One downside to the upswing in the number of comedians is that, at this point, many are almost interchangeable: A comic has to be enormously unusual these days to transcend the burgeoning ranks of nameless, generic wiseacres. Judy Tenuta is--and does--as she demonstrated unequivocally Tuesday in her Irvine Improvisation debut.
Sporting some sort of pink and white prom gown-from-hell spruced with silver lame, Tenuta glided regally toward the stage to the strains of heavenly music pouring from the PA, rubbed her nostrils briefly and then ran that hand over a guy's head in the front row, gracefully sashayed and pirouetted around the stage and then spoke her first words--"Hey, pigs, let's party"--punctuated with a riff from her accordion.
It's doubtful that anyone left this show fuzzy on the headliner's name (at least her first name). For one thing, her accordion is labeled "Judy." And throughout the show, longtime devotees and enthusiastic new converts to this bizzaro religion--Judyism--chant her name in strange, Munchin-like hosanna ("Ju-dee").
Her act is every bit as memorable. After more than a decade of knocking around the stand-up circuit, Tenuta has forged a very distinctive character: The Petite Flower. Her alternate handles include Giver Goddess, Fashion Plate Saint and Empress of Elvis Impersonators. One that hasn't made the list yet but should be near the top is Siren of Sarcasm. Because while today's better-known character comics--Emo Philips, Pee-Wee Herman--project a childlike sensibility, Tenuta's attitude is far more aligned with adolescence. She's a smart aleck. She pops her chewing gum. She calls people names (Pseudo-Virgin, Stud-Puppet, Porno-Pockets, Robo-Crotch, et al). She must have the last word. And nothing is too facetious, mean or outrageous to say.
Her persona is so enchanting that it carried her Tuesday despite a surprising amount of comparatively pedestrian material. The combination of edgy disposition and theatrical, wildly imaginative presentation made for a wholly unique blend of fanciful escapism and trenchant reality.
Her topics included romance, George Bush and the Catholic church, of which she is particularly contemptuous. Spinning one yarn about a priest, she said, "Like this guy's not going to go cruising for Cub Scouts." In a later anecdote about switching communion wafers for cookies: "Come on, father. If you were God, what would you rather taste like--cardboard or Chips Ahoy?"
There were other no-holds-barred barbs. Aware that she was in a politically conservative enclave, she seemed to delight in Republican-ribbing and Bush-bashing.
"My Mom said, 'Why can't you be more like (your sister) Blambo. She's a Special Ed teacher.' I said, 'Yeah, mom, like I have time to teach jumping jacks to Republicans.' "
The inevitable groans just encouraged her: "I love George Bush. Tell me this guy doesn't suffer from Reaganheimer's Disease. He can't even remember when Pearl Harbor Day was. Let's give this guy a job where accuracy is not involved, like a TV weatherman. . . . Plus I love his wife, Babs. Tell me this broad's not a year older than God's parents."
This last kind of joke, along others such as a long piece on her obese roommate, sustain that distinctive adolescent sensibility but too often they descend into fairly stock stand-up. You can't help but wonder if she's slumming--especially when she follows up with something fresh and wonderfully out-there, like "What scares me is when you're forced to be nice to some paranoid schizophrenic, just 'cause she lives in your body."
But Tenuta is so much fun to watch that even if she maintains the status quo, plenty more folks are going to embrace Judyism.
Headlining a first-rate bill that also includes Fran Solomita and John Padon, Tenuta continues through Sunday.
The Improv is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $8 to 12. Information: (714) 854-5455.