Judy Tenuta has died. A veteran stand-up comic who came to national prominence in the 1980s with a combination of an eye-catching stage presence—accordion included—and brutal, hilarious takes on love, romance, religion, and more, the self-styled “Love Goddess” was a Grammy nominee, a beloved author, and a generally wonderful and weird presence in the world of comedy. According to The Seattle Times, Tenuta’s death was confirmed today by her manager. She was 72.
Tenuta grew up outside of Chicago, coming up in the city’s comedy scene, where she quickly distinguished herself with a comedic style that could veer, at a moment’s notice, from aggressive insult comedy to surrealist asides, all delivered with a mixture of oddball vocal deliveries, semi-affectionate flirtations with the audience, and the sounds of her ever-present accordion. (Fellow accordion devotee Weird Al Yankovic would be a long-time collaborator, including Tenuta in many of his film and TV projects.)
Tenuta went from regional favorite to national name in 1987, when she appeared on HBO’s Women Of The Night stand-up special, which also featured Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead, and Rita Rudner. (Hell of a bill.) Tenuta’s set in the special is typical her: A “Hi, pigs” greeting, followed by a massive burst of comedic energy that’s as disorienting as it is hilarious. (A sample line: “How many of you ever started dating someone…because you were too lazy to commit suicide?”) Shortly after, she’d begin touring with George Carlin, making regular appearances on Howard Stern, and penned her first book, The Power Of Judyism. (A second, Full Frontal Tenudity, would follow in 2014.)
Tenuta’s career reached a peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s, that magical time when you could see her pitching Diet Dr. Pepper on TV, or scoring nominations for albums like In Goddess We Trust and Attention Butt Pirates And Lesbetarians at the Grammys. (Tenuta was a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights from the earliest days of her career.) As with many of the alt-comedy heroes of the era, she also lent her face and voice to plenty of TV shows, including memorable appearances on Space Ghost Coast To Coast and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.
Tenuta continued to work as an actor and comedian up through the last few years, bringing weirdness to the world in whatever ways she could. She’s being remembered online today by her many fans, colleagues, and admirers; Yankovic wrote on social media today that he was, “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.”