- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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.”

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.

“We had a fascinating conversation, and he’s a great guy,” Mr. Gillespie said. “[Democratic strategist] Donna Brazile was also on the show, and she invited me over for a good Cajun meal with her sister. I talked with the producers for a long time, too. I realized I was the lightning rod on that panel, but they treated me totally squarely. It was a very positive experience.”

4. Do make your point: Ms. Holmes jokes that appearing on “Real Time” can be like being the conservative pinata at a liberal party. The problem with her analogy? Pinatas can’t swing back.

According to Mr. Lazio, Mr. Maher allows his conservative guests to make their points — provided they have some. The last time Mr. Lazio was on the show, Mr. Maher argued that during Mr. Obama’s presidency, public employment had decreased, something the president should get credit for.

Mr. Lazio countered that Mr. Maher’s numbers were misleading, because while the number of state and local government jobs had gone down, federal employment was roughly the same.

“I basically pointed out that the stimulus package let state and local governments keep larger payrolls than were sustainable in the long run, and now we were seeing the effects of that,” Mr. Lazio said. “If you make your points and you have facts, Bill accepts it. He won’t just label you and dismiss you. Occasionally, he’ll even say, ‘Good point.’ “

5. Don’t be a comedian: Simple. Mr. Maher is a pro at making people laugh. The typical conservative panelist is not. Act accordingly.

“I would put up a big blinking caution sign: Do not go down the comedy road,” Ms. Holmes said. “It will end badly. If you’re Chris Buckley or P.J. O’Rourke, maybe you can get away with it. But if you’re not known for your wit or comedic timing, ‘Real Time’ is not the place to try to change that.

Bill does a stand-up show almost every weekend. He has road-tested his material. He’s polished and practiced. And if you’re put on with a celebrity guest who is also a crowd-pleaser, your best bet is to focus on what you do best. It’s like the conservative economics principle of comparative advantage.”

So: Don’t be a humor hero.

Once you’ve mastered these basic self-defense principles, you may find you’re ready to survive — perhaps even thrive — as the conservative offering on “Real Time.” The television gab-o-sphere can be a shrill, angry, partisan place. “Real Time” is different. For conservatives, Ms. Holmes said, it’s an opportunity to engage in a longer, looser political conversation. To sharpen one’s debating skills. To reach out to a large and unfamiliar audience.

“It’s funny how often I’ve been approached by gay men telling me in hushed tones that they are secretly conservative,” Ms. Holmes said. “Or Hollywood people will tell me that I just watched you on the show. Apparently that is where actors get their political news.”