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You have never seen Clay Aiken like this: The Runner-Up is amazing TV

You have never seen Clay Aiken like this: The Runner-Up is amazing TV
Clay Aiken in Esquire's The Runner-Up. (Photo by Lightbox Entertainment)

“Fuck people who have a problem with that. Fuck ’em.”

That’s Clay Aiken, American Idol 2 runner-up and The Celebrity Apprentice runner-up, interviewed in Esquire’s new documentary series The Runner-Up, which debuts tonight and follows his run for Congress last year. Of course, the outcome of the election is well-known by now, and the title essentially gives it away, a reference to the consistent outcome of Clay’s attempts to win very different kinds of contests.

Produced by Jonathan Chinn and Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man”), The Runner-Up is a stunning unscripted television series not just because Clay Aiken says “fuck” a lot, nor because he gets emotional like when talking about his position on issues close to him–though both are remarkable.

No, it’s stunning because that Clay Aiken is a direct contrast to the version of him we’ve seen on television twice now. He was much more open and candid on Apprentice–it was, after all, after he came out–but this is finally a fuller picture of Clay. We see him in public, campaigning, and in private, complaining. There’s a particular type of vulnerability that isn’t very common from politicians or from reality television, and not just when he’s in his boxer briefs getting dressed.

Jonathan Chinn on filming The Runner-Up

The first episode focuses on the primary, and even if you know the shocking outcome of that particular election, it’s extraordinary television, especially considering all of Clay’s unintentional foreshadowing.

I talked to executive producer Jonathan Chinn, who has previously worked on reality television such as Kid NationAmerican High, and 30 Days, about the series’ origin and production.

He told me that for this kind of series, “You have to throw away a lot of the tools you have as a reality producer and give in to the verite gods. A lot of interesting stuff can happen, or nothing interesting can happen. It’s all a little bit out of our control.”

The idea for the series came from Clay Aiken’s remarkable campaign announcement video, which prompted a March meeting with producers. “Can’t say that I spent much of my career wanting to make a documentary about Clay Aiken,” Chinn said, but after meeting with Clay, he added, “I was immediately struck by his political savvy. The person that I met was not the Clay Aiken that had been packaged to me as a viewer of American Idol or Celebrity Apprentice. He was quite different.”

Clay Aiken’s deal with filmmakers

The show didn’t start production until about five days before the May 6 primary, and that footage fills most of tonight’s premiere, which debuts at 10 p.m. ET. Interestingly, there was no contract between the filmmakers and Clay “outside of an appearance release that he signed allowing us to use the footage. He has no financial gain from this project; we don’t have a deal with him.” Chinn said that was important because “this is not a reality show where we’re dealing with a celebrity who’s trying to control their image or is looking for monetary gain.”

They did have a handshake agreement, though. “What [Clay] needed assurances about was that we were not going to interfere with his ability to campaign and, at that point in time, win an election. That was mostly about the sort of nitty gritty in terms of the logistics of shooting. He didn’t want us using a lot of boom mics that might spook people, he really wanted his campaign team to have the ability to ask us not to film something if they felt that it was going to be harmful for the cameras to be there. He need that assurance,” Chinn told me.

“The assurance that I needed from him was that he was going to have no editorial control whatsoever. He basically needed to trust us to do what we do as storytellers. We weren’t interested in getting into an editorial partnership with him,” Chinn added. “We just had to have complete freedom to make the documentary we wanted to make.”

Clay and his campaign staff were followed by a small crew, usually about three to four people, though sometimes it would be a single producer with a camera. Production was slow during the summer months after the primary and ended about a week after the midterm election. While the documentary is truly cinema verite, in that it just followed the action wherever it was going, filming “was not a 24/7 kind of thing,” Chinn said.

Not affecting the election

The filmmakers did “everything we could do to not affect the outcome” of the election, and Chinn said, “we didn’t want to affect the campaign positively or negatively.” That–and equal time laws–explain why it’s airing well after the election.

After Esquire announced The Runner-Up, a report in Variety claimed donors at a fundraiser were upset about being filmed for the series because they said the crew “told them that it was for a BBC documentary that would not air in the U.S.”

Chinn said that this was always an Esquire series, and thus the report about it initially being a BBC show was inaccurate. “The idea of it airing it overseas is a fallacy,” he said. “It makes no sense that this show would go overseas. Nobody [there] knows who Clay Aiken is. It was never a consideration of ours that we would try to hook up with overseas partners. This was always very much an American show for a U.S. audience–not just because of Clay Aiken, but also because I’m not sure if people overseas have that much interest in the American political system, which ultimately is what this doc is about.”

Chinn said the documentary could have potentially had an expanded scope. “We actually tried to get access to Renee Ellmers’ campaign,” he told me. “We were rejected; they weren’t interested in having a crew around them.”

Clay Aiken says “fuck” a lot

The series aims to “show people their preconceived notions of Clay Aiken might be wrong,” and that includes all the swearing, which is delightful. “The truth is, cutting out the stuff where he doesn’t swear wasn’t an option–he swears all the time. In the case of his potty mouth, that is who he is, and sanitizing it would be disingenuous,” Chinn said.

Producers also wanted to explore Clay as a gay man running for Congress in the South, where there has never been an openly gay representative, and look at politics through this one local election.

“What we tried to do was sort of strip away a lot of the stuff that was slightly uninteresting,” Chinn said, such as the “mechanics of running a campaign,” and instead “focus on the stories that we felt would be accessible to people–the personal stories, and the political stories.”

“Ideally, it’s very ambitious–and maybe a little high-minded and lofty–but ideally, people will watch the four episodes, which isn’t asking too much, and actually take a couple minutes out of their day to think about the state of politics in America,” Chinn told me. “If this series can entertain people, show a slightly different side of Clay Aiken, and get people to think about such things as campaign reform and gerrymandering, even for a short while, I would be happy.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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