Judy Tenuta, ‘Love Goddess’ of stand-up comedy, dies at 72


Judy Tenuta, the absurdist accordion-playing “Love Goddess” of stand-up comedy, who burst into the male-dominated world of 1980s comedy while wearing Grecian dresses, preaching the gospel of ” Judyism” and derisively calling men “pigs” and “stud puppets,” died Oct. 6 at her home in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. She was 72.

Her publicist B. Harlan Boll announced her death in a statement, saying the cause was ovarian cancer.

A gum-slapping comedian with one of stand-up’s most distinctive voices — she can deliver the setup in a cooing falsetto, then use a raspy growl for the punchline — Ms. Tenuta rolled out a campy brew of insult comedy , of physical humor and acerbic wit, ridiculing everyone from Yoko Ono and the Pope to Southerners, mimes and Vice President Dan Quayle. Sending him to San Francisco to comfort earthquake victims was like “sending Ronald McDonald to Tiananmen Square,” she said.

“My boyfriend said, ‘Judy, I’d like to see you in a miniskirt.’ I said, ‘Yeah? Well, I’d like to see you in mason jars,'” she joked during one set. At another, she joked, “My mom always gave me said I wouldn’t stand for anything because I procrastinate. I said, ‘Wait.’ ”

During her heyday in the late 80s and early 90s, Ms. Tenuta was sometimes carried on stage by a bodybuilder or carried aloft in a throne-like chair, raised on the shoulders of several muscular men. Dressed in gold lamé trousers or a vaporous cape on the floor, she presented herself as “a shy and innocent little flower” before revealing another, more brassy side to her personality.

“Hey pigs, let’s party,” she cried. “You know you crave abuse from the goddess of love.”

Raised in suburban Chicago, where she said she was taught in a Catholic school that women were meant to be submissive to men, she continued to subvert traditional gender roles while spreading a self-proclaimed religion called “Judyism.” “.

“Women are love goddesses and men are slaves,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Not that she completely despises men: “I love all stud puppets – and I think they should all have a chance to be our furniture,” she said, describing what she described as his vision of a new “Ottoman Empire”.

Ms. Tenuta often performed with an accordion strapped to her chest (among other nicknames, she called herself “the Aphrodite of the accordion”) and incorporated music into her sets. “Bring me your tired, your poor and your fools,” she sang in an accordion number, “and keep your mouth open while I spit my gum.” By the end of the night, she’d usually spat her gum at a man in the audience, then ordered him to swallow it.

“Complaining that this woman is hostile is like complaining that a hurricane shouldn’t be so bad,” journalist Ellen Hopkins wrote in a 1990 article for The New York Times. “Whether she pokes fun at male audience members about their masturbation habits or refers to herself as a goddess of love, her greatest gift is her ability to take on male fantasies and turn them into nightmares.”

Ms. Tenuta began touring the country in the 1980s and gained national prominence after starring in “Late Night with David Letterman” and starring in an HBO comedy special, “Women of the Night,” with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner and Lizz Winstead. She was named Best Female Comedy Club Performer at the 1988 American Comedy Awards – the male winner was Jerry Seinfeld – and went on to receive two consecutive Grammy nominations, for her mid-’90s comedy albums “Beware Butt Pirates and Lesbetarians” (recorded at the Los Angeles LGBTQ Pride Festival) and “In Goddess We Trust”.

Ms. Tenuta has also appeared in plays and musicals, starring in a Chicago production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ with former ‘Gilligan’s Island’ star Dawn Wells, and has performed on screen, playing a showgirl turned wedding officiant on “General Hospital” and guest starring in Hilary Duff’s teen comedy “Material Girls.”

But she remained best known for her live stand-up sets, making headlines even when a show was canceled, such as when she was dropped as the headliner of the House Correspondents’ Dinner. Blanche in 1989, apparently because she was considered too controversial. (They still paid her $5,000, she told the Chicago Tribune: “It’s like I’m a farmer. They’re paying me not to grow my jokes.”)

Ms. Tenuta attributed her appeal in part to the unpredictability of her stand-up sets, which sometimes ended in prolonged audience participation. While filming in Georgia in 1992, she brought a yuppie viewer wearing an Oxford shirt onto the stage and persuaded him to put on “a pink negligee and a shower cap”, according to the Tribune, before having him walk away. get on all fours. Then she climbed onto his back “while everyone on and off stage sang along to a tape of the Village People’s ‘YMCA'”. ”

“It was good for him,” Ms Tenuta said of the audience member. “He became free from being in the closed stereotypical box that society labeled for him.”

“What I do is free people from their psychological barriers,” she added. “I indoctrinate them into Judyism, but they are not limited, they are free.”

One of nine children, Judy Lynn Tenuta was born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois on November 7, 1949. Her mother was Polish, her father Italian, and she was raised in nearby Maywood, joking later. that she attended a Catholic school called “St. Odious in Slavery.

Ms Tenuta became the first member of her family to graduate from college, majoring in theater at the University of Illinois at Chicago, according to her publicist. She worked odd jobs, packing meat and working at a store selling Catholic religious clothing, before getting into acting in the 1970s, when she took an improv class at Second City, then s is dressed as the Virgin Mary for her first stand-up show.

She performed frequently in gay bars, gained a devoted following in the LGBTQ community, and became an advocate for gay rights. Eventually, she offered to officiate same-sex marriages as a self-proclaimed “ordained minister of Judaism,” according to her website.

Although she was initially known for her extravagant, X-rated comedy sets, she began entertaining younger audiences in the late 1990s and 2000s, playing a psychic named Madame Judy on “The Weird Al Show” – she has often collaborated with the host, comedian “Weird Al” Yankovic – and guest starred on children’s television shows including “Cory in the House” and “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide”.

She also contributed voice work to animated shows such as “Johnny Bravo” and “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”, wrote books such as “The Power of Judyism” and “Full Frontal Tenudity”, and produced and starred. in an independent film, “Desperation Boulevard” (1998), as a former child star struggling to come back. “I really want people to see it,” she told the Tribune. don’t have the kind of box office influence that Jackie Chan has, that pig. But I also do all my stunts.

Her marriage to fellow comedian Emo Philips ended in divorce. Survivors include her life partner, Vern Pang; five brothers; and a sister.

Ms Tenuta has said she sees herself as something of a “spokesperson for women”, telling the Tribune in 1992: “I represent women to uplift them”. She received letters from girls who wanted to emulate her, including one complaining about a boy who, in the parlance of Judyism, did not “worship me properly”. His response: “Just keep treating them like the trolls they are.”


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