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Mr. Lazio concurred. “I wouldn’t keep doing the show if people were talking over me and not letting me express my point of view,” Mr. Lazio said. “Bill doesn’t do that. The last time I was on, he came up to me afterward and said, ‘I know it’s very difficult for you and people who are more conservative to come on the show, and I just want you to know I do appreciate and respect the fact that you were willing to do this.’ Now, I don’t need to hear that. But it’s nice.”

2. Do prepare: Mr. Lazio has a routine: About two weeks before making a “Real Time” appearance, he’ll talk with the show’s producers about potential topics. The producers will share news articles that Mr. Maher is reading; Mr. Lazio supplements those with independent research. He reads additional material on the cross-country flight to Los Angeles, where the show is taped, and generally anticipates about 10 to 12 major potential discussion topics.

“I definitely prepare differently than for other shows,” Mr. Lazio said. “You try to be over-prepared when you know that you’re the only one defending a point of view.”

Mr. Maher may be a comedian, but he’s also an experienced television host and an engaged political commentator. Panel guests can range from politicians to academic experts to journalists. Unlike many traditional cable news shows, the program is an hourlong and commercial-free, which leaves ample time for discussion that goes beyond rehearsed rhetoric and rapid-fire talking points.

Translation? “Real Time” isn’t a place to not know your stuff.

“I’ll watch seven interviews of Bill Maher talking to conservatives [before appearing], just to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t,” Mr. Norquist said. “Bill is a serious comedian with serious political world views. He has like 17 staffers, seven writers. The chances he’s unprepared are not high.

“He’s probably thought through all sorts of different jokes and comments. And you’ve been thinking about stuff on the plane. So you better bring facts and examples. You need to have a good idea of what the left’s response is to your points, and have a response to that, think two moves ahead. You have to be on your game.”

3. Don’t take the bait: Years ago, the biracial Ms. Holmes was appearing on Mr. Maher’s old program when another guest — a black actress — unexpectedly attacked her for lacking racial solidarity.

Ms. Holmes‘ crime? She said she didn’t like the rapper Eminem. Who happens to be white.

“I was kind of stunned,” Ms. Holmes said. “It was the first time I had ever experienced that kind of frontal attack, and it was painful.

“What’s funny was, the person who came to my rescue was [actor-comedian] Pauly Shore. He was my knight in shining armor, told her to back off. Bill also has been good about that — he will protect the conservative if he feels the conversation is too lopsided or the audience is reflexively cheering on the left side of the panel.”

If you’re a conservative guest on “Real Time,” it’s almost inevitable: Someone is going to say something that gets your goat. Could be political, like slagging Ronald Reagan. Could be personal. Could be both. And Mr. Shore won’t always been there to serve as the soothing voice of reason. (After all, it’s 2012, not 1995).

Mr. Lazio’s advice? Don’t take the bait. Never ever.

The panel’s token righty will face some pressure to serve as unofficial spokesman for their side, “so if some crazy person on the right said anything controversial that week, you have to defend it,” he said. “You have to defend every conservative that ever lived. You don’t. And you can’t be the angry white conservative. You have to enjoy the lighter moments. Be conversational. Laugh when it’s appropriate.”

Should matters get heated anyway, fear not: It’s just television. When Mr. Fetterman noted that he was the mayor of the “poorest town in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Gillespie responded with a muttered “Well, you must be very proud” — prompting Mr. Fetterman to ask Mr. Gillespie to “take it outside.” The moment was uncomfortable, even for viewers at home. But by the time the two men met at the show’s after-party, all was forgiven.

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