Judy Tenuta has always been a warrior. Armed with her trademark accordion and her sharp tongue, Judy has been making audiences laugh for decades with her brash brand of comedy. Dubbed “The Love Goddess” by her fans, Judy’s comedy is both aggressive and whimsical, making her a beloved and respected comedic force of nature.
A multi-talented performer with two Grammy nominations, five albums, two books and an independent film, Judy was the first comedian to win the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedian in 1988, potentially her most special accolade. Feisty, independent, and fierce, Judy has a massive audience of friends, fans and followers.
In recent months, the warrior comedian has been fighting a new battle. Diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer during the COVID-19 crisis, Judy had the isolating experience of fighting for her life during a time when social distancing, and pandemic procedures became our strange reality.
At the beginning of 2021, Judy dropped her latest music video, Kicking Cancer’s Ass, where she uses her special brand of humor to not only laugh in the face of her condition, but to also inspire others who have their own cancer battle. Judy has a new message for her fans – always stay positive.
Remembering Judy’s brash onstage antics from her comedy specials and TV appearances, I wondered if I was going to interview the intimidating Love Goddess. Instead, I encountered a warm and funny lady with a strong message of positivity and a continuous sense of fun.
Sam: I know that this is the question that you are probably getting a lot of, but how are you?
Judy: I’m getting better and better. You can probably tell by my voice. I’m in what they call partial remission, so I’m very happy about that.
Sam: I’m calling to talk about your video, Kicking Cancer’s Ass, which dropped on YouTube at the beginning of the year.
Judy: Of course, you are. I wanted to do that video, not just to prove that I could be doing something. I really thought that it might not only be healing for me, but for others who are going through this same battle, or perhaps they have a relative or a friend going through it.
You would think by now that cancer would be completely curable on every level, and it is getting better. While I’m grateful that I’m doing well, I also want to give people some advice through this video. This is not just for people with cancer, but everybody. You must be positive. Worldwide, everyone is going through this pandemic and if you let that get you down, what good is that? You just feel better by being positive. Smile, or tell a joke, or do anything like that.
Sam: Can you tell us a bit about how you found out that you had cancer?
Judy: Let me tell you, I felt perfectly fine. Occasionally I’d feel a little pain around my stomach, especially after I’d eaten. Well, one night it got really bad, so I took some Tylenol and felt better. I think everyone was scared to go to the doctor during the pandemic. I know I was. I had always been very healthy, but I would still l get that pain. So, I figured I had to go in. My brother had just told me that he had a kidney stone, and it sounded like that. My pain was in that area. So, of course, I go to the doctor, and he sends me to the hospital where they do all those x-rays and ultrasounds. I didn’t think too much about that, but they got back to me and said “Yes, you do have a kidney stone, but we saw something else, and we want you to see our oncologist.” Right away I knew what that meant, but I thought, “It might not mean anything. They’re just checking.” I really do try to stay positive. So I go to the oncologist, and my boyfriend was with me, for which I was so thankful. The doctor comes out and he’s got the x-ray and I said, “Well Doctor, I hope you’ve got a good report for me.” Like I’ve said, I like to stay positive. He says “Well, it says you are basically a healthy person, but we found something.” It was ovarian cancer, and it was advanced. Right away I said “No. No. That can’t be. Look how healthy I am.” And he said, “I know Judy, but look at the x-ray.” I started crying, but then I said “Damn it. I’ve got to be a warrior. I’ve got to fight it.” It’s just like learning about a death you weren’t expecting and you’re in denial. But then you must accept the reality. I realized the doctor wasn’t trying to play a joke on me and was very serious about what they do. I cried a little, and then I said “So, what are we going to do?” The doctor said “We’ve got it all worked out. We are going to do chemo, and then we are going to operate, and then you are getting some more chemo.” So, I went through all of that, and I had a few little setbacks, but nothing I couldn’t get through. I’ve got to say, chemo does take a lot out of you. When you’re going through that, it’s very hard to eat. But after a few days of healing, you can start again. The most important thing is to keep drinking water. It’s hard to do, but I learned to adapt. When you are going through chemo, it’s hard to stay positive. But I had a friend who would call me every day and say, “Judy, get out of bed. You are kicking cancer’s ass.” That made me start laughing, and that made me do it. That’s when I decided I was going to write a song about it. My Dad taught me, when you feel bad about something you’ve got to go and sing about it. It makes you feel better.
Sam: I read a quote where you have said that you take the things that upset you, or make you angry, and use that in your comedy, to be able to laugh in its face.
Judy: That’s absolutely what comedy is. It’s taking pain and disappointment and turning it around and laughing about it. The other thing that’s important in comedy is the truth. You always have to tell the truth. That’s why people talk about their childhoods and what happened, but you turn it around and make it funny. I have a story about how my brother Bosco burnt down the house. I say “Bosco, why did you burn down the house?” He says “Well, it was laughing at me.” I said, “Bosco, it was laughing with you.” But the thing is that he did almost burn down the house. He was a kid and he had matches. Luckily the fire department got there and saved the house, but I had to write about it. These are traumatic things, but you’ve got to talk about it. Everyone can relate to trauma. You see all these poor people going through fires and tornados. You’ve got to also be prepared. You should have a suitcase ready for when you have to go.
Sam: I remember when you had your operation because it was posted on social media, and it was serious. But I also remember when you came out the other side, and all the comments by people who were so happy that you made it through. What are the challenges of being treated for cancer during a pandemic, and when the hospitals are shut down because of the COVID crisis? I mean, at the time of your operation, hospitals were canceling treatments and not letting people in and out. It was a frightening time in the medical world.
Judy: Well, this was a serious operation, so they weren’t going to not take care of me. The fact is, a lot of the people who now have COVID, and I’m sorry to say this, are anti-vaxxers. The virus is going to get you. That’s what it does. It finds someone to live in and it will continue until to do so to thrive until the body has to give up.
Sam: Well, at this point it’s just Darwinism.
Judy: It is. It’s survival of the smartest. Here’s what I don’t get. These idiots say, “I’m taking my fourth COVID test of the week.” I say “What the hell are you talking about? Get the vaccination!” My brother didn’t want to do it, and I said to him “It’s very simple. If you get the vaccine, you might get COVID, but you probably won’t die from it. If you don’t get the vaccine, you will get COVID and you could die from it. Why would you gamble with that? You must be pretty stupid and arrogant to think you can beat that.
Sam: We feel the same way. I’m at a point where I’m losing patience with anti-vaxxers. I say get on board or get out of our way so we can continue living life in a healthy and safe manner. This is a big issue currently where I live in Canada, and it’s turned into a political concern.
Judy: It shouldn’t be a political concern because it’s a human problem all over the world. I don’t care what your politics are. You can die from it no matter what side you support. This is a health issue. What are your political parties in Canada?
Sam: There are a few additional parties, but basically it comes down to the Liberals and the Conservatives, which is almost the same as the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s the same nonsense, but with much less Trump.
Judy: Oh, that guy. I don’t understand how people can support him. He’s a dangerous clown. I just don’t get it. But anyway. COVID is a worldwide problem. No matter if you are a Liberal or Conservative or an independent, anyone can get it. Nobody is immune. It’s a health issue. It’s a human issue.
Sam: How shut down was the world when you were going through chemo? What was the social climate?
Judy: Well, the good news is that everything was shut down anyways, so I didn’t feel I was missing anything. I feel so comfortable in my home, and my boyfriend takes really good care of me. He doesn’t have to carry me around, although I would like that. But people would bring me groceries, and my boyfriend took me to all my appointments, and there were a lot. If I didn’t have them, I would have had to hire someone.
Sam: So, you still had your core people around to help you get through this during a time where you weren’t supposed to have people coming in and out.
Judy: Well, my doctor told me that I was immunocompromised. I couldn’t go out, but that didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel like going to some headbanger concert. Whitesnake wasn’t playing at the local concert hall
Sam: You really are a delight to talk to. How do you stay so positive?
Judy: Well, I’m basically a happy person. Listen, there were a few days there where I got on a couple of my friends’ cases because I needed to vent. But as I said, everybody has something, and you’ve got to try to be positive. What gets me is when people who you thought were your best friends suddenly disappear. People who were my really good friends, and I’m not naming any names, dropped out. And it’s not like I’m complaining. It’s okay. I bless them and release them. But what really lifted my spirits was when I’d hear from people I haven’t heard from in years. Kathleen Maddigan called me and said, “Judy, nothing is going to happen to you because I won’t let it.” She was so sweet, and then we just laughed and just talked about things. I got a call from George Wallace. He said, “Listen to me Judy. If anytime you need anything, I’m gonna help you.” I said, “Oh George, you’re an angel. Just you are calling me has brightened my whole year.” People telling me they are thinking of me, they are fighting for me, it just kept me going.
Sam: What has been the reaction to the Kicking Cancer’s Ass video from viewers?
Judy: They say, “Thank you so much for this. It made me laugh, and it made me feel better. It gave me the spirit to fight too.” I’ve also got a lot of messages from cancer survivors who have said, “Thank you for this. This is so great.” People with family members or friends with cancer, have also written to me.I don’t usually talk about politics or religion, but I do believe in prayer, and many people pray for me, and I pray for them. Prayer can be many things. Prayer can be a song. Prayer can be a joke. Its anything you do to make someone feel better. You are honoring God, because we are all made in God’s image. So that’s what we can do by respecting one another. That, and we must keep having fun.
Judy is still in partial remission, so while doing better, still has a lot left to fight. But Judy made so many good points. As a people, whatever challenges we face, we need to face it with positivity, joy and laughter. Furthermore, during the COVID crisis, people who are not getting the vaccination are gambling with their life and the lives of others. Judy is fighting for her life from a disease with no cure while so many others are denying themselves a treatment that will protect them from a disease that threatens to kill them. Getting a vaccine is really a no brainer.
If you want to follow Judy’s progress, find her on social media, and visit her website at www.judytenuta.com. In the meantime, the team at samtweedle.com will continue to keep Judy in our thoughts and our prayers and continue to laugh in the face of hard times. We love you, Judy.