Liza & David Is the Holy Grail of Reality TV Disasters


It was an enthusiastically hyped series that was set to debut in the early days of reality TV, just a few months after The Osbournes landed on MTV and hooked viewers on the charms of watching famous and quasi-famous people sitting around their homes. It starred two eccentrics whose union made them exponentially more eccentric—she was a living legend as famous for her EGOT-awarded entertaining as her pedigree and hard-partying ways, and he was a well-connected music-event producer known for his extensive collection of Shirley Temple dolls. Their wedding featured Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor as co-ring bearers and culminated in a much-discussed kiss, in which he approached her as a koi does a food pellet. Their show was cancelled after the taping of just one episode, which never saw the (official) light of day and spawned a $23 million lawsuit from one of its subjects, and then a countersuit from the company that owned the network on which it was to air.

I’m referring to Liza & David, VH1’s tease of a series that was to focus on newlyweds Liza Minnelli and David Gest’s entertaining at their Upper East Side home. It promised a tantalizing glimpse into the personal lives of an enormously public couple, whose star-studded wedding was filmed and broadcast around the world. In case you don’t remember it or merely want to relive the absurdity, here’s that famous kiss of theirs (with commentary—this clip is from the May 23, 2002 episode of CNN’s Larry King Live, which aired some two months after their wedding):

And then after all the build-up, just like that, Liza & David evaporated into thin air. Its narrative made it a pop culture legend, as little seen on screens as Bigfoot is in the wild. But it’s out there—it was spotted once before and now has been again.

Years after Liza & David’s announcement, filming, cancellation, and subsequent lawsuits had long been reported and seemingly forgotten, a few outlets like Entertainment Weekly and the New York Post noted in October 2006 that its pilot had been uploaded to YouTube. I remember reading the Post’s story a few days late, immediately searching for it, and coming up with nothing. It had been swiftly yanked from YouTube, slipping right out of my hungry fingers. But knowing that it had been out there, and having faith that someone must have downloaded it and might be willing to share it with the Liza & David-deficient as he or she had once been, made it something of a Holy Grail of pop culture to me. I searched for it and asked around, but nothing ever surfaced. I guess I forgot about it for a while until it popped into my head last weekend when I was looking for something to watch as I fell asleep. Lo and behold, Liza’s back, baby!

There it is. It goes without saying that you should watch it right now, while you still can. If you have dreamed of doing so all these years like I did, you will find it is a concrete example of something that is beyond your dreams, no hyperbole. It contains no shortage of the kind of extreme human behavior that still fuels the spectacle of reality TV 16 years later. It is a travesty this show never made it to series. We were robbed.

There’s a scene in which Liza, from the passenger seat of a car, stops someone on the street and has him place his dog in the car so that she can pet it. She doesn’t seem to know this person.

In fact, a minor motif emerges in just 30 minutes of runtime: Liza leaning out the passenger side of her car and interacting with unsuspecting strangers. They could make a series of just this alone. I think they should consider it. In another instance of this habit of hers, she notices a man who is standing next to his van that’s double-parked in her car’s lane. “Gee, let’s not hit this guy,” she says to her driver M’Hammed, simultaneously choking back laughter. “I’m gonna pat him right on the buns.” And then she does. He, like the dog owner, doesn’t seem to know her personally, but upon turning around, clearly recognizes the woman who just touched his butt as… Liza.

What would have likely struck most viewers as Liza just being silly in 2002 or 2003 would most likely play differently if included on a show released today, as unwanted touching, advances, and harassment are a topic of mainstream discourse, especially as they apply to pop culture. It’s wild when you watch something from not that long ago and realize how different the world is now. As a time capsule alone, Liza & David contains multitudes.

The pilot opens with Liza and David en route to Sylvia’s in Harlem for gospel brunch.

The veracity of Liza and David’s bond was heavily scrutinized throughout their relationship—a few weeks after their March 16, 2002, wedding, All My Children’s Ruth Warrick claimed she’d been David’s beard and that, “It never once occurred to me in 25 years that David was anything but a closet homosexual who for business and social reasons didn’t want it known.” Warrick eventually said she regretted making the claim, which Liza and David denied at the time. (Liza called David a real “tiger” in bed.) Liza & David did not address the gay rumors directly, but it did lay on the romance thick. Or tried to, at least. The pilot opens with Liza and David en route to Sylvia’s in Harlem for gospel brunch. David mentions the “great baked chicken” at Sylvia’s, and Liza interrupts as if he just said something naughty (he didn’t even refer to the chicken’s breast). Or maybe it’s that she can’t possibly believe the man she’s sitting next to is a living breathing human being who’s all hers. “David!” she honks, her eyes sparkling like the diamonds in her ears.

Ten seconds in, we’re off to a great start.

Speaking of displays of affection, there’s a great little section in the middle of the show in which David, who’s out shopping, talks to Liza by cell phone. “I love you,” he enthuses. “With all my heart,” he continues, a little less brightly. And then he concludes with the flatness of someone who just booked a lunch meeting he’s been putting off for weeks now: “Thanks.”

David, who was credited by Liza herself for helping get her career back on track, is seen on the show rather obnoxiously and grossly lording over Liza’s diet. On the way to Sylvia’s, he describes to the restaurant’s coconut cake with buttercream frosting as being “to die for.” “Should we get a little piece of that today?” asks Liza. “No, we’re on diets,” David snaps. Later, during the dinner party at the episode’s climax, singer Anastacia whispers to Liza that she brought her chocolates to sneak when David’s not looking. Liza soon confesses this to David and he tells her, “We don’t eat chocolate.” The “we” is not royal, although the way he carries himself is.

We watch him buying CDs at Academy Records (“Where’s your LL Cool J?”). He leaves the store with “only about” 50 purchases. We see him bragging to someone at a furniture store—“I just bought the Elephant Man’s bones from Michael Jackson. No, I’m serious. I need an incubator.” At one point, he strides by a newsstand in his permanently affixed sunglasses and scarf, and deadpans to his assistant Steve, “Oh there’s every paper I’m in.” It is captured by all the cameras he arranged to preside in front of.

We see Liza taking a dance lesson from Wade Robson, whose name is misspelled in his chyron and who’d go on to accuse Liza’s good friend Michael Jackson of child molestation.

We also see her in a dance class with famed Upper West Side dance instructor Luigi. What kind of dance classes does Liza take, a fan asks her after she leaves the class? Here’s your answer:

There are cameos from Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé (!!!) at Sylvia’s. Am I surprised that Michelle Williams is not with them? No, I am not.

At Sylvia’s, David asks Beyoncé’s mom Tina Knowles to design a dress for Liza. When she next appears onscreen, she is labeled “dress designer,” which I suppose is actually flattering as she is being designated by her art, not her familial relations.

Here’s what she puts Liza in:

It could only look better if Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland were flanking her in similar, but distinctly cut, dresses in varying shades.

The party scene at the show’s climax is both strange and dazzling. There’s a brief vignette composed to make it look like Liza went up to someone in her own apartment, asked who he was, and then retreated before he could answer:

It is also studded with stars. Each intended to make your jaw drop a little further than the last one. Ray Charles shows up to sing. Sandra Bernhard makes a speech in which she references not being invited to Liza and David’s wedding while standing in front of one of Liza’s Warhols.

Luther Vandross is there!

Ashford and Simpson are there!

Isaac Mizrahi is there! He rants about watching the first episode of The Anna Nicole Show, seeing how humiliating it was, and then drafting a “policy” never to watch it again. “I watched it for four weeks, though—I couldn’t get enough of it,” responds Dominick Dunne (!!).

Kelly Rowland is there, though her outfit unfortunately doesn’t coordinate with Liza’s in any meaningful way…

As is…

…Michelle Branch??? She doesn’t quite seem to believe she’s there herself and gives her thanks for the invitation directly into the camera.

Rowland and Branch are guests of particular note because they are mentioned by name in the lawsuit David Gest filed against MTV Networks as a result of his show’s cancellation. In his complaint, David claimed that during the filming of this dinner party on October 21, 2002, MTVN exec Robert Weiss told him, “If you don’t put Kelly Rowland and Michelle Branch on to perform, I am cancelling the show.” The implication, as he later explained to Larry King, was that the musical talent on the show skewed too old for the show’s target audience.

If the dates in the lawsuit are correct, MTV pulled the plug on the show rather swiftly—a little over a week after the filming of its final scene, on October, 29, 2002, an MTVN legal representative notified Liza and David that Liza & David was canceled. VH1 confirmed the show had been axed: “Liza is amazing and talented and she was very cooperative, but we were not given the access to make the show a reality,” a spokeswoman told the Washington Post. The New York Post quoted an unnamed source close to the production, who said, “We discovered what a lot of people already knew: David Gest is impossible to work with.”

The New York Post quoted an unnamed source close to the production, who said, ‘We discovered what a lot of people already knew: David Gest is impossible to work with.’

In his complaint, David cited that quote in the alleging defamation (he cited another supposedly from a VH1 source, also published in the Post: “David Gest redefines the term ‘control freak.’ He was almost insane.”). The suit, which also alleged breach of contract, conspiracy to induce breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, was filed December 16, 2002. Prior to that, Liza and David went on a media tour about their show’s cancellation, hitting the National Enquirer and Larry King Live (again), and also Time magazine, whose Joel Stein shared this amusing account of what he’d observed between them during their time together:

This is a very affectionate couple. They call each other Ma and Pa. They kiss and hug after nearly every sentence. He speaks about his love of her left bosom, upon which he sleeps every night. He delivers such lines as “Baby gorgeous girl I love you very much.”

In response to David’s suit, MTV Networks countersued on February 6, 2003, for $1.5 million. They, like David, alleged breach of contract. “Although RPI (Remote Productions Inc.) and MTVN have worked with the full spectrum of entertainment personalities, nothing prepared them for the unrelentingly obstructionist behavior and utter lack of professionalism displayed by DGP (David Gest Productions, Inc.) and Gest,” read the complaint. “From the outset, DGP and Gest frustrated the intent and purpose of the Agreement and materially breached the Agreement with a consistent display of unprofessional, erratic, and deceitful conduct that went so far beyond the acceptable bounds of show business eccentricity as to render the Series effectively unproducible.”

MTVN’s allegations were numerous and extensive. They made the already eccentric endeavor sound like an all-out disaster, a New York production right out of the book of notorious Hollywood flops. Among the allegations, the network claimed:

  • David flaked on meetings, obstructed and delayed filming, denied access to Liza, refused to wear a mic at all times, and “constantly tried to exercise creative control over the content of the filming.”
  • David refused access to his office and kitchen.
  • David canceled 18 scheduled shoots in October 2002 alone.
  • David insisted his hairdresser be flown in from Los Angeles and housed in New York for the entire period of filming. This came at a cost of $60,000, $30,000 over hairdressing budget.
  • David went $15,000 over his styling allowance.
  • David insisted MTVN buy him a $3450 coat; his wardrobe budget for the first episode was 30 times that of Liza’s.
  • David insisted two personal assistants be hired for him.
  • David wanted $50,000 for a Halloween party that was to be filmed.
  • “Gest was repeatedly insulting and demeaning to the production crew, technicians and producers working on the Series and imposed unreasonable and onerous restrictions on their work conditions, such as not allowing the crew to sit on furniture in the Residence or to drink bottled water while in the Residence, and becoming irate if a crew member brushed against a wall or a portion of a bag was on the marble floor in the Residence.”
  • “Gest ordered a member of MTV’s production team to stick her head in an oven at the Residence to make sure it was spotlessly clean.”
  • “Perceiving a small stain on an item of furniture at the Residence, Gest demanded that the furniture be entirely re-upholstered.”
  • “Gest demanded that whenever a hole was drilled into a wall to install new equipment during the installation of recording equipment at the Residence, such as a cable or light fixture, a member of MTVN’s production or technical crew must stand by the hole with a vacuum cleaner in hand so as to instantly remove any dust.”

It’s unclear if Liza and David would have lasted as long as they would have needed to film a season’s worth of episodes; in July 2003, about 16 months after their attention-demanding wedding, the couple split. David alleged that Liza physically abused him and filed a $10 million lawsuit against her; she countersued for $2 million, claiming he’d stolen money. She denied she ever hit him, and in 2006 a judge threw out his lawsuit for lack of “triable issue of fact.” They eventually settled their legal battle entirely in 2007.

He settled with MTVN much earlier (and just before the filed the lawsuit against Liza). On September 19, 2003, a joint press release was issued that read:

Viacom and David Gest are pleased to announce that they have amicably resolved their differences and withdrawn their respective lawsuits concerning the cancellation of VH1’s anticipated reality television show featuring the lives of Liza Minnelli and Mr. Gest at their home in Manhattan.
David Gest said, “I am pleased to be able to put this lawsuit behind me and focus on my business as a producer and promoter of entertainment events.”
Viacom said, “We are delighted to put aside our differences with Mr. Gest and his production company without resort to further litigation.”

Liza would go on to be an even more extreme version of Liza. More Larry King, some iconic hawking on HSN, “Day-O.” David Gest went on to appear on reality shows that actually did make it to air, among them, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here (on which he described his wedding kiss like this: “It looked like I was a shark going in and I took every part of her mouth out with my tongue and it was like a nine-minute kiss”), and Celebrity Big Brother, on which he did not die, despite Tiffany “New York” Pollard’s temporary misunderstanding that he had. And then, a few months after wrapping that show, he did actually die of a stroke. Liza didn’t comment publicly on his death, and in fact, commented that she had not commented on it even privately after her friend Cindy Adams quoted her as calling David an “asshole.”

Liza did, though, discuss her brief, weird, and endlessly documented relationship with David in a 2010 interview with Joy Behar. After they split, Liza recalled asking Michael Jackson, “Why did you let me marry this idiot?” According to her, Jackson responded, “I thought you liked him, you looked so happy!”

“Some of the things I went through make me laugh when I look back on them,” Liza told Behar. Same, Liza. Same.

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