Comedian Judy Tenuta dies at 72

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Judy Tenuta, the daring actress who brazenly billed herself as the “goddess of love” and toured with George Carlin, died Thursday as she built her career into the golden age of comedy in the 1980s. She was 72 years old.

Tenuta died Thursday afternoon at her home in Los Angeles, with her family around her, publicist Roger Neal told The Associated Press. The cause of death was ovarian cancer.

She was a very fun and amazing performer,” Neil said, and it was always a “happy time to be around her.”

Neil said Tenuta had claimed her date of birth was November 7, 1965, but she was born in 1949. “She was old school, so she would never tell me her real age, but now that she’s gone, we can tell her real age,” he added.

Her heart-shaped face, topped with puffy hair with a touch of roses, conveyed an impression of gentle innocence that was quickly shattered by her loud, gritty voice and acidic sense of humor, including swearing. The accordion she made was part of her work “an instrument of love and submission,” as she fondly called it.

She was among a generation of artists who led the popularity of live comedy in clubs across the country including Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Laff Stop in Houston, and Caroline’s in New York City. A typically male-dominated field has found a place for women, including Tenuta.

“Sad to hear the news of the passing of my dear friend, beautiful Miss Judy Tenuta. I can’t believe she is gone,” Tweeted by Weird Al Yankovicwho worked with her on his TV series in the ’90s and a music video in 2006. “Earth has truly lost a goddess.”

Michael McCain, of “Spinal Tap” fame, chirp“One of a kind. Damn.”

Tenuta gained national attention in 1987 with “On Location: Women of the Night,” a special on HBO that she starred in with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, and Rita Rudner.

On the 1988 American Comedy Awards television special, Tenuta was named Best Actress in a Women’s Comedy Club opposite male winner Jerry Seinfeld. Other honorees that year for their club or screen work included Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler.

“I would exchange it in a minute, if I could just be a wife and a mother,” said the gold-foil-clad and chewy Tenuta, who accepted her prize from Carlin.

She was a frequent guest on talk shows and late night game shows and with radio shocker Howard Stern. Her contributions to acting and voiceover have been eclectic, including appearances on “The Weird Al Show” and “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”. She appeared on stage in “The Vagina Monologues” in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tenuta was a two-time Grammy nominee, receiving consecutive nominations in 1995 and 1996 for Best Comedy Album for the lyrics spoken for “Attention Butt Pirates and Lesbetarians” and “In Goddess We Trust”.

She was a supporter of LGBTQ rights, participated in pride festivals and considered members of the LGBT community to be ardent fans. On her website, she said that as Minister of Judaism she “was available for same-sex marriage!”

Tenuta grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, where she attended Catholic schools that included a school called “St. Abominable and Slavery”. She said she was the “Lonely Little Flower”—Petite Flower became one of her stage nicknames—in a Catholic family of six siblings.

After graduating from college, she worked odd jobs that included packing and stripping meat at a Catholic religious clothing outlet.

“I got fired because they caught me trying these things,” Tenuta said in a 1989 interview with the Associated Press. So the manager came in, and I think he was kind of upset. And I said, ‘Well, I must see if they look good, pig. I’m trying to make improvements to these broad offerings.”

Tenuta went on to join the Chicago comedy troupe Second City before starting her professional solo career. Despite her outlandish outfits and odd appearance on stage, Tenuta said most people were instantly caught up in her act, which included the self-centered religion of “Judaism.”

In my religion, I’m the only one who can complain. The beautiful thing about my religion is that you can forget about all your problems and think about my problems for a while,” she told The Associated Press.


Associated Press journalist Mallika Sen contributed to this report from New York.


This story has been updated to correct Tenuta’s age to 72.

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