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From a BAFTA win for cult comedy Peep Show to a DGA Award for her work on US political sitcom Veep, 2AM's Becky Martin is a director with serious comedy credentials. 

Her impressive CV also boasts a healthy stash of gong-laden ads including a Cannes Lion for her British Airways Safety Film series. She tells Carol Cooper about “comedy bones” and why reputation trumps gender. 

Above: Becky Martin 


Why are there so few female directors working in advertising and is the situation improving? 

I have no idea why there’s such a universal deficit of female directors across advertising, TV and film, other than to say the obvious. Pretty much every female contemporary currently working (that I know personally) happens to have no children, including me. That’s not the only reason, of course, but has to figure as part of the ‘why?’

I’d like to think that the situation is improving gradually, but it can be hard enough to establish yourself as a director and to be given opportunities when you’re younger. I really started working properly as a director when I was 34… it took me six years until I was able to direct my first sitcom and luckily, I now have plenty of opportunities in my 50’s, but had I stopped to have a family?  I doubt I’d have been able to catch up if I was starting out as an older director.  It’s a bit of a Catch 22, but I’m optimistic that it’ll get better. Probably just as I’m retiring. 

The old adage that timing is the key to good comedy still holds, but for me, it’s also about truth.

Do you feel that female ad directors are often overlooked for comedy scripts and given more ‘girlie’ subject matter?

Comedy is not an easy thing to get right and therefore remains a bit of a specialty.  This is true of TV and I’m sure of ads too.  So if you’re a female director who doesn’t have a track record with comedy then yes, I’m sure you’re going to be overlooked for comedy scripts initially.   

Agencies and clients want, at the very least, a guarantee that jokes aren’t going to be missed and best case, they’re going to want comedy scripts to be enhanced and funnier in the cut than they’d seen on paper.  But to be honest, I don’t think gender truly comes into play here.   

I think you have to work at being trusted with comedy whether you’re male or female. I don’t feel I get overlooked at all with comedy ads, because comedy is what I’m known for.  I don’t feel I’ve been given more ‘girlie’ subject matter, I’ve been approached for all sorts of stuff that you’d imagine would predominantly be in the male domain… betting, football, cars.  This is one instance where reputation with comedy completely wins out over gender.

Veep – Season 5: Inauguration (Preview)

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What is the secret of being a good comedy director? You started off writing comic sketches so does it help if you write too?

Maybe it helps a little with knowing how structure can help land a joke, but if you have “comedy bones” then you don’t have to be a writer too.  It’s such a strange alchemy, that I’m not sure how you can ever know exactly what the secret is.  Sometimes I’ve sat in auditions and seen the same funny lines performed well by many people, but you can’t act comedically, or it would look too broad and be unfunny and you can’t be too dramatic or jokes would get squashed.  

It’s always fascinating to me that out of say, 10 performances in an audition, even if all are of a high performance standard, perhaps only two people will truly make you laugh.  You certainly can’t bottle it and come up with a patented formula, you’ve got to instinctively know what works.  

Ultimately, if something is funny you’ll laugh anyway, whether there’s a formula or not, or whether you’re aware of it or not. 

The old adage that timing is the key to good comedy still holds, but for me, it’s also about truth.  Something about the gag or the performance has to somehow ring true for it to be truly funny.  Oh, and unless you’re just starting out and having to accept every job, the other secret is simple.  Only say yes to scripts and ideas that you personally find funny.  

British Airways – British Airways Safety Video (Director's Cut)

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How do you coax comic performances from actors not normally known for the LOLs, such as Gillian Anderson and Kylie? Do you have to engineer a mood of hilarity on set?

A mood of hilarity on set would be too exhausting to keep up… ha! It’s making me tired just thinking about it. A relaxed atmosphere usually works and ideally a little bit of time to try things out. Gillian and Kylie are naturally both funny and they were also performing as themselves… that’s slightly trickier as you automatically have to allow yourself to be self-deprecating. They both did that brilliantly.  

Microsoft Xbox – Out Dance Kylie

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Do you find much of a difference between US and UK comedy styles? Is US comedy more gag-packed, while UK more restrained, more about what is left unsaid? Looking at Peep Show and the British Airways Safety Film there is a lot of humour in pauses and small non-verbal gestures...

There’s definitely more of a rhythm to US comedy, you sense when a gag is on its way as the set-up feels slightly more signalled.  It can often be subtle, but maybe if you’re used to that rhythm, then when the gag finally comes, there’s perhaps more of a pay-off? “Hello gag, I’ve been expecting you”.  

Ultimately, if something is funny you’ll laugh anyway, whether there’s a formula or not or whether you’re aware of it or not. America does have a great track record with good comedy, after all. Perhaps British humour can take more licence with pauses and visual cues because we’re used to not always expressing ourselves verbally? Our collective politeness means we get why someone would pull a face rather than offer up an opinion.  

Peep Show – In The Cupboard

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What’s the funniest ad you’ve ever seen?

It’s a shame to have to say it, but the really funny memorable ones are getting quite old now. There’s Hamlet Photo Booth, of course… pretty much perfect because it’s led by performance and one tight static frame. 

All time funniest?  My personal favourite has to be the series of Cinzano spots with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins…. see, I told you they were getting old!  Script and performance perfection and with the added bonus of a known gag, so it was almost like watching a classic sketch. Even though you know the punchline, you enjoy the anticipation of a spilt drink and the ingenious variations of the same joke.  Time for another comedy classic… I put that challenge out there.  Come on.

Cinzano – Rossiter/Collins - Plane

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