Judy Tenuta, Comedian Known as ‘Aphrodite of the Accordion,’ Dies at 72

Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images
Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Judy Tenuta, the gleefully astringent comic whose infernally clever characters earned her the monikers “The Love Goddess” and “Aphrodite of the Accordion,” died Thursday, her publicist said.

Tenuta had been battling stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was 72.

Her age was initially erroneously reported in some outlets as 65, with publicist Roger Neal telling the Associated Press that that had been by Tenuta’s “old school” design. “She would never tell her real age,” he explained, “but now that she’s gone, we can tell her real age.”

A tourmate of George Carlin’s and frequent collaborator of fellow accordionist “Weird Al” Yankovic’s—and often the only woman in the room—Tenuta carved out a place for herself an acerbic, gravel-voiced comedian, never too far from her trademark accordion, a musical instrument that she wielded as a near-weapon of mass destruction.

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Born in 1949 (not 1957, as she might have you believe), Tenuta was one of a brood of nine children in her Catholic family. Named after Garland, Judy developed a love of comedy early, taking improv classes with the famed Second City group and eventually joining their troupe. She majored in theater at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was the first in her family to graduate college.

Embarking on a solo standup career, Tenuta moved to New York City in the 1980s, where in 1987 she appeared in Women Of The Night, an HBO comedy special, alongside Ellen DeGeneres and Paula Poundstone. It was one of many she would eventually grace with her presence, including several on Showtime and Lifetime.

As she honed her act in clubs around the country, her roster of campy personas grew to include “The Petite Flower,” “Empress of Elvis Impersonators,” and the “Buffer of Foreheads.” A two-time Grammy nominee for best comedy album, Tenuta was the first female comic to be named best female comedian at the American Comedy Awards.

Tenuta was a fierce advocate for gay rights throughout her career, often taking part in or even marshaling pride parades. Calling herself an ordained minister—of Judyism, a religion she invented—she claimed on her website she was “available for same sex marriages!”

In addition to a handful of wickedly offbeat television ads shilling for MTV and Diet Dr Pepper in the mid-’80s, Tenuta gained a level of notoriety for her television work, with roles in The Weird Al Show, Space Ghost Coast To Coast, and Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. Her cinematic outings included turns in 1996’s Butch Camp and 1998’s Desperation Boulevard.

She also trod the boards in Los Angeles and Chicago in shows like The Vagina Monologues and Menopause The Musical.

Tenuta is survived by life partner Vern Pang, six siblings, and a scattering of nieces and nephews. She will be interred at the Hollywood Forever cemetery.

“Devastated to hear of the passing of my dear, dear friend, the lovely Miss Judy Tenuta,” wrote Yankovic on Thursday. “I can’t believe she’s gone. Earth has truly lost a goddess.”

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