TORONTO — It seems Andrea Martin’s role as irrepressibly madcap matriarch on Working the Engels extends behind the scenes, too.
On this day, the decorated 67-year-old SCTV comedian is seated next to her new co-star Kacey Rohl, and the discussion shifts to the third episode of the new Global series, which debuts Wednesday night.
It’s an instalment that features inspired bits of physical comedy both from Martin — who gyrates her way through a hip-hop dance routine — and Rohl, whose character awkwardly navigates a stripper pole.
Here, Martin grabs hold of the conversation.
“I can’t believe I haven’t talked to you about that, by the way,” said Martin, turning to her co-star. “That is such amazing physical comedy you do on that pole. It was shot beautifully. It was so funny, really — the whole episode should be about that.”
She continues, lavishing more praise on Rohl as well as fellow cast members.
“I’m like, in awe when I watch them all,” Martin added. “I wish I weren’t in it. I (think) they’re so talented — like a mother would. It was so good.”
Of course, nurturing nature aside, the seemingly down-to-earth Martin doesn’t share much in common with her unhinged, self-obsessed Engels counterpart, whose dysfunctional, heavily indebted brood of three children is forced to band together to save the family’s storefront law firm when her husband suddenly dies.
Azura Skye plays divorced, recovering pill-popper Sandy, Benjamin Arthur portrays ex-con ne’er-do-well brother Jimmy while Rohl is the put-upon family fulcrum — and the only one with a law degree.
The show was created by Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality) and Jane Cooper Ford, and Martin said that having women at the head of the sitcom — once a rarity — lent the show a different feel.
“The female energy was fabulous, actually,” said Martin, a two-time Emmy winner and Tony Award victor. “Not for any political reason — ‘yeah, come on, it’s our turn!’ — it’s just there was a different vibe to it, for sure.
“It was lovely, lovely to have. Not that I wouldn’t be happy working with guys but . . . it just feels slightly different. I can’t put my finger on it.
“But it definitely feels like a different vibe,” she added, “100 per cent.”
More familiar is the impressive lineup of guest stars who have already filmed appearances, a number that includes Colin Mochrie, Kids in the Hall veteran Scott Thompson, Argo actor Victor Garber and Martin’s old SCTV pals Martin Short and Eugene Levy.
In the case of those last two, Martin says the bond she still shares with her old comedic collaboators allows for a comfortable chemistry.
“We talk three or four times a week, all of us,” she said. “It just felt like an extension of being in somebody’s living room, except there were cameras.
“We both have the same work ethic, Marty and I do. We all come from the same training, so we’re up to improv any time, but both of us are perfectionists. We’re very methodical about getting the scene so it’s right and making sense and then being silly.
“So I think we had shortcuts in which to work. It was great, and so comforting when you work with somebody that you work so well with.”
Skye, meanwhile, shrugs away Martin’s modesty and says it’s “solely a testament” to the screen and stage actress that such marquee guests would come out to support a show that “hasn’t even aired yet.”
Indeed, it’s Martin who receives the greatest share of her co-stars’ unsolicited, unqualified praise.
“When we showed up on set, she created this nice ease and simplicity to everything,” said Arthur, before he and Skye commiserated on occasionally worrying that their performances were too broad.
“There definitely have been a couple times (where I’ve thought) ’Are we crossing the line into the absurd? Are we slipping on banana peels?”’ Skye said. “But it seems to be rooted in something very grounded and very real, and once again that is Andrea. You watch her stuff and it’s very much like that.
“It is on the hilarity end of the spectrum but at the same time it comes from a very real, very truthful, organic place.”
Jason Priestley, who directed four episodes of Engels, calls Martin simply “phenomenal.”
“She is so fearless and she is so committed to every choice that she makes,” he said. “She is an absolute genius and to have the honour to be able to work with her, it was an absolute pleasure.
“Comedy is very technical,” he added. “She is an amazing tactician. She has such a wealth of knowledge and understanding of comedy and what it is that makes comedy funny . . . that she’s able to work with the writers and the directors like myself and work on material when it’s not working 100 per cent. And we’re able to elevate the material and fix things on the fly and make them better.
“She really is an amazing talent and to be able to have the opportunity to work with her was really something special.”
For Martin, the timing of the show was fortuitous. She’d just finished her run in the Broadway revival of Pippin (for which she won a Tony) when Engels was to start shooting last October.
She adored the script and also valued the opportunity to work in Toronto, where she owns a house in the High Park neighbourhood that she coveted long before buying it.
NBC acquired the show midway through production on its first season, though no premiere date south of the border has been announced.