Judy Tenuta, comedian known as ‘Goddess of Love,’ dies at 72
The Oak Park native’s 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.
LOS ANGELES — 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.
The Oak Park native 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.
“I have changed my religion to Judy-ism,” Tenuta told the Sun-Times in 1986 while hyping a show at the Roxy, 1505 W. Fullerton. “My followers want to know if this is really hair or Memorex. During my service, a few chosen may touch it.”
She joked then that she had attending a Roman Catholic school in Chicago called “Our Lady of Lourdes in Bondage located in Poland Heights.”
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. In Chicago, she often held court at George’s, 230 W. Kinzie, where she would greets audiences with, “Hey, pigs! Let’s party!”
Tenuta gained national attention in 1987 with “On Location: Women of the Night,” a HBO special in which she starred with Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone and Rita Rudner.
In 1988′s “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 lame-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 grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. 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 college, she studied improv at Second City and worked at 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 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.’ ”