My next interview subject has many nicknames. Some call her the Love Goddess. Others call her The Petite Flower. Still others refer to her as the Princess Of Panty Shields or the Empress Of Elvis Impersonators. Simply put, she is Judy Tenuta, comedienne, actress, musician and a talent I find to be very underrated. 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the HBO special Women Of The Night, a comedy special that introduced much of the world to Ms. Tenuta, as well as many other formidable comedic voices. To mark the 30th anniversary of that special, and also because I’m a fan of her work, I reached out to her press representative, B. Harlan Boll, about an interview with Judy. He set it up, and we spoke on February 13th.
Join me in paying homage to the Goddess. Say hello to Judy Tenuta!
Johnny: I always start my interviews off with these two questions. First, what were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Judy: Well, there’s so many to choose from. I loved Michael Jackson, but listen to this. My parents also had a great love of singers, so we would listen to Mario Lanza, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat “King” Cole, so I loved all of those singers. Steve Martin, also. I love all that stuff, but I also love a lot of modern pop music. You’re asking what I liked as a little girl, though, right?
Johnny: Yeah, going into being a teenager.
Judy: I also liked the Shirelles. (Singing) “My boyfriend’s black, and you’re gonna be in trouble. Hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s black”. (Johnny laughs) I’d sing that to Donald Trump.
Johnny: Good stuff. To my next question: What were your high school days like?
Judy: I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, St. Obnoxious In Bondage. (Johnny laughs). Believe it or not, I enjoyed it because I didn’t have to worry about what I wore each day. We had to wear a blue plaid skirt with a royal blue blazer and a white shirt. I think it was maybe three times a year, we had a Dress Day where we could wear our own clothes, and I was like, “Oh my God”. I would just go insane in a public school. I don’t have enough clothes. What am I, Heidi Klum? (Johnny laughs) You have to be Heidi Klum to go to public school now. It’s crazy. I feel sorry for these kids, not to mention that the new Secretary Of Education is against education. Thank you.
Johnny: Yeah, bad stuff on that end. My next question is: What is the origin of your Love Goddess stage persona?
Judy: Well, first of all, I was born a Love Goddess. My parents, Caesar and Joanne, always told me that I was a little Goddess and Petite Flower. I was a Petite Flower, and I had all these brothers who were always trying to boss me around. I told them, “No. You must kiss my hand or kiss my feet”. That’s how I became the Goddess. They tried to force me to play football! What do I look like here? (Johnny laughs) I’m a Petite Flower!
Johnny: You’re well-known for playing the accordion. What drew you to that instrument?
Judy: It was my Mom’s IUD. I popped out wearing it, but I only use it to punish people. That’s what that’s for.
Johnny: Maybe so, but I definitely think you have a talent at playing it.
Judy: (Laughing) Well, not compared to a lot of people, but yeah. Thank you. I can play it. You know what’s great about it? I can make up my own songs on it, like “The Pope Song”.
Johnny: Oh, yeah. I know that one.
Judy: Yeah, lots of songs on the accordion. I’ve made them up. That’s why it’s great.
Johnny: In both your stand-up performances and your YouTube videos, you’ve shown a real talent for singing. Have you ever considered doing a straight-forward music album as opposed to a comedy one?
Judy: No, and I’ll tell you why. My forte is comedy, and I can sing. However, there’s a lot of great singers, such as Katy Perry and Barbra Streisand. Maybe I could stop and sing one special song.
Johnny: Fair enough. This year marks the 30th anniversary of HBO’s first Women Of The Night comedy special, where much of America got their first introduction to you.
Judy: Oh my God! What anniversary is it?
Judy: Oh, stop it! I’m only 35. I did it when I was 5. Okay.
Johnny: What do you recall the most about that special?
Judy: I just loved every minute of it, including backstage. There was Rita Rudner, myself, Paula Poundstone and Ellen DeGeneres. We were all there, and they wanted to interview us, just like you’re doing. They had a little soda fountain/bar, and they said, “What do you want to do?”. The first thing Ellen said was, “I want to be on TV”. I said, “We’re going to be on TV” (laughing). Of course, we all wanted to be on TV because everybody sees you then. We had a lot of fun. We opened the video walking on the Walk Of Fame stars outside. It was a fantastic audience, and I loved the pianist we had. He was great, and he learned all my little songs, like “My Dad” and “The Pope Song”.
Judy: I also remember that Martin Short was the host. It was fantastic. I just thought it was really terrific, but I didn’t know how great it was going to be until it came out in July of 1987. I was opening for George Carlin that whole Summer, and I’ll never forget this. We were both at the Plaza Hotel because we did a show that night, and then we were going to another place. He calls me at 10:30 at night, after our show, and said, “Oh, Judy. I just wanted to congratulate you on the great review you got in the New York Times”. I went, “WHAT?”, and he said, “Oh yeah, you know, for your special”, and then he read it to me. There’s no bigger honor than having George Carlin tell you you did great. That was so awesome. I’ll never forget that.
Johnny: Definitely an honor. Speaking of which, your comedy makes very intriguing use of language, whether making a comparison ending with the words “…but with a human head”, or referring to fans as pigs and sponges and love slaves, among other things.
Johnny: Was George Carlin, who was fascinated by language, an influence on your colorful phrases and terminology?
Judy: Yes. We had a lot of that in common. Before we would go do a show, sometimes we would be in the car or limo with his manager, and we’d be doing different voices to each other. It was fun for us. He’d go, (deep voice) “Hey, Jude”, in that voice he would do as a radio announcer, and I’d do a voice like, (High-pitched voice) “Please don’t talk that way”. It was like cartoon voices we used to do.
Johnny: When it comes to your voice, when you’re performing, your voice has a lot of different intonations, from a high trill to a guttural growl. What tricks do you utilize to preserve your voice from wearing out?
Judy: Vodka! No, I’m kidding. You’re right. You have to be careful. Some people try to get me to, how shall I put this, smoke, and smoking is the worst thing. I don’t care what you smoke, but it’s the worst thing for your voice. You have to do vocal calisthenics, like I do, and you can’t be smoking. A lot of times before a show, someone will say, “Hey, let’s smoke”. I can’t do that. I have to be very careful. I have a lot of green tea. I know it sounds boring, but just before I go on, I may have a little bit of Malibu Rum (laughing) so I can mix it up. Malibu Rum is better for you than smoking any kind of thing that you would smoke. You know what I mean?
Johnny: I know what you’re getting at. Speaking of drinks, you were a spokeswoman for Dr. Pepper in the late 80s and early 90s. How did you land that gig?
Judy: DIET Dr. Pepper. Oh my God. What a blessing. Let me start at the beginning: There was an executive at Young and Rubicam, the firm in charge of the Diet Dr. Pepper campaign, and this guy, who was named Chris, was a big fan of mine. He saw the HBO special we were just talking about, Women Of The Night, and he got in touch with my manager at the time. My manager and the Dr. Pepper executives said, “Let’s do something really creative”. Those ads were like little mini-movies. I’m so proud of those. They’re just wonderful.
Johnny: They were. They definitely made good usage of your comedic persona and all aspects of it.
Judy: It was like a movie, like Cleopatra. You could definitely tell how much they spent just to make everything so high-quality, you know?
Johnny: Speaking of acting, I’d like to go into some questions about that. In 1997, you played Madame Judy The Psychic on The Weird Al Show, which many people, including Weird Al Yankovic himself, feel was not a show worthy of his talents. What do you think went wrong with the show, and do you regret appearing on there?
Judy: First of all, I love Weird Al. I think he’s a genius and a friend. It was an honor to be on the show and working with him and all the other people who were on it. I believe I was in 5 or 6 episodes. It was great. I think the show was, perhaps, too good for people to understand. I don’t think there was anything wrong with it. Maybe it was the placement of the show. I think, if you were to put it back on, the kids would eat it up. There’s a lot of cartoon shows, like, for example, Seth MacFarlane’s programs. He puts on these adult cartoon shows, and they’re brilliant, but they’re really for adults. I think the thing with Weird Al is that it really was for kids, almost like a different version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I really do think it needed more of a chance to catch on.
Johnny: Alright. In 1998, you played Joan in Desperation Boulevard. Although it was a comedy, it also had some elements of drama to it. Were you nervous about doing the more serious scenes?
Judy: Not really, I wasn’t. I guess you could say I am more comfortable doing comedy, and I want to perform comedy. When you can really make someone laugh, that’s a healing experience. It’s like music. A lot of music is really healing.
Johnny: Alright. You’ve done a decent amount of voice-over work on Cartoon Network on shows ranging from Johnny Bravo to Chowder to, most recently, Mighty Magiswords. Pardon the pun, but what has drawn you to Cartoon Network’s programming?
Judy: I have a very cartoon-like voice, I’ve been told, and I also have a lot of variety to my voice. (Growling voice) I can go like this. (Trilling voice) I can go “Oooooh”. (Little girl voice) I can do this voice. (Back to Judy’s regular voice) I can also do a variety of accents. If I hear the accent and study it, I can do it. I just think I have that vocal ability.
Johnny: Okay. I saw the episode of Mighty Magiswords where you voiced Queen Porcina, and I thought it was very funny. I thought you did a great job with it.
Judy: Thank you. I’m going to be the special guest at a Minneapolis show for Mighty Magiswords, coming March 4th.
Johnny: Alright. On a different tack, you’re the second cast member of Child Of The 70s that I’ve interviewed, the first being Kat Kramer. What’s your favorite part of working on that show?
Judy: I did an episode where I played Michael Vaccaro’s mother. Can you hold on a second? Never mind, don’t worry. There’s people trying to get into my door. I’m getting a delivery. People are bringing the Goddess flowers because it’s Valentine’s Day!
Johnny: That’s definitely a good occasion for them, and I hope you get a lot of them.
Judy: Well, I AM the Love Goddess. It is my holiday!
Johnny: That’s what I’m talking about.
Judy: Yes, and with Child Of The 70s, I played Michael’s mother in the first episode. It was fun. I really enjoyed that, and all the people were fun. Michael Vaccaro is a sweetheart.
Johnny: I saw some episodes of it in research for my Kat Kramer interview last year, and it was definitely an enjoyable program.
Judy: I also have an online program. It’s called…
Johnny: The World Accordion To Judy.
Johnny: I have seen it, and I’m a subscriber on YouTube. That’s actually my next question. What has YouTube provided you that live performance has not?
Judy: First of all, I have a great guy I collaborate with who films the YouTube videos, and I have my own green screen. You get an idea and think, well, I don’t know if I can do this in a live stage show, but guess what? I can do it here and people can see it. I just need to figure out how to get more people to see it. I put them up on Facebook, YouTube and all the other different places.
Johnny: I’ve seen your videos, and they’re definitely a good showcase for your comedy. I started subscribing last year, and it’s been interesting catching up on your videos, not only The World Accordion To Judy, but also your characters.
Judy: Oh, yeah. I have a lot of them. Do you remember that murderer Jodi Arias? Did you see that?
Johnny: Yeah, I did see that.
Judy: A lot of people say, “Oh, you shouldn’t do videos if you don’t have high-quality”. What I found was it got a lot of hits because of how on the money it was about her. I mean, she’s a freakin’ in-cold-blood murderer. She even admitted it, and they kind of made her a rock star in prison. It makes me sick.
Johnny: That’s definitely a good critique. That’s something else I admire about your comedy. With your humor, you’re able to make some really good points about various topics, both major and minor. I’ll make this my last question. You’ve made appearances at conventions ranging from Chiller Theatre to The Hollywood Show. What’s been the most rewarding part about attending conventions like those?
Judy: It’s really connecting with other actors I haven’t seen in a long time. For example, believe it or not, I went to the same university as Michael Gross, the father from Family Ties, so it was great to see him. I also caught up with Paul Reubens, who I love. We had lunch together a few times, and we had a fun reunion at one of them. Bill Engval was nice. We had a great time. Morgan Fairchild? Sweetheart, and I love her. It’s really all that stuff. I love the fans, but it’s really nice to see all these other people.
Johnny: I can definitely relate. I’ve been to Chiller Theatre several times, and it’s always a blast. That about does it for my questions, but before I wrap up, I just want to say that I mean this seriously. I am a fan of your comedy. I admire everything about it, both the stand-up and the singing. I just think you’re a tremendous talent, and I look forward to all your future output.
Judy: Well, thank you.
Johnny: I do thank you, and I hope you have a good day, Ms. Tenuta.
Judy: Yes, thank you. Happy Valentine’s! I’m everyone’s Valentine.
Johnny: You’re mine as well. Thank you very much, and have a good afternoon.
Judy: Okay. You, too. Bye bye!
Johnny: Okay, bye!
I would like to thank Harlan Boll for setting up this interview, and I would like to thank Judy Tenuta for taking the time to speak to me. For more about Judy’s life and career, you can visit her official website, which has links to all her social media.
Who will I flashback with next? Stay tuned.