'Conan' writer returns home and to the stage

Francis Ma

Comedian Brian Kiley is making people laugh during an unfunny time.

The Writers Guild of America strike, which started on Nov. 5, has trudged on longer than anyone expected, and that means that Kiley, a staff writer for the “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” show, has been out of work for two months.

For Kiley, who grew up in Newton, it’s been a strange break, one that he masks as “taking some time off to spend with the family” so he can remain optimistic that the debilitating strike will end soon.

“Uncertainty is the hardest part,” says Kiley. “With this, you don’t know if it’ll go three or nine more months. And, yeah, the holidays have been especially hard. I mean, you’re picketing and it’s cold out there.”

But the strike has also afforded Kiley more opportunities to do stand-up, which he used to do twice a week in New York clubs. Now, with more time on his hands, he can travel further — he plays the Jewish Theatre of New England in Newton on Jan. 19.

“I haven’t had to do this in 14 years,” laughs Kiley. “It’s hard to go back to how you used to do things. It’s funny. I think I was originally hired because I did topical stuff in my act, but I stopped doing that because I just used all those jokes on ‘Conan.’ Now, I’m starting to get back to that.”

In 1994, Kiley was hired as a staff writer on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and he’s been there ever since, writing jokes for Conan’s opening monologue. One of Kiley’s highlights was writing for Conan’s appearance at the White House Correspondents dinner in 1995.

However, these are dark times for the show. The strike forced “Conan” into hiatus. And the star of the show decided to pay the non-writing staff their salaries over the holidays so they wouldn’t get laid off. Last week, the show returned to television, sans writers.

“Conan’s in a tough spot,” explains Kiley. “There’s a lot of pressure on him to come back. I don’t fault him at all.”

In fact, Kiley sees the return of the show without writers as a blessing for the WGA strike. He says people will see the difference between shows with writers and those without. So far, since the show returned on Jan. 2, Conan has aired videos he made during the hiatus, spun his wedding ring on the table to eat up time and supported his fellow writers (he’s a member of the WGA) with his “strike beard.”

And since scripted television is now defunct, people will also be fed a heaping plate of reality programming and, while award-winning shows like “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” already have an audience, the question remains: How much reality television can people take?

“I’m hoping people get sick of [reality television],” says Kiley. “I notice, on some of these shows, the inarticulateness of people. I can go to a coffee shop and hear these conversations. But you watch an Alan Sorkin show and hear people eloquently express how they feel. I’m hoping they’ll be a new appreciation for a well-written show.”

Kiley grew up in Newtonville, a mere four miles from Conan O’Brien’s Brookline home, and he always enjoys his hometown gigs, especially when there’s a familiar face in the crowd.

One time, his old babysitter was in the crowd and he could hear her say to her friend, “Well, that’s not true” during some of his jokes.

“I was laughing,” says Kiley. “These people know the truth about me.”

Kiley knew of Conan when they were kids through Sunday school, but was never friends with him. Prior to meeting him professionally, Kiley had only seen him on interviews where he appeared to have an “urbane, Noel Coward aspect” to him.