Judy Tenuta, an unconventional, often brash stand-up comic who guested on numerous TV shows and appeared in two “Weird” Al Yankovic videos, died October 6 of ovarian cancer in Studio City, CA. She was 72.
Known to fans as “The Love Goddess,” Tenuta’s stage act was delivered in a shrill, loud, sometimes gravelly voice and often included an accordion. Her style sometimes veered toward shock; one bit had an audience member near the stage open their mouth so she could drop her chewed gum in it.
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During her first solo stand-up performance, Tenuta shocked the audiences by dressing up as the Virgin Mary, and after being encouraged by her friends to incorporate an accordion into her routine, she began to develop the character into her iconic persona as the wisecracking “Love Goddess.” She regularly dressed in wild costumes made up of Aphrodite dresses, feather boots, egg bras, nippy cup necklace and gauzy capes, and used a variety of props.
Along with dozens of guest roles on TV and some movies, she hosted a popular HBO special that featured contemporaries Ellen DeGeneres, Rita Rudner, Martin Short and Paula Poundstone.
Born on November 7, 1949, in Oak Park, IL, Tenuta took an improv comedy class with the Chicago improv group The Second City and shortly after began opening for other comedians in Chicago throughout the ’70s.
By the late 1980s — around the start of the “golden age” of stand-up — Tenuta was sharing stages with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Sinbad, Jay Leno, DeGeneres, Rudner and Poundstone. She also had several specials on HBO, Showtime and Lifetime and performed stand-up on such TV shows as Late Night with David Letterman, One Night Stand, The Sunday Comics, The Pat Sajak Show, Comics Unleashed, The Dennis Miller Show, Gotham Comedy Live, An Evening at the Improv and others.
Elsewhere on the small screen, she appeared on Hollywood Squares, Comedy Central Roasts, Celebrity Wife Swap, Who Wants to Date a Comedian? and Match Game, and in the documentaries I Am Sam Kinison, Stage Door Divas, Why We Laugh: Funny Women, When Stand-Up Comics Rules the World and the upcoming Stalking Emo.
Her distinctive voice led to roles in such toon fare as Duckman, Bruno the Kid, Space Ghosts Coast to Coast, Johnny Bravo and Mighty Magiswords.
Tenuta appeared in about a half-dozen episodes of CBS’ short-lived Saturday-morning series The Weird Al Show in 1997 and was in the veteran song parodist’s videos for and “White & Nerdy” and “Headline News.”
Yankovic, subject of Roku’s upcoming Weird: The Al Yankovic Story starring Daniel Radcliffe, tweeted today: “Devastated to hear of the passing of my dear, dear friend, the lovely Miss Judy Tenuta. I can’t believe she’s gone. Earth has truly lost a goddess.”
Tenuta scored back-to-back Grammy nominations for Best Spoken Comedy Album — Attention Butt Pirates and Lesbetarians (1994) and In Goddess We Trust (1995) — and also had a career onstage, appearing in The Vagina Monologues and Menopause The Musical in Los Angeles and Chicago.
She was an outspoken advocate for gay rights and has amassed a following in the LGBTQ community. During the early years of her career, Tenuta frequently performed at gay bars and clubs around Chicago, performed at and appeared as a grand marshal for numerous gay pride festivals, and even became ordained as a minister to officiate same-sex marriages.
During the past couple of years, while the world dealt with the Covid pandemic, Tenuta had been battling Stage 4 ovarian cancer. Late last year she released “Kicking Cancer’s Ass,” a video shot entirely during isolation and quarantine at home (watch it below). It become an inspiration to others and an unexpected battle cry for those who are experiencing not only cancer but other health issues, including Covid.
Tenuta is survived by her life partner, Vern Pang; brothers Daniel, John, Steven, Thomas and James; a sister, Barbara; and two nephews, four nieces and a grand-niece.
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