Madonna can show off her underwear on stage, and Whitney Houston can strut around in a second skin. Just don't expect Joan Rivers to do the same. Especially after you hear the name of her current tour.
"This," announces the comedian, "is Joan Rivers' 'Pulled-in-as-Tightly-as-Possible' tour."
Forget that she weighs little more than Nancy Reagan, considers non-fat yogurt one of the four food groups and rarely eats past 2 p.m. When she's performing, Ms. Rivers likes to have her 50-something physique -- all 104 pounds of it -- secured in a well-supported Bob Mackie gown.
And that's exactly what she'll do tonight when she comes to Merriweather Post Pavilion, performing with the musical group the Nylons.
In a phone interview from New York, she explains the difference between musical acts and her own. "A singer comes out, and it's Madonna's no-bra tour or Madonna's black bra tour," she says. "With comedians, it's very different. I come out and I talk."
She does most of her talking these days on her successful daytime show (on WJZ-TV weekdays at 10 a.m.), during which she offers a mix of celebrity interviews, gossip, music and humor. But shifting gears to do her first love -- stand-up comedy -- is never a problem.
"Hey, you can drive a car and ride a bike," she says. "I have so much comedy in my show . . . that I don't think about it at all."
But concert audiences are often given a more R-rated version of Joan Rivers, who usually turns up the volume and turns off the censors when she performs live. "You're allowed to say many, many more things [in concert] than you're allowed to say on television," she says.
She has also recently added another element to her show: widow jokes. Four years ago her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide. His death came as a shock to her, and Ms. Rivers has spent years trying to recover. "In the last six months, I've been talking about being a widow a little bit and going out with other people. People are saying,'OK, she's allowed to do that,' " she says.
But the woman who has made "Can We Talk?" her trademark is mum about rumors linking her to an affluent businessman.
"Puh-leeeeze," she says. "Businessmen is more like it."
Yet the thought of marrying again doesn't necessarily please her. "I think I'd be terrified. I'm on my own, and I'm quite comfortable," she says.
Well, almost on her own.
Her Yorkshire terrier -- Spike the Wonderdog -- is her constant companion in her elegant Manhattan condo and on her travels. He's expected to make an appearance at Merriweather tonight. "He's in the act. He gets more laughs than I do some nights," she says.
Spike is good company for the 25-year show biz veteran, particularly when she finds herself battling stage fright. "Of course, you get nervous," she says. "Each performance is different, each audience is different. Will they like me? Won't they like me? You know they spent money, and you want them to have a good time. But you use that energy to pull you on stage."
There were times, however, when she needed more than nervous energy to sustain her in the fickle world of entertaining. In 1987, several months before her husband's death, Ms. River was fired from the Fox Network and her late-night talk show was canceled after bad reviews and low ratings.
What kept her going during those times?
"My mortgage," she says, only half joking.
Her daughter Melissa Rosenberg also helped. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she recently began working as a researcher for several shows, including "Rescue 911."
"She's in the biz," Ms. Rivers says proudly. "She's got a lot of energy, and she's very funny. We're good friends."
But something inside the star herself also made her persevere. "I just don't give up. I'm a fighter to the end. I always have been. And I thought, 'Yes, I still have something left to offer and I'm not going to be put aside.' I always think you can beat the odds. I really believe it. If you work hard enough, good things come to you," she says.
Good things have arrived. Last year, Ms. Rivers won an Emmy for best daytime talk show host. She recently introduced a line of costume jewelry on the QVC cable shopping network. And the follow-up to her 1986 best-selling autobiography is due out from Random House in November. In "Still Talking," she promises to give details of the Fox debacle based on journals she kept during that time.
Although Ms. Rivers' private life has been something of an open book, she doesn't feel overexposed, she says.
"If you're going to write an autobiography you should write the truth. I'm never out to write a puff piece. I hate when you pick up a book and they say, 'Here it is. I'm telling you everything,' and then they tell you nothing," she says.
She does say that her book will not mirror others out there, in which celebs tell all about their drug and alcohol addictions.
"I'm one of the few people who didn't go to [the] Betty Ford [clinic]," she says. "I feel so left out."
Juggling a book tour, a daytime show and concerts leaves her little time to relax. But that's the way Joan Rivers prefers life today.
"Right after I was fired from Fox, I had plenty of free time," she says. "I had enough to last me for the rest of my life."
Opening act: The Nylons.
When: July 26, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia.
Tickets: $20 for pavilion, $15 for lawn.
Call: 730-2424 for information, 481-6000 for tickets.