Hollywood peddles a lot of stories, and one of the most popular is that there is an IRS agent waiting around every corner. Dorothy from Golden Girls, the stress-out parents on the cult classic This So Called Life, the squad at Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and countless other TV characters all faced grueling audits.
On one of the most classic Who’s the Boss? episodes, the IRS agent even comes to Tony and Angela’s home to check out whether they’re reporting honest information.
What’s going on? Are audits really this popular? Do you need to worry about the IRS ringing your doorbell? Is the IRS forcing Hollywood to scare you? Is there a Hollywood conspiracy to make you fear audits? Maybe.
TV Shows Featuring Audits
According to “TV (The Book)” by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, these are the top 10 TV shows of all time:
- The Simpsons
- The Sopranos
- The Wire
- Breaking Bad
- Mad Men
- I Love Lucy
- All in the Family.
These shows have little in common. They were aired from the 50’s to the modern day. They were set everywhere from New Jersey to New Mexico to the Wild West. The characters ranged from prisoners to housewives to mobsters, and their jobs ranged from nuclear power plant inspector to ad exec to bartender. Despite the variety, this group has one thing in common—fear of the IRS.
TV Episodes With IRS Audits
How common are TV audits? Let’s check it out and see how it stacks up next to reality.
In the Simpson’s “Trouble With the Trillions” (season nine, episode 20), the IRS starts to audit Homer, but the agents soon realize his boss is the real prize and they ask Homer to spy on Mr. Burns. Fickle as ever, Homer quickly changes sides and flees to Cuba with Mr. Burns. In reality, this might not even be possible; the IRS is starting to seize passports of people who owe more than $50,000 in tax debt.
In “Norm’s Big Audit” (season 11, episode 13). Cheer’s regular, Norm has a choice—accept the audit or get out of it by sleeping with the IRS agent. If you ever are audited, this is a big one to avoid— bribing government officials (with cash or “loving”) is seriously illegal.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White wasn’t afraid of breaking the law, and in fact, he had a business just to hide his drug-dealing income from the IRS. However, when the IRS came calling, they didn’t notice that sham car wash. Instead, in “Bug” (season 9, episode 4), the IRS audits Walter’s wife’s former boss.
As the bookkeeper, she knew the “books were cooked”. She plays dumb to get out of the situation and it works. Her former boss has to pay the taxes owed, but nobody has to face criminal penalties. In reality, playing dumb can sometimes work, but the IRS can also claim that you’re being willfully blind. That lets them throw the “I didn’t know” excuse out the window.
Seinfeld wasn’t immune either. The IRS contacts him about a $50 charitable deduction he made to a fake charity. If it’s an issue this small, the IRS will send a letter. They won’t come knocking at the door.
Even Archie Bunker from All in the Family was audited. He failed to report the money he earned driving a cab, and he and Edith have to go to a meeting with an IRS agent. The extended sequence is hilarious, but it begs the question—is there a Hollywood conspiracy?
The Hollywood Conspiracy to Make You Fear Audits
It’s impossible to do an exhaustive survey of every show ever aired to see how common audits are. However, of these ten shows, half contained audits. Based on that, you have a 50-50 shot of getting audited.
Seeing that story play out over and over again strikes fear into the heart of taxpayers. But the good news is—audits are not that common. It’s just Hollywood writers who can’t think of anything more dramatic.
In fact, I Love Lucy almost featured an audit episode as well. The script was nixed because Desi Arnaz didn’t want Ricky portrayed as a tax fraud. If that show would have aired, the percentage of top ten shows with audits would have jumped to 60.
Hollywood Does Not Reflect Reality
TV affects culture. When TV shows half of the people getting audited, that makes viewers think they are going to be audited. However, these shows don’t reflect reality.
Evidently, the IRS audits less than 1% of taxpayers and they have fallen over the last six years. That means if you are a TV character, you are fifty times more likely to get audited than a real person.
In real life, who’s the most likely to get audited? People who report nothing and people who report over $5 million. Five to 16% of people in those categories get audited.
If you are scared about an audit, take a deep breath. In spite of what happens on TV, it is unlikely the IRS will audit you. However, that doesn’t mean you should cheat on your taxes—the best way to avoid an audit is to file honestly and on time. The best way to survive an audit is with detailed, well-organized records and professional help.
Even characters who weren’t audited had something to say about the IRS. Take these comments from Roseanne, “This stuff is impossible to understand! These laws and explanations of laws; no human being can really understand these things, you know! That’s why you gotta go get some $200-an-hour lawyer to even explain the crap to you, you know, and I can’t afford $200-an-hour!”
Here’s the good news: TV isn’t right in this case either. If you need help, it isn’t out of reach, and you can afford it. Fearing an audit? Owe back taxes? Call the number above today.