Even daredevil superheroes and hardened villains fear the taxman from the IRS.
This is especially odd when said characters handle Eldritch Abominations on a regular basis and are able to kill an army like it was nothing. Apparently, going to jail for tax evasion is a fate worse than death. On the plus side, they help the reader relate to the character (taxes are Serious Business in Real Life) and can even make the villain more sympathetic, pitting them against the unfathomable might of... taxes. Even gangsters who get away daily with murder and robbery may fall into the clutches of the law, dead or alive, if they don't pay their income tax. (In fact, that actually happened to Al Capone.)
Sometimes, the intimidating part comes from a person who gets a summons to the tax office and the person fears that they are in trouble and might be arrested for a tax violation. In this kind of story, it turns out the bureaucrat is a nice enough person who just wanted to clear up a minor problem and, seeing that the character is frightened, has to give some reassurances that nothing is wrong beyond that.
The trope is named after the Internal Revenue Service, the agency which is charged with this function in the U.S.
Most every country has its own version of this, often depicted the same way. They count as well.
See also Forensic Accounting, a common tool used by the Intimidating Revenue Service.
open/close all folders
There was an old story about Superman (around the 60's) where the IRS notices that Superman hasn't paid taxes ever, so, long story short, the Man of Steel has to raise a billion dollars fast, or else he will be arrested. Or something (it's hard to tell, he is Superman, for crying out loud). Before you ask, Superman income comes from the rewards on the criminals he catches and the diamonds he makes when he crushes coal in his hands. He donates everything to charity though. The story ends with the taxman's superior saying that since Superman has dedicated his life to helping the population of Earth, he can literally claim billions of dependents and thus any tax obligations are then effectively canceled. Presumably he only claims the ones who don't pay US taxes (as otherwise no one could claim the standard deduction that requires one not be someone's dependent). In addition, his dependents deduction would be limited on a billion dollar adjusted gross income.
Averted in Lobo "Death and Taxes". He solves the problem with violence as usual.
One issue of Marvel Adventures has the Avengers make a bargain with the tax man to waive their back taxes (mostly Wolverine's, who has never paid taxes in his life) in return for rounding up tax dodges and making them pay their taxes.
It should be noted, that the deal was that by getting the tax dodgers, the Avengers could file theirs without giving up their secret identities to the goverment (Tony Stark offered to pay the sum.) At the end of the story, the team gets back at the tax man the only way one can...
Agent Harvey: And with that, gentlemen, your job is finished. Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
Giant-Girl: Hah. You say that now...
Iron-Man: But wait until you get our list of tax reductions for this job.
Giant-Girl: I saved reciepts!
Agent Harvey: Urrkkk!
At one point, Wally West got a job with the IRS to pay off his massive debt. In the issue of The Flash where this begins, a furious mayor is about to demand compensation for the massive property damage involved in apprehending a supervillain tax evader, but backs off when he flashes his badge. In the next issue, Wally contemplates the possibility of nailing the Joker on this basis.
The secondary plotline of a Achille Talon album deals with a tax man showing up at his door for an audit of the last five years. Cue Walter's father with boxes and boxes of receipts, opening discussions upfront with an "iron clad case that those ballpoint pens were a legitimate business expense" and tipping off the tax man that he may be in over his head. By the end of the album, Walter's father is sitting on a mountain of receipts, the tax man is crying his surrender and they've barely gone through the first morning's expenses for the five year period being audited.
"I bet you that is your Porsche that's parked outside, isn't it? Isn't that your Porsche? Is it? How would you like me to have the IRS come down here and crawl up your fuckin' ass with a microscope? 'Cause they'll do it! I've seen them do it! It's not a pretty sight!"
A Taxing Woman stars a female income tax investigator in Japan. A note at the beginning of the English dub says that the top tax bracket in Japan is over 90%, so tax evasion has more or less become a national pastime. She ends up ruining an honest mom-and-pop establishment because their daily meals include food they prepare for themselves at their own restaurant, and makes a grown pachinko arcade operator cry to save himself from a million dollars (!) in back taxes.
Robert Asprin's Phule's Paradise ends with this situation. Having been thwarted in their attempt to take over the casino Phule's Company was hired to protect, and are now part owners of, the bad guys are last seen chortling over the fact that Our Heroes will have come to the attention of the Tax Man.
In A Phule and His Money, the Tax Man shows up...and it turns out that Beeker is, among other things, a galaxy-class accountant. By the end, the tax agents admit that they owe Phule a refund.
This was almost certainly a specific Take That: When A Phule and His Money was written, the IRS was garnishing writer Robert Asprin's income.
Poul Anderson's Operation Luna has a subplot in which the protagonists' private spaceflight research firm gets audited by the IRS (because their enemies pulled some strings). The tax code is so complicated that they have to solicit advice from Mimir, guardian of the well of knowledge.
In the New Testament of The Bible, particularly throughout the Gospels, certain professions are classified as sinful and worthy of hell simply by practicing them. What's the worst, vilest kind of sin-professional a person can possibly be? A prostitute? A pharisee? A torturer? No. A tax collector. (Why? Because they were the worst kind of traitor: they squeezed money out of their compatriots and handed it over to the Roman occupying forces. Even worse, they were legally allowed to be on the take, so they could overcharge people and keep the balance for themselves.)
Jesus Himself refers to them whenever he needs an immediately recognizable example of an corrupt profession, saying things like, "You love the people who love you back? That's not so great; even the tax collectors do that!" The Gospel writers get in on it too, with Luke saying at one point, "When all the people and the tax collectors heard this..."
Worth noting that at least two tax collectors are mentioned as being redeemed through Jesus' teachings. One of them (Matthew) even became an Apostle.
The Auditors of Reality from Discworld are sometimes referred to as, essentially, the most ridiculously anal taxmen in the history of the universe. Particularly in Reaper Man, where Death is able to enlist a country woman's help by playing off her longstanding hatred of "the Revenoo".
Live Action TV
In an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun the Salomons discover that they have to pay taxes after three years of blissful ignorance. After a funny attempt to commit fraud on their tax declaration, they get audited and get paranoid about the IRS blowing The Masquerade.
The Twilight Zone episode "The Man in the Bottle" depicts a couple who thanks to a genie get the chance to have four wishes granted. One of them is to get one million dollars. For a while they're rolling in it, but then an IRS agent shows up and confiscates 90% of it.
In the Red Dwarf episode "Better Than Life", Rimmer discovers that he owed several thousand (unspecified futuristic currency units) in tax when he left Earth, and is horrified.
Lister: Relax, it doesn't matter now. Not gonna catch you now, are they? Rimmer: What? Just because we're three million years into deep space and the human species is extinct? That means nothing to these people. They'll find us.
As it turns out, the tax department never does catch up with him, although later in the episode he has a nightmare vision of a taxman who threatens to smash his thumbs with a hammer if he doesn't pay up immediately.
In The Honeymooners, Ralph is requested to come to the local tax office about a tax issue. Scared that he is in trouble for tax evasion, he scours every minor thing he gained over the year to declare to the tax rep. As it turns out, the tax rep is a nice, understanding man who reassures Ralph that he is satisfied his taxes are in proper order, he simply called Ralph in because he forgot to sign a check he submitted earlier to pay his taxes.
Ellen gets audited in Slings And Arrows in the second season. Naturally she's terrified because she's an actress who's clueless about money (and marked off pretty much everything she bought as a work purchase). And ends up having to pay $27k back.
Which leads to the hilarious instance where Sam has to explain how he got a gun without paying for it.
Sam: I got it off this guy who was in the group we were targeting. Stacey: Oh, so you stole it? Sam: No, I didn't steal it. The guy... He was done with it. Stacey: So it was a gift? Sam: It's not a gift. There was this thing, and then the gun didn't have an owner anymore. Beat Stacey: I'm just gonna mark that down as... windfall income.
Sophie Anne, the Vampire Queen of Louisiana, gets into trouble because with the end of the vampire masquerade, vampires are citizens and have to pay taxes. Since she does not want to cut back on her lavish lifestyle in desperation she has Eric sell vampire blood to humans which is very lucrative but taboo and very illegal in vampire society.
Having to pay taxes is just one reason why many of the vampires are so unhappy with the vampire leadership forcing them to reveal themselves to the public.
In Wiseguy Vinnie is unable to get the information he needed from one corrupt businessman. McPike then comes in and threatens the business owner, saying "I'm from the US Government, and the IRS eats guys like you for breakfast". They get the information very quickly.
In an episode of The Greatest American Hero, an IRS field agent threatens everyone he meets with tax audits, and (because he really doesn't like Pam) subjects Pam to the dreaded Seven-Year Retroactive Audit — which in the world of this TV show is the worst thing the IRS can do to you short of throwing you in jail.
Corner Gas reverses the roles by having the Canada Revenue Service agent (played by Kevin McDonald) being kind, patient and willing to give useful tips while trying to get some simple answers from grumpy old man Oscar.
Parks and Recreation gives us Ron Swanson's first ex-wife Tammy 1, an IRS auditor who makes his already-scary second ex-wife (the hot but evil and frightening director of the Pawnee Public Library) Tammy 2 run in fear and turns Ron into a gentle, docile pussycat (as opposed to Tammy 2, who turns him into a sex fiend).
In Mad Men Season 5, British Inland Revenue hits Lane Pryce with a very large tax bill. He has been living and working in the US for a while now and he has been paying taxes to the US government instead. Since there are no tax treaties in place yet, he is double taxed because of his expatriate status. Logically he should have just stayed out of Britain until he could settle the matter but instead he panics and in his desperation embezzles the money from the agency. And then when Don Draper finds out, he gives Lane an ultimatum: resign or I'll expose you to the partners, driving Lane to suicide.
On The Golden Girls, Blanche was about to be audited for evasion, something that she freely admitted to (she had failed to report the rental income she received from the three other women). Her brilliant plan to get out of this, was of course, to seduce the agent. So the day of the audit arrives and she's dressed in a slinky lingerie. . .only for the agent to be a stern, no-nonsense, woman. A deflated Blanche meekly invites her into the kitchen so that she can write her a check. (given Blanche's legendary promiscuity, sending a female agent was no doubt deliberately done on the IRS's part, knowing that she would have easily done away with a man).
The Odd Couple has an episode where Felix is summoned to the IRS office for an unstated reason and he is distraught that he is in trouble. As it turns out, Felix merely forgot to sign his payment check, but in his panic, he unintentionally lets it slip that Oscar has been filing some shady returns and the IRS has no choice but to arrange a tax audit.
On Angel, Spike (a vampire who has committed hundreds of murders in the past) is still miffed about that time the Immortal got him arrested for tax evasion.
The Beatles' song "Taxman," although it's about British taxes instead of U.S. taxes, is all about this trope.
"If you drive a car, I'll tax the street If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat; If you get too cold, I'll tax the heat; If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet."
In 1991, WWE brought back Mike Rotunda from WCW and repackaged him into Irwin R. Schyster, or IRS, the evil wrestling taxman. He wrestled in suspenders, long pants, glasses and a long-sleeved shirt. He appeared in vignettes where he offered "Tax Tips," explaining what people could and could not write off, although he usually accused everybody, particularly his opponents, of being tax cheats. His finishing moves included the "Write-Off" (a flying lariat, or clothesline), and the "Penalty" (STF, short for "Stepover Toehold with Facelock.") In early 1992, he formed a Tag Team with "The Million-Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase that, after they defeated The Legion Of Doom for the WWE World Tag Team Titles, would be named "Money Inc." Rotunda continued the role following DiBiase's retirement in 1993 until he returned to WCW in September 1995. He brought it back a few times since WWE hired him as a road agent (he retired in 2004), including in the 15th Anniversary Raw battle royal on the December 15, 2007 episode. IRS won the match, but DiBiase walked out and offered IRS a briefcase of money, which IRS accepted and eliminated himself, giving DiBiase the win.
Adventure WG7 Castle Greyhawk. The NPC Fudge the Incessant waits at the entrance/exit to the dungeons to collect a tax from any adventurers leaving the dungeons with treasure. He automatically spots any attempt to sneak valuables past him.
One of The Munchkins Guide To Power Gaming's suggestions for dealing with a dragon is pretending that you're the IRS come to audit its hoard. "Even dragons don't mess with the IRS. It's suicide."
In Day Of The Tentacle, IRS agents arrive at Dr Fred's mansion and leave him tied up in the attic (with red tape) while they audit his accounts.
Renon from Castlevania 64 starts out as a demon shopkeeper; you can use his contract to summon him if you should happen to find it lying around, and purchase any supplies you need. Just before the final boss, he shows up to let you know you won't see him ever again, but how the story plays out depends on your spending habits; if you were thrifty, he tells you a war is brewing elsewhere, which will give better profit margins than selling chicken drumsticks to a single adventurer. If you spent more than 30000 gold, he reveals that there was some fine print in the contract that Carrie (could not read because it was written in a demonic language); specifically, there's a tax on his services that he has to collect now, and that tax is her soul! Cue fighting for your very life.
Strike Commander. The IRS is now the defacto Federal government, and uses military force to collect back taxes from Mega Corps and the Divided States of America. One of your missions gives you the choice between a painful audit or helping them invade the secessionist state of Rhode Island, though there's a happy ending where you blow up IRS One with a missile.
Some of the superheroes in Super Stupor get roped into the IRS to make up for their own tax issues.
Tork try to claim his tiny human side as dependent. That shit? It not fly so well.
In an episode of Batman The Animated Series the Joker inherits a small fortune from a rival gangster and lives a life of luxuries and general happiness until he receives a letter from the IRS demanding, well, taxes. Cue desperate attempts to raise the money to pay the IRS as a large chunk of the money was fake, as a final screw you from the dead gangster to the Joker, and he cannot just admit that to the government without becoming the laughinstock of the criminal world.
Joker: I may be crazy enough to take on Batman, but the IRS? No-o-o-o, thank you!
In Danny Phantom this is almost a running joke. In one episode a doctor (Bertrand in disguise) convinces all the parents, including the Fentons, to let him take their kids to an abandoned hospital by threatening to audit their taxes. The Guys In White pull much the same thing later on.
In The Simpsons, Homer whips out a quick tax return by guestimating things as obvious as the number of his kids and ends up getting a severe audit. When called in, he's scared out of his mind and tries to give every excuse under the sun ("an older boy made me do it", etc.), but is ultimately enlisted as a government spy.
In a previous episode, the Simpsons pass by the IRS Building in Washington D.C.
IRS Worker (looking out the window): Aw, boo yourself!
An episode of The Jetsons had George and Jane winning a large amount of money at the race track thanks to a pair of glasses capable of seeing the near future and then being alerted to some intimidating characters in the crowd. They're told that the two ominous men always demand their cut of the winnings. Fearing that the two shady characters are gangsters or something, George and Jane fly home in their car, followed all the way by the ominous men and breaking the glasses during the chase. Finally, George and Jane are cornered by them in their garage, where the men tell them they're from the Interspace Revenue Service. George breathes a sigh of relief, but is dismayed to find out they end up taking most of their winnings, leaving them with just two dollars.
In one part of the first Veggie Tales Christmas special, Larry the Cucumber is waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. While waiting, he receives several other visitors, one after the other: a bank robber, a Viking, and an IRS agent. In the spirit of Christmas, Larry invites the bank robber inside for milk and cookies; the same happens with the Viking. The IRS agent gets the door slammed in his face. (The IRS agent does make off with the last of the cookies, though, after hilarity has ensued.)
One Biker Mice from Mars episode featured Lawrence Limburger having tax problems. To avoid justice, he faked his death and framed Charley for "murdering" him. The mice brought Limburger back, clearing Charley. Limburger managed to get away with the frame-up but the IRS agents confiscated Limburger Plaza (namely took it away with help from helicopters). Limburger claimed that he had power and influence and was told that Al Capone also had it and to look at what happened to him. (See the Real Life section of the trope for details)
The episode "Team Impossible" of Kim Possible had her father having trouble calculating his takes. He might be an actual rocket scientist, but he is not a rocket scientist (Yes, he says that) and he never does manage to get it right. Thankfully, Kim manages to get him a CPA to help out at the end of the episode.
"Numbers aren't the only thing I crunch."
South Park: Cartman inherited one million dollars in one episode and a good part of it was taken by tax collectors.
Jem: Roxy once won one million dollars thanks to a Lottery Ticket she found. She lost half to the IRS.
American income taxes are typically considered, especially by honest and law-abiding citizens, a maddeningly, obstructively difficult process to write out and calculate. People without the money to hire a professional accountant tend to never quite feel they've gotten it right, always worrying about whether they took too large a deduction or could have gotten a slightly larger refund.
This has gotten a bit better in the Information Age, with computer based systems making it relatively easy to file your taxes, even walking you through your deductions to get you the most money back. In fact, today it is advised to electronically file your return, as it will get processed faster (with direct deposit and e-filing, turnaround can be as little as a week), and prevents transcription errors (as today, all that happens with a paper form is that a clerk transcribes it into the e-filing system.)
Ironically, the Information Age is arguably one of the forces keeping taxes as complex as they are. Popular tax preparation software makers regularly lobby Congress to oppose legislation to simplify the tax code, because if the tax code is simple, far fewer people would need to purchase their software.
The complexity of tax returns tends to be exaggerated in fiction, where someone who works as an employee has to file a return hundreds of pages thick, while in real life even if they filed the long form it would be two sheets of paper (plus their W-2), with the numbers copied off the W-2 and mortgage interest statement. And they always make a mad rush for the post office on April 15th, rather than filing for an extension. This may show up a lot because Most Writers Are Writers. The writers who work as independent contractors do have to document all of their business expenses and have much more complex tax returns.
As mentioned above...
Infamously, when Al Capone was brought to justice, but was only convicted of tax evasion. However, that was because nothing else would stick, since he had such good lawyers/intimidation that none of the more serious charges would stand up to court scrutiny. Ironically, Capone frequently mocked the IRS, saying that because you didn’t file earnings that you made illegally, they couldn't touch him. (He went to prison, got out after serving his time, and died of natural causes syphilis seven years later.)
This is becoming more and more SOP for police investigations of notorious and/or leading criminals with a lot of conspicuous consumption - the police invite the IRS to look over the suspect's holdings to see if they owe any back taxes. The IRS happily requires criminals to pay taxes on their ill-gotten gains (Capone was wrong) - the only thing they can't require is disclosure of the income source (as that would run afoul of the Fifth Amendment prohibition on self-incrimination.) Invariably, many criminals haven't paid their taxes, and the IRS is more than happy to seize their assets to pay the back taxes and the associated penalties.
In the United States, the courts have ruled that the purpose of the Tax Laws are to collect taxes on income, *not* to punish other unlawful behavior. If you rob a bank you are expected to pay taxes on the loot you get away with. It is even permissible to claim the cost of the weapons and masks you wore as deductions on income!
In a Tax-Preperation seminar this' troper's father attended in The Eighties, the presenter explained how he had done taxes for a man embezzling large amounts of money from his partners, and then paying taxes on it. The theory was that if he was ever caught, the penalty for the crime was bad enough, but the penalty for the crime *and* tax evasion was more than the client was willing to risk.
Wesley Snipes has also been jailed for attempting to evade taxes using frivolous arguments. And, allegedly, attempting to pay his taxes by printing his own money.
The IRS and the Tax Courts have heard all the various 'tax protester' arguments over and over, to the point that even using them will not only guarantee you losing the case, but net you a nice shiny contempt of court charge for even trying to argue those particular points.
Richard M. Nixon was infamous for using the IRS as a weapon against his political enemies, which is one specific reason the IRS is no longer entirely beholden to the federal government (they represent it, but do not necessarily answer directly to it).
Without naming names, other presidents have been accused of doing the same thing. True or not, it's a difficult accusation to prove. Though people start wondering why outspoken opponents of certain policies get audited up to twice a year when they'd never been audited the entire decade previous.
Other presidents have taken flack for joking that they would do the same thing. It's really not a funny joke if you're afraid that you might be a target of such political audits.
There's a saying "Dont pay money to trace your family tree, simply enter politics and your opponents will do it for you."
Mostly inverted by countries that use Pay As You Go tax (taxes are withheld from your pay, at which point you claim back your deductions.) Just don't make too many furphies on your tax return...
Although even here, the government wins (at least from a macroeconomic point of view) - tax refunds don't get interest put on them, and to the government anything you pay over is an interest-free loan.
If you think the IRS is intimidating you should read up on the United States Revenue Cutter Service. A part of the US Treasury department created not long after the revolutionary war it was initially responsible with combating smuggling, piracy and doing stuff the Coast Guard does today(in fact this service was the ancestor of today's US coast guard), but its ships wound up fighting with distinction in actual stand up wars against other nations and between 1790 and 1798 it was the only service America had capable of fighting on the ocean.
In Brazil, the IRS chose the lion as the mascot for the income tax, as it represents strength, justice and an animal that's "tame but not foolish". The nickname stuck, but probably due to the lion being a predator as ferocious as the tax itself.
Many, many, many boxers have been screwed over by the IRS. This is partly because they came from poverty and don't know how taxes work and mainly because they are terrible with money. A good example of the former is Joe Louis giving his fight purse to the the army as charity and not filing the correct paper work, ultimately getting screwed over hard in the process. Sugar Ray Robinson and Mike Tyson are definitely the latter.
It isn't just boxers - many professional atheletes in general can owe millions in back taxes as one of many financial problems (often leading to bankruptcy) despite making millions of dollars annually. The reasons behind them are as various as the problems and eventual fates - see "Broke", an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the subject.