An Ode to Tina Fey’s ‘Pads All the Way’ Joke in Sisters

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While watching Sisters this past Friday, I fell in love with a joke. It's the one that ends the video below. In said joke, Tina Fey’s character, Kate Ellis, ousts Maya Rudolph’s snobby Brinda from the rager happening at the Ellis family home. Brinda informs Kate she is happy to leave. “I have another function to attend, anyway,” she sniffs. “Besides, I flushed a tampon down your toilet.” Kate shouts as Brinda storms out, “You’re pads all the way, and everyone knows it!” Pads all the way. I can’t stop thinking about it. I love it so much.

Now, obviously, Tina Fey’s delivery of “pads all the way” reads as a funny insult even if you’ve never had the pleasure of being “pads all the way.” (If watching ’90s jokes on The Simpsons as kids has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have to understand something to find it’s funny.) In case you have no idea what that joke means, however, the general concept breaks down thusly: If you wear pads, you’re lame. If you use tampons, you are a cool adult woman who eats breakfast in the school bathroom and doesn’t bother to sing in Choir because that’s how much of a badass you are. (These are my middle-school references. Please substitute your own.) As a kid, it was conveyed almost telepathically between girls that pads were the training bra of period accoutrements, the mark of a square, someone terminally uncool. That connotation lingers into adulthood. "Please don't out me as ‘pads all the way’ in your article," an undisclosed source who is my friend and saw the movie with me begged, later joking that she felt more conflicted about outing herself as “pads all the way” than about coming out as a lesbian. Clearly that’s a lot of rich, sociopsychological baggage just waiting to be mined for laughs. Enter “pads all the way.”

Look, I’m not saying people haven’t been joking about periods forever. They have, and wonderfully so! They’ve also been joking about sex and cameltoe and peeing your pants when you sneeze and everything else considered indelicate for a lady to talk about. I'm reminded of Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck baby-shower scene, and Jenny Slate Obvious Child’s cream-cheese underpants monologue. Both point out an uncomfortable bodily truth that other people, both men and women (but especially men), might find jarring to hear discussed in public. That they jar us is part of why we love them. But this particular joke is different.

When it comes to “pads all the way,” however, the biological reference isn’t designed to shock us or the other characters. Despite being a classic movie prude, Brinda tells Kate to her face that she will destroy her septic tank with a tampon, as those who know know you cannot flush tampons into a septic tank. (This joke really is a period deep cut.) The period part of the joke isn’t designed to surprise or delight. “Pads all the way” uses this extremely specific female experience to do something else entirely; in this case, make an insult. The squishy, potentially gross body-talk isn’t in and of itself the joke. It’s shorthand.

Obviously, I’m not saying that “pads all the way” is necessarily better than those jokes, or that this movie is necessarily better than those movies. (I love everyone in Sisters, but it’s really not.) I only make the comparison because “pads all the way” struck me as a novel variation on a theme. The thing that made “pads all the way” so funny and surprising isn’t that it’s about a semi-taboo subject, one that carries with it all of people’s weird, often bad feelings about our wet, leaky bodies. It’s that the joke, which, like the rest of Sisters, was written by one of Saturday Night Live's greatest writers, Paula Pell, doesn’t bother to explain itself. It assumes that you, the viewer, will immediately get it and roll with it. (The audience I was in did just that.) It also doesn’t telegraph a reaction about periods because the joke is not really about periods. It’s about being a square. The insult only works because you know what they’re talking about, ladies.

As far as I’m concerned, jokes like these are the ultimate argument for diversity in writers rooms. (Ho-ho! Didn’t think I was going to take it there, did you?) The best jokes, the kinds that come from our specific lived experiences, get you as much as you get them. The more different experiences you can cram into a writers room, the more experiences you can mine for jokes, which means more brains will get the sweet, sweet juice of a joke written by someone whose existence is close enough to conjure yours.

And until then ... baby, it’s pads all the way, and everyone knows it.