Aphrodite is technically the goddess of love, but for me, the goddess of love has always been Judy Tenuta! The comedian and accordion legend, who called herself The Love Goddess and the Aphrodite of the Accordion, died at her home in Studio City, CA yesterday. Judy was 56 years old (okay, Judy was really 72 years old but she doesn’t want you to know that!).
Judy’s publicist, Roger Neal, confirmed the sad news to The Associated Press and said she died after a battle with ovarian cancer. Judy is probably using her signature yell voice to scream at Roger from the great beyond for telling the entire world that she was really born in 1949. Damn you, Roger!
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.
Judy Lynn Tenuta was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and was raised in a big Catholic family. After graduating with a theater degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Judy took improv classes at Second City and those classes planted the seeds of her comedy career. Judy hit the Chicago comedy scene in the 70s, and while performing in clubs, she began developing the legendary persona we know as The Love Goddess, an accordion-playing divine figure who may have looked like an ethereal nymph on the outside, but when she opened her gum-chewing mouth, she called men “pigs,” and told everyone to worship her. During her shows, she’d sometimes spit her gum out and demand that men in the audience “crawl for it.” She was the Aphrodite of dominatrixes! The juxtaposition of a demure female figure and insult comedy was inspired by Judy’s Catholic upbringing. During a 1992 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Judy explained her persona like this:
Tenuta said her “very strict Catholic” upbringing, with its “subtext” that women should be men’s servants, provided the inspiration for her comedy by turning it around to say: “Women are love goddesses and men are slaves.”
But don’t get her wrong:
“I love all stud puppets,” she said, “and I think they all should have a chance to be our furniture.”
After Judy made a name for herself in the Chicago comedy circuit, she went to New York City in the late-80s. In 1987, she starred in HBO’s Women of the Night comedy special with Ellen DeGeneres, Stephanie Hodge, Rita Rudner, Lizz Winstead, and Paula Poundstone. Here’s the first part of Judy’s Women of the Night set:
In 1988, Judy was the first woman stand-up comedian to be named Best Female Comedian at the American Comedy Awards. For the rest of the 1980s, Judy opened for George Carlin on tour and made regular appearances on The Howard Stern Show. And for us children of the late-80s, Judy was the face of Diet Dr. Pepper!
In the 1990s, Judy released her first book, The Power of Judyism, and was nominated for two Grammys for her comedy albums Attention Butt Pirates and Lesbetarians! and In Goddess We Trust. Judy also was a frequent guest on The Weird Al Show, was in the movies Butch Camp, Love Bites, and 2006’s Material Girls, and voiced characters in several cartoons including Duckman and Johnny Bravo. On stage, Judy was in productions of The Vagina Monologues and Menopause The Musical. And throughout her career, Judy embraced the LGBTQ+ community and became an ordinated minister to officiate same-sex weddings.
Judy is survived by her life partner, Vern Pang.
When I was a kid, my mom bought me accordion lessons from a teacher who was selling them door to door. Because I guess she figured that I wasn’t getting bullied enough, so she may as well put an accordion in my arms! I’m glad she did because I loved playing the accordion. But I was self-conscious about it and never really told any kids at school, thinking that they’d call me a loser nerd for playing it. So it was a big deal for me when I first saw the glamorous and gorgeous Love Goddess with her accordion. She gave me my first taste of accordion pride. Thank you, Judy! Speaking of the accordion, Weird Al Yankovic led the tributes to the one-of-a-kind Judy Tenuta:
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. pic.twitter.com/TiRuWTARiB
— Al Yankovic (@alyankovic) October 6, 2022
Judy Tenuta, go show God what a goddess looks like.
— Julie Klausner (@julieklausner) October 7, 2022
So very sorry to hear that Judy Tenuta has left us. We did the first "Women Of The Night" on HBO together back in the late eighties, together with Paula Poundstone and Ellen Degeneres and Marty Short. A sweet, funny woman whom I enjoyed spending time with. Night night, goddess.
— Rita Rudner (@ritarudner) October 7, 2022
RIP Judy Tenuta. One of a kind. Damn.
— Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) October 6, 2022
Rest in peace, Judy Tenuta.
Pic: Sara De Boer/startraksphoto.com