The Vaudeville of the Late Judy Tenuta

We were saddened just now to hear about the passing of comedian/performance artist Judy Tenuta (b. 1949), a supreme example of the neo-vaudeville style that played a huge part in the stand-up explosion of the 1980s.

Vaudeville, not just because she wielded that great weapon of mass destruction the accordion, but because her stage career is too multi faceted to describe in a word or two, she was kind of a Frankenstein made of parts of a spacy, druggy fairy princess, and a snarling, aggressive insult comic who had aspects of Sandra Bernhard, Sam Kinison, and Linda Blair in The Exorcist. She was crazy, seemed to have no boundaries, and often seemed to be testing the audience, sometimes going for reactions from them quite distinct from humor, much in the fashion of Andy Kaufman. And like the vaudevillians of old, she was full of taglines and slogans, i.e. “The Love Goddess”, the “Petite Flower” etc. Some of her more surreal material sounds as much like poetry or philosophy as it did stand-up. She also spewed lots of risky sexual material and had observational and political comedy in the mix. That is quite a kaleidoscopic hash — everything but the kitchen sink. High energy. Oh, and her own religion — Judyism. She was punk, and highly quotable.

It’s crazy to me that she didn’t come out of New York’s performance scene, but Chicago’s. Her big moment was the 1987 HBO comedy special Women of the Night, where she performed on a bill with Rita Rudner, Paula Poundstone, and Ellen DeGeneres. They were all peers back then! She was a pal and collaborator of Weird Al Yankovic. In addition to the stand-up circuits, tv appearances and bit parts in movies, she did voice-overs on animated cartoons.

Watching old clips of her just now, my jaw just dropped as I realized how much she had influenced so many of my performing female friends over the past 3 decades, who had clearly appropriated this aspect of her act or that. In some ways, it seems like they’re ALL Judy Tenuta. She really was the Earth Mother.

Cancer took her. She was only 72.

Her official website still stands. Visit it here.