Judy Tenuta, brash ‘Goddess of Love’ comedian, dies at 72

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Judy Tenuta, a brash stand-up girl who cheekily called herself a “love goddess” and toured with George Carlin as she built her career in the golden age of 1980s comedy, died Thursday. 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 funny and amazing performer,” Neal said, and it was always a “happy time to be with her.”

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

Her heart-shaped face, topped with fluffy hair with a flower accent, gave an impression of sweet innocence that was quickly shattered by her loud, gritty delivery and acid humor, swear words included. The accordion she made part of her number was “an instrument of love and submission”, as she affectionately called it.

She was part of a generation of performers who helped make live comedy popular at clubs across the country, including the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Laff Stop in Houston, and Caroline’s in New York. A typically male domain has found room for women, including Tenuta.

Tenuta came to national attention in 1987 with “On Location: Women of the Night”, an HBO special in which she starred with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone and Rita Rudner.

In the 1988 “American Comedy Awards” special, Tenuta was named Best Female Comedy Club Performer opposite male winner Jerry Seinfeld. Other winners that year for their club or screen work included Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler.

“I’d trade it in a minute, if I could just be a wife and a mother,” chimed in gold-wrapped, gum-chewing Tenuta, who accepted her award from Pug.

She was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows and game shows and with radio jock Howard Stern. His acting and voice-over credits were 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 grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, attending Catholic schools including one she dubbed “St. Obnoxious and Bondage. She said she was the “lonely little flower” – Little Flower becoming one of her stage nicknames – in a Catholic family that included six brothers.

After graduating from college, she worked odd jobs, including packing meat and taking inventory at a Catholic religious clothing outlet.

“I got fired because they caught me trying the thing,” Tenuta said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press. “So the boss came in, and I guess he got a little pissed off. And I said, ‘Well, I have to see if they look good, pig. I’m trying to make improvements to these broads.

Tenuta then joined Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe before beginning his solo career. Despite her extravagant clothes and bizarre stage appearance, Tenuta said most people immediately understood her act, which included the self-centered religion she called “Judy-ism.”

“In my religion, I am the only one who can complain. What’s really nice about my religion is that you can forget about all your problems and think about mine for a while,” she told AP.


Associated Press reporter Mallika Sen contributed reporting from New York.


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

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