From the moment Judy Tenuta steps onto the stage, little things—like her gold lamé cape, secondhand Grecian-style gown and her accordion—suggest that hers is an unusual comedy act. Moments later, Tenuta’s mouth confirms that suspicion. “I was in the park today, breast-feeding the pigeons,” she says. “So maybe I want to nurture, okay? I ran into my dentist. At first I didn’t know it was him. But then I looked up his nose.”
Between violent accordion arpeggios, Tenuta scornfully spits a wad of gum at a male patron (“Crawl for it!”), sings a country & western song about her boyfriend, the Pope (“I’m just using him to get to God”), and proclaims herself the “petite flower, giver-goddess, fashion plate, saint” of Judy-ism. The last is “more than a religion,” she explains. “It’s a complement to it, to help you forget about your problems and think about mine for a change.” Says Caroline Hirsch, owner of Caroline’s, a New York comedy showcase where Tenuta has headlined: “Judy is just so different. It’s the kind of difference that makes comics stars.”
So far it has brought Tenuta a cult following, an appearance on this month’s HBO Comic Relief special and her first LP, Buy This, Pigs!, released last July and addressed to “stud puppets” (her term for men) everywhere. Something else about Tenuta: Her goddess persona tends to follow her offstage. Her basement room in a Chicago apartment building owned by her parents contains a “Judy altar”—complete with fans’ offerings of canned corn, bells and pink feathers—and she dismisses questions about her age (about 37) by noting that “goddesses are ageless.”
Growing up in Maywood, a blue-collar Chicago suburb, Tenuta did not give off obvious signs of immortality or even eccentricity. “She was a very sweet, very shy girl,” says Judy’s mother, Johanna, the wife of an Italian-born sheet-metal worker and the mother of two girls and seven boys. “Her brothers were very domineering and outgoing, and Judy had no opportunity to blossom out.” As a girl, Tenuta took singing and accordion lessons, went to Catholic schools (“I heard voices all the time…Elvis and Slappy White”) and finally landed at the University of Illinois, where she majored in art and theater. She seldom dated and even now is reluctant to mention her current steady beau, Larry Carr, 34, a puppeteer she met last January at a Fort Wayne, Ind., comedy club.
Tenuta took five years to graduate from college, then did stints as a meat wrapper, a construction company factotum and an inventory taker for a manufacturer of nuns’ and priests’ clothes. After working as a singing waitress serving drinks to conventioneers (“squids in stretch pants”), she took a course in improvisation at Second City, Chicago’s famed comedy cabaret. Finding the group approach to laughs “a personality suppressant,” she began putting together her own act.
That was 11 years ago. Now her popularity keeps her traveling eight months each year and leaves less and less time for William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker, her favorite authors, or for baking banana-anchovy bread, which she says is her specialty. At least she can unwind behind her accordion, right? Wrong, says Tenuta, who says she never plays offstage. After all, “I’m a goddess,” she says sternly, “not a polka queen.”