Judy Tenuta, a sassy stand-up comedian who called herself a “goddess of love” and toured with George Carlin during the golden age of comedy in the 1980s, died Thursday. She was 72 years old.
According to Associated Press spokesman Roger Neal, Tenuta died Thursday afternoon at home in Los Angeles, surrounded by her family. She died of cancer of the ovaries.
‘Goddess Of Love’ Comedian, Dies At 72
Neal said, “She was a very funny and great artist, and she was always fun to be around.”
Neal said Tenuta stated she was born Nov. 7, 1965, but she was actually born in 1949. “She was old-fashioned and never revealed her real age, but now that she’s dead, we can find out,” he said.
Her heart-shaped face and fluffed hair with a flower on top gave the impression that she was sweet and innocent, but that impression was quickly shattered by her loud, gravelly voice and sarcastic humor, which included swear words.
She used an accordion as part of her act. She called it “an instrument of love and submission,” which is a sweet way to describe it.
She was part of a group of comedians who made live comedy clubs like the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the Laff Stop in Houston, and Caroline’s in New York City very popular. Women like Tenuta were able to work in a field that was usually dominated by men.
“I am so sad to hear that my dear, dear friend, the beautiful Miss Judy Tenuta, has passed away. I can’t believe she’s dead,” tweeted Weird Al Yankovic, who worked with her on a television show in the 1990s and a music video in 2006. “Earth has lost a true goddess.”
“Spinal Tap” star Michael McKean tweeted, “One of a kind. Damn.”
In 1987, “On Location: Women of the Night,” an HBO special in which Tenuta appeared with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, and Rita Rudner, brought her national attention.
Tenuta won the 1988 “American Comedy Awards” for best female comedy club performer. Jerry Seinfeld won the award for best male comedy club performer.
Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler were also recognized this year for their work in clubs or on screen.
“I would give it up in a heartbeat if I could just be a wife and a mother,” Tenuta joked as she accepted her award from Carlin. She wore a gold lamé gown and chewed gum.
She was often seen on late-night talk shows, game shows, and Howard Stern’s radio show. She did many different types of acting and voice acting, as in “The Weird Al Show” and “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”. She starred in “The Vagina Monologues,” which was performed in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Tenuta has twice been nominated for a Grammy. In 1995 and 1996, she was nominated for Best Spoken Word Comedy Album for “Attention Butt Pirates and Lesbetarians” and “In Goddess We Trust,” respectively.
She was an advocate for LGBTQ rights. She participated in Pride festivals and had many avid fans in the LGBTQ community. As an ordained minister of Judaism, she wrote on her website that she was “available for same-sex marriages!”
Tenuta grew up in Maywood, a Chicago suburb. She attended Catholic schools, some of which she called “St. Repugnant and Bondage.” She said she was the “lonely little flower” in a Catholic family with six brothers. “Petite Flower” became one of her stage names.
After graduating from college, she did odd jobs such as bagging meat and counting items at a store that sold Catholic clothing.
In a 1989 interview with The Associated Press, Tenuta said, “They fired me because they caught me trying on clothes. “The boss came in, and I think he was a little angry. So I said, ‘Well, pig, I have to check if they look good.’ I’m trying to make things better for them.”
Tenuta then joined Chicago comedy group Second City and did stand-up there before branching out on her own. Tenuta said most people immediately understood her act, which included the self-centered “Judyism” religion, even though she wore strange clothes and looked odd on stage.
“My religion says I’m the only one who can complain,” she said. “The best thing about my religion is that you can forget your own problems for a while and think about mine,” she told AP.