R.I.P. Judy Tenuta (1949-2022)

Pigs. Stud puppets. Love buckets. We are gathered here together to mourn the passing of Judy Tenuta, the love goddess, the petite flower of stand-up comedy, who died Thursday from ovarian cancer. Tenuta was 72.

Who else could formally launch Comedy Central in July of 1991 by riding the “New Year’s” flagpole high above Times Square in New York City? It could happen! Watch as even correspondents Paul Provenza and Jon Stewart were in awe of Tenuta’s brazenness.

Born just outside of Chicago in 1949 and growing up in the Windy City, Tenuta majored in theatre at the University of Illinois-Chicago, then took classes at The Second City before embarking on her comedy career in the 1970s. Her point of view and voice stood out, playing the accordion with her first name on it, and calling herself “The Love Goddess.”

She made her network TV debut on Late Night with David Letterman in 1986.

In 1987, she broke through in a big way on the HBO special, Women of the Night, where critics found Tenuta outshone her co-stars on that lineup: Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone and Rita Rudner. The following year, Tenuta’s peers agreed, awarding her top female club comic at the 1988 American Comedy Awards. Here’s a clip of George Carlin presenting her with the award.

She’d follow that up with her own Showtime special in 1991, Worship Me, Pigs!, and two consecutive Grammy nominations for Comedy Album of the Year. Tenuta also served as a TV pitchwoman for Diet Dr. Pepper.

She was a true original, blending comedic and vocal styles; at once an observational comic and an insult comic; simultaneously campy and glamorous; one second shrill, the next melodic. No wonder she created her own cult of personality, along with her own religion, Judyism. No wonder, too, that she’d create a safe space for LGBTQ+ rights, and become an ally and activist on their behalf.

If you’ve followed me here for long, then you might know (or perhaps you don’t really know) how much my journey from journalist to comedy to comedy journalism was inextricably tied to Tenuta. In the summer of 2001, 10 years after Tenuta helped launch Comedy Central, I was a newspaper reporter newly relocated to Arizona. Although I’d performed stand-up and improv back in Seattle, I had no ties to the comedy scene in Phoenix, and back then, there wasn’t much of a scene to be found. I could’ve just been an entertainment reporter who loved comedy, but I became drinking buddies with the guy who ran the Tempe Improv. And because the MC somehow botched the Thursday night gig opening for Tenuta, the club owner offered me a tryout to host the remainder of the weekend’s shows. As I recalled on this site back in 2016, he “needed someone to do what he needed down to the letters of the cocktail napkin headliner Judy Tenuta had written on for her very specific intro.” I was thrilled because I got to open for Judy Tenuta! (Also working that weekend as the middle/feature act: Daniel Tosh!) I also was more than slightly intimidated. But I knew how to host a show, and knew how to follow instructions and read my lines. And for that, I got passed as a house MC at the Improv, hurtling me even deeper into comedy than I’d anticipated.

But just stop for a moment and think about how many countless young women, how many other weirdos, got inspired to pursue a life and career in comedy because Tenuta showed them what was possible?

You don’t have to look very far in 2022. Just turn on Saturday Night Live and see Sarah Sherman, another brash, bold voice with a colorful persona who came out of the Chicago comedy scene and in just one season on SNL, has proven herself a standout character and star in the making. There are many others like Sherman who, through Tenuta, saw a path into comedy.

Tenuta had received chemo and cancer treatments for at least the past year, but throughout, she kept posting videos to YouTube, Twitter and TikTok alike about “kickin’ cancer’s ass.”


Look! I lov when blossoms possess the goddess as she inhaled a special treat! #judytenuta #comedian #lgbtq #ReTokforNature #fyp #foryou #slutvinka #funny

♬ original sound – Judytenuta

The accordion work made Tenuta a great scene partner for Weird Al Yankovic in the 1980s.

Coincidentally, Yankovic is currently on tour with Emo Philips, who was briefly married to Tenuta in the ’80s. Yankovic posted: “Earth has truly lost a goddess.” And Philips even broke character to publicly mourn her on Twitter.

We’re all sad with you, Emo. Rest in peace, Judy.

Her official YouTube channel released a new subtitled version of Tenuta’s 2011 music video, “Spike It,” yesterday in her honor.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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