LOS ANGELES (AP) — Judy Tenuta, a brash standup who cheekily styled herself as the “Goddess of Love” and toured with George Carlin as she built her career in the 1980s golden age of comedy, died Thursday. She was 72.
Tenuta died Thursday afternoon at 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, amazing performer,” Neal said, and it was always a “happy time to be around her.”
Tenuta had claimed her birthdate as Nov. 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 real age,” he added.
Her heart-shaped face, topped by bouffant hair with a flower accent, conveyed an impression of sweet innocence that was quickly shattered by her loud, gravelly delivery and acidic humor, expletives included. The accordion she made part of her act was “an instrument of love and submission,” as she fondly called it.
She was among a generation of performers who drove the popularity of live comedy in clubs nationwide including the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Laff Stop in Houston, and Caroline’s in New York City. A typically male-dominated field found room for women, including Tenuta.
“Devastated to hear of the passing of my dear, dear friend, the lovely Miss Judy Tenuta. I can’t believe she’s gone,” tweeted Weird Al Yankovic, who worked with her on his 1990s TV series and a 2006 music video. “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 “On Location: Women of the Night,” an HBO special in which she starred with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, and Rita Rudner.
On the 1988 “American Comedy Awards” TV special, Tenuta was named best female comedy club performer opposite male winner Jerry Seinfeld. Other honorees that year for their club or screen work included Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler.
“I would trade it in a minute, if I could just be a wife and mother,” wisecracked the gold lamé-wrapped, gum-chewing Tenuta, who accepted her award from Carlin.
She was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows and game shows and with radio shock jock Howard Stern. Her acting and voiceover credits were eclectic, including appearances on “The Weird Al Show” and “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.” She appeared onstage in “The Vagina Monologues” in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Tenuta was a two-time Grammy nominee, getting 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, took part in pride festivals and counted members of the queer community as enthusiastic fans. On her website, she said that as an ordained minister of Judyism she was “available for same sex marriages!”
Tenuta grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, attending Catholic schools that included one she dubbed “St. Obnoxious and Bondage.” She said she was the “isolated, petite flower” — Petite Flower becoming one of her stage nicknames — in a Catholic family that included six brothers.
After graduating from college, she worked odd jobs that included wrapping meat and taking inventory at an outlet for Catholic religious attire.
“I got fired because they caught me trying the stuff on,” Tenuta said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press. “So the boss came in, and I guess he got kind of upset. And I said, ‘Well, I have to see if they look good, pig. I’m trying to make improvements for these broads.”’
Tenuta went on to join the Chicago comedy troupe Second City before starting her solo standup career. Despite her outlandish clothes and bizarre stage appearance, Tenuta said most people caught on immediately to her act, which included the self-centered “Judyism” religion.
“In my religion, I’m the only one that gets to complain. The really nice thing about my religion is you can forget all about your problems and think about mine for a while,” she told AP.