Tenuta rose to prominence in the 1980s among a generation of performers who helped popularize live comedy in clubs across the country.
LOS ANGELES — Judy Tenuta, the sassy stand-up act who cheekily called herself the “Goddess of Love” and toured with George Carlin while building her career during the golden age of comedy in the 1980s, died Thursday. She was 72 years old.
Publicist Roger Neal told the Associated Press that Tenuta died Thursday afternoon at home in Los Angeles with her family by her side. The cause of death was ovarian cancer.
“She was very funny, a wonderful performer,” Neil said, and it was always “a happy time to be around her.”
Tenuta stated her date of birth was Nov. 7, 1965, but she was born in 1949, Neal said. “She was old school, so she never gave her real age, but now that she’s gone, we can tell her real age,” he added.
Her heart-shaped face, topped with lush, flower-accented hair, gave off an air of sweet innocence that was quickly shattered by her loud, sharp delivery and sour humor, including expletives. The accordion, which she made part of her performance, was an “instrument of love and submission,” as she fondly called it.
She was part of a generation of performers who helped popularize live comedy in clubs across the country, including the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the Laff Stop in Houston and Caroline’s in New York. In a traditionally male-dominated field, there was room for women, including Tenuta.
“Devastated at the news of the death of my dear, dear friend, the lovely Miss Judy Tenuta. I can’t believe she’s gone.” – tweeted the amazing Al Yankovic, who worked with her on his 1990s TV series and 2006 music video. “The earth has truly lost a goddess.”
Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame tweeted“One of a kind. Damn.”
Tenuta gained national attention in 1987 with the HBO special On Location: Women of the Night, in which she co-starred with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone and Rita Rudner.
In a 1988 American Comedy Awards television special, Tenuta was named Best Female Comedy Club Performer against male winner Jerry Seinfeld. Others honored that year for club or screen work include Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler.
“I’d trade it in a minute if I could just be a wife and a mother,” said the gum-chewing Tenuta sagely in gold lamé as she accepted the award from Carleen.
She was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows and game shows, as well as with radio personality Howard Stern. Her acting and voiceover work has been eclectic, including appearances on “The Weird Al Show” and “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.” She has appeared on stage in The Vagina Monologues in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Tenuta was a two-time Grammy nominee, receiving back-to-back nominations in 1995 and 1996 for Best Spoken Word Comedy Album 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 queer community enthusiastic fans. She stated on her website that as an ordained minister of Judaism she is “available for same-sex marriage!”
Tenuta grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, attending Catholic schools, including one she named St. Disgusting and tyrannical.” She said she was an “isolated, little flower” – Little Flower became one of her stage nicknames – in a Catholic family with six brothers.
After college, she worked odd jobs, including packing meat and taking inventory at a Catholic religious clothing store.
“I got fired because they caught me trying on,” Tenuto told The Associated Press in 1989. “So the boss came over and I guess he was a bit upset. And I said, “Well, I’ve got to see if they look good, pig.” I’m trying to make things better for these women.”
Tenuta joined the Chicago comedy troupe Second City before starting a solo career. Despite her unusual clothes and strange appearance on stage, Tenuta said most people immediately latched onto her act, which incorporated the self-centered religion of “Judaism.”
“In my religion, I am the only one who can complain. The nice thing about my religion is that you can forget your problems and think about mine for a while,” she told the AP.