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You Don’t Think Federal Tax Law Is Funny? Think Again

Just in time for Tax Day, a look at why the Internal Revenue Code is unintentionally hilarious. (J. David Ake/AP)
Just in time for Tax Day, a look at why the Internal Revenue Code is unintentionally hilarious. (J. David Ake/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

The Internal Revenue Code is not the sort of book that you read from cover to cover and then hand off to friends — if only because it might give them a hernia — but it does have its evanescent moments and distinct charms. Chief among these is the fact that the Internal Revenue Code is one of the most unintentionally hilarious books ever written.

You don’t think federal income tax law is funny? Well, it’s almost April 15th, so maybe you don’t. But trust me, the humor is definitely there if you look for it.

For example, take a look at your soon-to-be-filed 2013 Form 1040. There are several places where you are supposed to provide information about your personal status by checking a tiny box: The form gives you choices to check such as “Single,” “Married filing jointly,” or “Head of Household." Another one of the choices you can check is “blind.” Seriously? I mean, is this some kind of trick question?

People sometimes look at me sideways when I try to explain that the Internal Revenue Code is actually a rich mother lode of mordant and fecund humor.

An actual printed version of the Code — no light-hearted and winsome tome, this — is now in the vicinity of 4 million words. To put this word count into the context of something you might actually consider reading, the Code is now seven times the length of “War and Peace,” and approximately four times the length of all the Harry Potter books combined.

But rather than despair at the insuperable administrative burden thrust onto American taxpayers, you might look at it this way: How many hours do you spend reading those Harry Potter books to your kids at night? Imagine if instead you just whipped out your personal copy of the Internal Revenue Code and read them a few short riffs about passive foreign investment corporations, or maybe some choice passages from Subchapter T about the taxation of rural electrical cooperatives. That should put your kids to sleep pronto!

With all the extra “adult” time suddenly at your disposal, you could sit down in your comfy chair and get an intimate look at the laugh riot known as the Internal Revenue Code. To help get the process started, let me tantalize you with a few choice and seductive passages:

Clarity in Expression

We all value clarity in the written word. Code Section 509(a) provides the following definition of a “private charity”:

“For purposes of paragraph (3), an organization described in paragraph (2) shall be deemed to include an organization described in section 501(c)(4), (5), or (6) which would be described in paragraph (2) if it were an organization described in section 501(c)(3).”

Whew.  That probably clears up a lot of confusion in your mind.

Useful Definitions

The Code is just chock-a-block with all kinds of helpful and informative definitions, such as the following found in Code Section 168(i)(2)(B):

“(B) COMPUTER OR PERIPHERAL EQUIPMENT DEFINED. — For purposes of this paragraph--

(i) IN GENERAL. — The term "computer or peripheral equipment" means--

(I) any computer, and

(II) any related peripheral equipment.”

Minimizing the Use of Periods

The average Internal Revenue Code sentence is written in a style that places special emphasis on maximizing the ratio of words to periods. Maybe at one point in time the Government Printing Office charged extra for periods compared to other letters and symbols — I don’t know. In all events, nowhere are the sentences longer, the dependent clauses more dependent, the independent clauses more independent and tangled, the participles more dangling and the gerunds more wildly off the reservation than in the tax law of our land.

The following passage, from former Code Section 341(e)(1), dealing with so-called “collapsible corporations,” is technically no longer part of the Code (it was repealed in 2003) but it is just too impressive an example of Congress’s writing flair and verbal panache to be ignored.

For purposes of subsection (a)(1), a corporation shall not be considered to be a collapsible corporation with respect to any sale or exchange of stock of the corporation by a shareholder, if, at the time of such sale or exchange, the sum of - (A) the net unrealized appreciation in subsection (e) assets of the corporation (as defined in paragraph (5)(A)), plus (B) if the shareholder owns more than 5 percent in value of the outstanding stock of the corporation the net unrealized appreciation in assets of the corporation (other than assets described in subparagraph (A)) which would be subsection (e) assets under clauses (i) and (iii) of paragraph (5)(A) if the shareholder owned more than 20 percent in value of such stock, plus (C) if the shareholder owns more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock of the corporation and owns, or at any time during the preceding 3-year period owned, more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock of any other corporation more than 70 percent in value of the assets of which are, or were at any time during which such shareholder owned during such 3-year period more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock, assets similar or related in service or use to assets comprising more than 70 percent in value of the assets of the corporation, the net unrealized appreciation in assets of the corporation (other than assets described in subparagraph (A)) which would be subsection (e) assets under clauses (i) and (iii) of paragraph (5)(A) if the determination whether the property, in the hands of such shareholder, would be property gain from the sale or exchange of which would under any provision of this chapter be considered in whole or in part as ordinary income, were made - (i) by treating any sale or exchange by such shareholder of stock in such other corporation within the preceding 3-year period (but only if at the time of such sale or exchange the shareholder owned more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock in such other corporation) as a sale or exchange by such shareholder of his proportionate share of the assets of such other corporation, and (ii) by treating any liquidating sale or exchange of property by such other corporation within such 3-year period (but only if at the time of such sale or exchange the shareholder owned more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock in such other corporation) as a sale or exchange by such shareholder of his proportionate share of the property sold or exchanged, does not exceed an amount equal to 15 percent of the net worth of the corporation.

In case you lost count, the previous passage contains 342 words, 25 parentheticals, 17 commas, two dashes — and one period. Just to put Code Section 341(e)(1) into context, this single sentence is longer by word count than the entire Gettysburg Address. In that legendary meditation on the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln solemnly promised that government “of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.” The Internal Revenue Code, in about four million more words than Lincoln needed, struggles to try and say pretty much the same thing.

People sometimes look at me sideways when I try to explain that the Internal Revenue Code is actually a rich mother lode of mordant and fecund humor. But Will Rogers fully understood my viewpoint; as Rogers once observed, “It’s easy being a humorist when you've got the whole [federal] government working for you.”

Joseph B. Darby III Cognoscenti contributor
Jay Darby is a former sports writer who now works as a Boston-based tax attorney. He's been described as the "Mark Twain of tax writers."

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