After working in the comedy scene and finding success in front of the camera, things really took off for writer Nelu Handa behind the scenes when she appeared in Season 1 of Baroness von Sketch Show. Handa soon joined the writers’ room on Baroness and has never left, including writing on the upcoming Season 5. She also has written on both seasons of the CTV comedy series JANN. By making her mark both in front of and behind the camera, Handa has been able to keep pushing for more and more on-screen representation.
One major point of impact Handa has made was on JANN in Season 1. As part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries, she recently detailed the driving force behind what led her to make a suggestion in her interview for the show that pushed for more representation. She also shared why other young writers shouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing, and what it’s been like working in largely female writers’ rooms on series like JANN and Baroness. Handu also discusses what led her to create YAS Kween, the monthly comedy show for those who identify as Women of colour/ethnicity (WOC) to share their voices and develop their craft.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: How did you get into writing for television? What was your journey into the business like?
Nelu Handa: I started in business, in the corporate world, for 10 years. I started doing improv in 2010, and that evolved into me getting an agent. From there, I booked a commercial, and when that contract was up, I realized I should dive in head first to this career. At the beginning, I was doing a lot of acting and comedy roles. I then got a new agent and did a sketch on Season 1 of Baroness von Sketch Show.
Carolyn Taylor, one of the Baronesses, took a liking to me and we talked a lot on set. She asked me later on if I wanted to meet up and have a talk. We had dinner and she said to submit a package because they wanted to expand their writing room. That was writing sketches, which I was already kind of used to, so that was a really fun thing to do. I submitted it and got into the room, which was wonderful. Baroness is a juggernaut, so having that as my first credit on my resume got me into a lot of other people’s minds.
It kind of grew from there. I worked on every season of Baroness since then and have done a bunch of different rooms now. It’s evolved into something that I really love doing. It’s very challenging to be a writer, but I like that stuff. It’s been a really good experience for me so far.
TTVJ: I think I first saw you as Jade on Season 2 of Workin’ Moms. Do you prefer being in front of or behind the camera?
NH: I do like being in front of the camera. There’s something lovely about lifting words off a page from what the writer writes. But then being able to create a whole world, as a writer, it’s such a creative process. It’s very hard, don’t get me wrong, and I’m going through creating a pilot right now with my writing partner and it’s a long process that takes a lot of patience. I do enjoy writing and creating worlds and characters I’ve never seen before. I’m pretty lucky that I get to do both right now, but can see myself leaning more into writing in the future.
TTVJ: I remember talking to Jennica Harper prior to Season 1 of JANN and she told a story about your interview. She said you came in and proposed that a character that was written as a white, straight man instead be a young woman of color. Had you ever done anything like that before and why did you know you had to suggest that in your interview?
NH: I hadn’t done anything like that before. I actually talked to a bunch of friends before I did the interview and said, ‘Should I say this?’ I felt like it may put me in a bad position because you never know how someone is going to react to hearing that the thing they’ve maybe thought about a lot isn’t going to work in your mind. Fortunately, I went into a very warm interview with Jennica and Leah [Gauthier, JANN co-creator], and they were more than receptive.
I think the thrust for that came not only because I am a woman of color, but also because I created and produce a monthly comedy show called YAS KWEEN. It’s for women of color doing comedy, and for me, just looking at what the talent pool is, there’s more than enough people. So I wanted to take that moment to showcase diversity and the fabrics of what Canada is. I just think of the brown kids out there that don’t have an example of themselves on TV. There are more diverse faces on TV now, but I didn’t have that. I didn’t have Mindy [Kaling] growing up. Having some representation is a very important thing for me, and any time I can be an advocate for it I try and take those opportunities.
TTVJ: Would you then advise other young writers to take a similar approach?
NH: Yes. Speak your truth. I don’t think anyone is looking for writers that don’t say the thing that’s on their mind. Be yourself and say the thing that you really see clearly that some other people may have their blinders up about. Just go for it and be that person that challenges things.
TTVJ: You’ve written on shows like JANN and Baroness which both are run by women and have writers’ rooms primarily made up of women. Do you get a sense that the balance of men and women in rooms is really improving, or do you think you’ve just been very lucky?
NH: The experiences that I’ve had have been quite lovely and charmed. I know that there are more women in the rooms run by women, and I adore it. There is this feeling of community. The JANN room is a dream because I can talk and say things and everyone is very supportive of ideas. There’s no taking anyone down. I’ve been in rooms that are more difficult, and I don’t want to generalize, but they have been run by men. It’s a completely different feeling.
That idea that women have trouble in the workplace speaking up is true for writers too. There’s a lot to be said about being an advocate for women. It’s just inherently harder for us to speak over the loud guys in the room. Women will cook an idea fully in their brain before they say it, and the guys will just shoot out whatever they think at the moment. That’s just our conditioning, right? It almost feels like we’ve had less opportunities so we need to make a better impression every single time. We don’t want to be seen as a negative, and instead like someone that can hold their own in the room. I’ve been in rooms where I haven’t felt like myself whatsoever, and that has a lot to do with the culture that the showrunner creates.
TTVJ: You mentioned the YAS Kween events. Can you share a little about what those are and why you started them?
NH: It’s a monthly show for women of color doing comedy. I started it back in 2015 and we just celebrated four years. It’s remarkable because I just had an idea for a month and it kept going. I was an under-working actor at that moment and needed something to do. Producing that show filled a void in my life and let me test out my producing muscles.
Being in the comedy community since 2010, I’ve met and know a lot of people. I’ve paid attention to who is rising on the scene, and giving opportunities to women of color is something that’s inherently important to me. I did a program at Second City called the Bob Curry fellowship and it’s about creating a bigger talent pool of people of color. We put on a show and it was 14 people of color, and the women, we all gelled really well. We mounted it at Second City and remounted it up here at Bad Dog Theater Company. Julie Osborne, who is the assistant director, just gave me the opportunity to try something out. It was a time when people were needing diversity to happen.
I took that chance to give a night to women of color. It’s paid off and been wonderfully satisfying. It creates such strength among people, and they feel more confident as performers when they get up there. It’s a very, very warm house with an audience that is there for it. The standup scene is filled with white men and it’s very tricky to find your allies. I’m not much in that scene so I don’t know, but I do know when the standups come and perform on our show they love it. It’s supportive and a place where they are encouraged because their jokes go over well. They speak about something very specific to their experience so with a room full of people of color, that will resonate very loudly with them.
We also have other comedic acts, including the house team that does improv. That’s been a great opportunity for people to see that there’s other things in comedy that they can do as well.
TTVJ: We are slowly starting to see Canadian TV become more diverse on and off screen, though more can still be done. What positive steps or initiatives do you see being implemented that are really helping push diversity forward?
NH: There’s a chain effect. If people see examples of other people actually making it and have careers, I think they are more encouraged to enter that talent pool and work at it. From the top down too, the people in charge do have a responsibility that their room represents what their show is trying to say. I think that most shows these days are trying to say ‘hey, we’re part of the fabric of culture,’ instead of being something that’s only for white guys.
I get interviews quite a lot, and am in many different rooms, and I know there is a desire to create a shift in what the room looks like. It comes from the top down for sure. As an individual, you have to feel like you have a future in it to keep going with it, because it’s a very up and down career. But if you have talent, drive, and are a great person to work with, then the opportunities will open up for you.
TTVJ: What projects in the new year from you should we keep an eye out for?
NH: I was in the room for Season 5 of Baroness and then JANN Season 2. I have my own development project right now with a network. I’ll be working on that and all good things keep coming up. I do day parts on TV shows, too. So I pop in and out all over.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.