Bill Maher’s ‘Real Time’: The survival manual for conservative panelists

During his first-ever guest appearance on HBO’s “Real Time” last summer, libertarian author Nick Gillespie knew his role. The villain. The talk show equivalent of a pro wrestling heel. The closest thing to — gasp — a designated conservative voice.

Of course, that’s what made it fun.

Mr. Gillespie looked the part: black shirt, trademark black jacket, sardonic air, everything but a dastardly handlebar mustache. He sparred with host Bill Maher over the debt ceiling and global warming and was jokingly — make that half-jokingly — challenged to a fistfight by Democratic mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, Pa. By the show’s end, Mr. Gillespie had picked up hundreds of new Twitter followers, many of whom were unimpressed by his political points of view.

Not to mention his wardrobe.

“I was roundly criticized for that,” said Mr. Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com. “On Twitter, someone sent me a note with a hashtag ‘superdouche.’ Going on the show was like going into a blast furnace and getting a face peel. It was incredibly invigorating to be the object of that much hate over the course of a weekend, ” Mr. Gillespie laughed.

“To paraphrase Gandhi, first they try to ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they call you a douche, and then they start engaging you in conversation.”

For conservatives, the notion of appearing on Mr. Maher’s popular weekly politics and comedy program can seem one step removed from entering the Roman Coliseum via underground trapdoor, circa 80 A.D. After all, Mr. Maher — who will be performing standup at Strathmore this Sunday — unapologetically leans left, his studio audience tends to follow suit, and the show’s three-person panel discussion format typically leaves solo right-wing guests outnumbered.

That said, conservatives who have appeared on “Real Time” insist that the experience can be both beneficial and enjoyable — provided guests follow a few simple guidelines.

“If you get totally ticked off in a comedy setting when somebody says something inappropriate, don’t go on the show,” said former New York Congressman Republican Rick Lazio, a guest on the show. “But if you can laugh, and laugh at yourself, I think it’s very important to not leave the playing field. Conservatives need to engage and persuade.”

Perhaps. But not without first consulting the Conservative “Real Time” Survival Guide that follows.

1. Don’t be paranoid: As conservative critics have pointed out in the wake of radio host Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming media firestorm, Mr. Maher is a bit of a potty-mouth. He can be profane. He is notoriously anti-religion, gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting President Obama’s re-election bid and was a frequent critic of the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, Mr. Maher isn’t, well, rude.

“I remember being at the show when he had the queen of Jordan for a one-on-one interview,” said Amy Holmes, the anchor of GBTV’s “News from the Blaze” and a recent “Real Time” guest. “She kept saying ‘Inshallah’ and making all these religious references. And she’s just a girl from Santa Monica who married the king. But Bill sat very respectfully and did not mock her.”

Conservative “Real Time” guests are brought on to make a case. To be foils. They are not recruited to be humiliated. Consider anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist. The president of Americans for Tax Reform is a longtime liberal bete noire, a man whose famous no-new-taxes political pledge and desire to see a federal government so small it can be “drowned in a bathtub” have been fodder for Mr. Maher’s wit and scorn.

Still, Mr. Norquist said, Mr. Maher treated him with respect when the two engaged in a tax policy back-and-forth on the show last fall. “He was generous to me,” Mr. Norquist said. “He talked about how we had done stuff before, been on [Mr. Maher’s previous show] ‘Politically Incorrect.’ He said nice things, hinting to the audience — which is very left wing — that this is not somebody I hate.”

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