Comedian Joan Rivers knows her audiences and she knows who most appreciates her acerbic wit and free-form social commentary.
“I say with full-blown ego that I am the queen of the gays,” said Rivers, who will bring her rough-and-tumble act to Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts Oct. 23. “You can tell Kathy Griffin, who is my very good friend, that she can be princess and she can be lady in waiting. But don’t try and take this throne away, bitch, because you will be in such trouble!”
Rivers, the subject of the remarkable new documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” may be the hardest-working person in show business. But while she keeps a busy schedule, Rivers is particular about who is sitting in the audience when she performs.
“I can play to all women and I can play to couples and we can all have a good time,” said the former Joan Molinsky. “But I will never play to an all-male audience because I have nothing to say to them. I will never do a bit about my car.”
“I will always play to an amazing gay audience because gays get everything, God bless ‘em,” Rivers says. “Gay audiences want to have a good time and they will stretch along with you. You can take them to places where it is very hard to take a straight audience.”
For Rivers, a Brooklyn native, one of those places was New York in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rivers, who works out weekly in a gay club in Greenwich Village to keep her wit sharp when she’s not touring, had no fear of making terrorist jokes after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I’m a New Yorker and I was doing 9/11 jokes thday after the attack because it was so horrific,” Rivers says. “I started doing jokes about terrorists who have no sex appeal and about how ugly they are. Have you ever opened up the New York Times, seen the face of a terrorist and went, ‘I wonder if he’s got a brother?’
“People came back after the show and said, ‘God, I haven’t laughed for 48 hours. Thank you.’”
Rivers also appreciated her Pridefest audience when she appeared in Milwaukee in June. “We had so much fun,” she says in her characteristic rasp. “They were great. I think they like me so much because I like them so much. I can come out on stage and say, ‘I am so happy to see you all! Now, what do we really think of Lindsay Lohan?’”
Part of that appreciation comes from past experience. One of Rivers’ first theatrical roles was playing a lesbian in a play that couldn’t recruit a male lead.
“The play was called Driftwood and it was such a bad play even for Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway FREE that they couldn’t find a male lead to play opposite a 16-year-old Barbra Streisand, who was so young she still had all the A’s in her name,” Rivers said. “I was still Joan Molinsky at the time, and I went to them said, ‘Make them lesbians and I can play the male lead.’ And they did.
“To this day, when Barbra and I see each other, she says, ‘Hello Joan Molinsky,’ and I say, “Hello, Barbra with all the A’s,’”
To say that Rivers has a fondness for gay audiences is an understatement, and she’s a staunch supporter of their rights.
“What do I think of same-sex marriage? I’m against it because they will then know the pain of divorce,” she jokes. “Seriously, of all my friends two of the happiest, longest unions I know are gay couples. My gay decorator is 91 years old and he can’t even see the color of the fringe anymore, but he’s been with his partner for 60 years.”
Of course, it helps that gay audiences are among her biggest fans.
“It’s always hard to go on stage and hope that they will laugh and find me funny,” she confesses. “But as soon as I see a gay man, I say, “‘He’ll get this joke.’ ... I’m like a happy mother with a child when I see a gay boy.”