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Appreciation: Judy Tenuta left a legacy of being funny, fearless and fiercely free

A woman wearing a lei and a flower in her red hair smiles and waves.
Comedian Judy Tenuta arrives at the opening of the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, May 28, 2009.
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Judy Tenuta — Love Goddess, Petite Flower, wispy sleeves floating, glittered flower in her hair — has set a dainty foot upon a passing cloud headed to the moon. Once there, she will convert the angels to Judyism, spit her gum into their mouths, ride on their backs, baptize them “love slaves,” “stud puppets” and “pigs,” and they will absolutely and forever fall in love with her. Just like we did.

Judy’s list of artistic accomplishments is admirably long and can be found online. What can also be found online is an outpouring of thanks from grateful fans she lifted to self-acceptance by her very existence. She showed it was not only OK to be whoever you like, but that it could be magnificent. The odd ducks, LGBTQIA+ people, new comics, square pegs, young people trying to find a place of acceptance, freaks and geeks, all found their north star in her comedy. The fact that she was a woman this brave, original and fearless set women forward a hundred years and opened the doors for them. She was an icon, a template, a groundbreaker, an ice breaker, a ball breaker, a trailblazer, a ball of fire, the most delicate, feminine truck driver/dominatrix to ever leave an audience spent.

She was my friend, my foxhole buddy. We began as comedians in the ’70s when no one had to even pretend to treat women fairly. People have no idea what we went through in the early days. If we didn’t have each other, we might have taken it personally.

In the mid-’80s, the New York Mets decided they were going to feature comedians in the broadcast booth on Fridays. Booked a week apart: Judy, me, Billy Crystal. During one game Sid Fernandez was pitching, he had a week’s worth of heavy black beard growth. Judy: “I love a man who wears his hormones on the outside.” Interview cut short. I get a call: “You’re canceled. We’re not having comedians in the booth anymore.” Me: “Is Billy Crystal canceled?” “No.”

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Several years ago, Judy moved down the street from me. I bought her a foam jogging belt, and we spent hours in my pool, jogging above water and lamenting “the business.” We were two Norma Desmonds, ready for our close-ups, dying over how all the male comedians our age still got to work, still got on talk shows and got specials. She was getting offers of $300-a-night gigs, and I was just doing comedy to the animals I was rescuing, yet we were better than ever. “Ooohhhhh, they love us. They just won’t hire us.” She usually wore glitter eye shadow and a tiara in the pool. I wore a top knot and earrings. We decided maybe we were where we belonged after all. Not! Then I’d cook and we’d drink Prosecco and break in material and laugh.

There are a lot of performers out there who think they are Andy Kaufman. They think by being “outré” and bizarre, they’re doing what Andy did. The only performer I have ever seen whose live art equaled Andy’s was Judy. They were both fearless and worked without a net. I watched Judy in Vegas. She put her life completely in the hands of the audience. The more she set them up and put them down, the more abuse she dished out, the more they laughed and loved her. It worked because, like Andy, Judy came from a place of joy and true innocence and did not have a mean bone in her body. Here was this gorgeous little soft tyrant onstage going in a hundred directions, and all you could do was surrender.

A woman in a long black-and-white dress with a flower in her hair stands in front of a vespa.
Judy Tenuta attends the world premiere of the musical “ModRock” at El Portal Theatre on June 23, 2013, in North Hollywood.
(Paul A. Hebert / Invision / AP)

A great comedian once said, “Don’t tell me who killed. Tell me what they left behind.” You can get laughs, but the great ones leave something lasting. Hundreds of people are online telling stories of when they went to Judy’s shows, how funny she was, how kind she was when they met her afterward. Thirty, forty years later, they still cherish the memory.

Aside from being an incredible performer, Judy was a brilliant comedy writer. Her lines are unforgettable, hilarious then and now. She was a warrior in life and in death. I watched her fight for her life this last year and a half with her love, Vee, by her side. She had such determination to do what it took to live. A person whose signature line was “It could happen” could never give up hope. And she always saw the humor.

Judy: “So this woman calls me who I barely know but I gave my number to after a show.”

Me: “Why do you do that?”

Judy: “In case she came out here. She doesn’t know anyone.”

Me: “So what?”

Judy: “Anyway, she calls and says, ‘I got the worst news today. I was going to be promoted from cashier to store manager, and now I’m not.’ So I say to her, ‘Wow, that’s even worse than my news. I just found out I have cancer.’ And she goes, ‘Yeah. It is worse than your news.’”

I’ll tell you what she left behind: forever laughter, joy, love, herself. We cannot possess the Goddess, but we will remember her.


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