns on the question of whether or not windfalls are taxable. Most people are sufficiently unfamiliar with the taxation of windfalls because they’ve never gotten any — at least not big ones.
This couple that’s having great difficulty making ends meet is visited by a genie in a bottle who gives them several wishes. Their major wish is for $1 million, but they forget to wish that it’d be tax free. An IRS guy shows up and tells them it’s taxable. He says, “Your tax liability on the $1 million is $907,000,” which that’s not quite right in terms of marginal tax rates in 1960. It’s pretty close. The actual tax would have been around $850,000. That episode, for example, looks at both tax ability to windfalls and high marginal tax rates that prevailed at the time of the show.
One of my favorites is the Green Acres episode ”The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” from the early 1970s. It’s basically about net operating losses, if you wanted to put it into a substantive category. For people who aren’t familiar with the show, Oliver Wendall Douglas is a high-powered New York lawyer who decides he really wants to become a farmer. He moves to the most backwards place in America where they still think that Calvin Coolidge is president.
He picks up his tax refund check at the post office where all of the other farmers are sitting around the cracker barrel and they ask him, “What’s that?” He explains it to them. They’re surprised because they weren’t aware there was an income tax, but they misunderstand his explanation and think that what he has told them is if you lose money during the year in your business, the government will refund you.
The farmers end up getting in the aggregate of several hundred thousand dollars worth of refund checks. They’re not totally wrong. I mean, there is something called net operating loss carryovers, but they sort of misunderstand exactly how far it goes.
Another I like a lot is from The Andy Griffith Show. Aunt Bee goes on a game show in Hollywood. When she comes back, she’s visited by an IRS agent. This is very odd for two reasons. First of all, the agent shows up a week after she’s been on the show in the same year that she was on the show, so she hasn’t even had a chance to file a return. Secondly, he doesn’t talk to Aunt Bee. He talks to Andy, which is very peculiar.
But the point of it is all of these things — she won the washer and the dryer and the free trip and all that — they’re all taxable, which was news to her.
David Stewart: Do any of these betray a writer who seemed to have an ax to grind about some issue they were dealing with?
Lawrence Zelenak: Great question. Not much. No. I can’t think of a single one where I got that impression from the show. In fact, one of the things that’s striking about even the later episodes is that IRS employees are only rarely depicted in seriously negative lights. For the most part, I would say the taxpayers come off a lot worse in these episodes than the IRS.
David Stewart: I did want to ask about that. Is the tax profession portrayed in a fair light?
Lawrence Zelenak: Let me break that into two parts. One is the non-government tax profession like tax lawyers and accountants. What’s really striking about that is those people basically don’t exist.
I was going back over my summaries of the hundred episodes or so looking for anything where a tax lawyer or an accountant or return preparer showed up. There are almost no such. Maybe that is partly a function of the fact that you get more interesting sitcom situations when taxpayers prepare their own returns and aren’t represented by lawyers at audit. For whatever reason, they’re basically missing an action. That has started to change for some reason, just in the last decade.
The best one is a short bit from Portlandia where Carrie, one of the two lead characters, is dating a tax lawyer. She said, “I think it’s great to be dating a tax lawyer. I actually think tax lawyers are really sexy.”
Then it turns out that what he really wants to be is a guitarist in a rock band. She finds that not attractive at all. They stage an intervention where several people, including two actual music stars, tell him the world has enough rock musicians. What the world really needs is good tax lawyers and he’s convinced.
The last part of that episode shows him talking on the phone with a client about tax issues and the audience is applauding wildly. That’s a wonderfully positive depiction of a tax professional.
What’s striking is until very recently there haven’t been many such depictions. There have been depictions of IRS officials who, for the most part, have been depicted pretty positively.
There are exceptions. In that Roseanne episode, when they go down to the IRS office, there’s this extremely rude and snooty IRS official who tells Roseanne, “You didn’t have to come down here to ask this question because the answer is right there in the 1040 instructions.” She says, “Where? I didn’t find it.” He points it out to her and says, “There it is in black and white. I’m sorry there are no pictures.”
Then there’s something, which is in a class by itself. A show by the name of Alice, where the lead character is a waitress struggling to make ends meet, gets audited. The auditor tells her, “You owe a lot of tax money,” but puts his hands on her knee and then says, “I could make it all go away, if you know what I mean.” That’s the only episode like that.
For the most part, the IRS agents are actually depicted neutrally to even positively. In the Ellen episode that I mentioned before, the IRS has made a mistake. The IRS official says to her, “Sometimes IRS stands for “I’m Really Sorry.'” There’s a lot of that.
David Stewart: You alluded earlier to an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun. That’s dealing with aliens interacting with the tax system. What sort of things happened in that episode?
Lawrence Zelenak: For those who are, shockingly enough, not familiar with the premise of the show: A group of aliens arrive from a distant planet to investigate Earth and to masquerade as human beings and spend several years there. They are much more intelligent than humans, but somehow the lead character, played by John Lithgow, didn’t get the word for several years about the income tax.
Finally, when he finds out that he has to prepare income tax returns, he starts doing it. There’s one scene where he is trying to prepare his return where he says, “I don’t understand. I can calculate the decaying orbit of a dying moon to within one-tenth of an inch. Why can’t I calculate the subtotal of line 59A?”
There are a lot of episodes going way, way back that involve people complaining about how difficult it is to fill out a tax return, including several where the joke is they read literally from the instructions to the 1040. Just reading literally from the actual instructions is enough to produce a laugh. This is perhaps the most extreme version of complaining about the complexity of income tax return preparation.
Eventually, the characters conclude that they actually owe a lot of money. Of course, they don’t want to pay. One of the other characters says “I’ve got it. We can cheat on our taxes.” The other one says, “What a great idea. I can’t believe no human has thought of this before.”
They cheat on their taxes, claim a huge refund instead of having a tax liability, get audited, and it turns out that they end up having to pay the tax.
David Stewart: We just recently ran your update to the original. Your original article ran in 2007. Can we expect about 10 years from now another update to your list?
Lawrence Zelenak: I hope so. As it happens, the week after the update was published, you got a letter to the editor from a reader who had three episodes that I missed. I’m sure there will be more episodes.
One interesting trend, which I don’t have a good explanation for, is that these episodes are getting a little scarcer than there used to be. If you count the number of tax-related sitcom episodes I’ve been able to find, I’d say the decline started about in the 1970s or maybe 1980s. They’ve never disappeared. I don’t think they ever will disappear, as long as there’s an income tax.
It’s kind of striking that there’s a clear downward trend. I can’t promise that many more episodes, but whatever I’m able to find, you bet.
David Stewart: If our listeners have some ideas, what’s the basic criteria to apply for inclusion on the list?
Lawrence Zelenak: The core of my interest is sitcoms and the federal income tax. I will admit to fudging that a little bit if I find something else that I think is really cool. Ideally, the income tax is the main thing going on in the plot. Basically if it’s at least arguably a sitcom and there’s a federal income tax angle, I’d be interested.
David Stewart: Well, Larry. It’s been great talking to you. Thank you for being here.
Lawrence Zelenak: My pleasure, Dave. Thank you.