Grant Tinker is more than the man who is identified in picture captions as the husband of Mary Tyler Moore. He is, in his capacity as the man who runs MTM Enterprises, one of the most successful executives in television production.
I saw him in February at the party that followed the filming of the final episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," ending seven years of comedy glory for that particular series.
When I revisited Tinker recently at his Studio City offices, he was sitting, feet on a desk, looking totally shevelled in spite of his sneakers, white socks, denim slacks and red sports shirt. He was reflecting on the future of the kind of comedy that has been produced by MTM.
With the Mary Tyler Moore Show now sold in syndication for a fabulous price, MTM still has six shows on the CBS fall schedule: "Tony Randall Show" (which ABC cancelled the CBS picked up), plus three new series - "We've Got Each Others," the "Betty White Show" and the "Ed Asner Show."
Even with a list of entries that would be the envy of many other producers, I thought it necessary to ask if there was the possibility that the MTM type of comedy might no longer enjoy the same vogue in the future that it has in the past.
Tinker did not bridle or take offense at the question. He said: "I've had the question asked before, and I don't have an answer. Obviously I hope not. I hope there is an ongoing appetite for it. We may be out of vogue, at least for the time being. I think that we'll know that very quickly as this season develops."
When asked what has been distinctive about the MTM comedies as against those produced by Norman Lear or Danny Arnold (the producer of "Barney Miller"), Tinker said: "I don't think that it's unimportant that MTM comedies are on film, as opposed to tape. I think there is a different look. I like to think of them as little movies, as opposed to plays that are taped, which are Norman's.
"More importantly, and this isn't pretentious because I don't write them myself, I think they are more literate than most of the other material. And I don't mean funnier in every case; I think "Barney Miller" is a damn good show and funny. I think many of Norman Lear's shows have been very funny. But he goes for a harder kind of comedy than we do. So I would suppose our comedy is somewhat more gentle and more literate, though Norman might quarrel with that. But as you suggested by your question, we may have worn out our welcome for a while with this kind of material.
"I suppose that's probably a little too apologetic. If we have, it's probably because we're not doing it quite well enough. Because if you do it well, the chances are you'll never wear out your welcome."
Tinker is also going into the production of daytime fare in conjunction with Allan Ludden. He is quite frank about why he's doing this. It's cheaper to do than a nighttime series and, if you hit, the profits are relatively immediate.
Comedy series, if they last, make their money when they go into syndication. Newhart will be syndicated in 1978 after six years on the air. "Rhoda" will go into syndication at the same time after four years. Though they will not command the same fabulous price as did "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," it will help pay the bills for the years of deficit financing that MTM incurred while the shows were building an audience.
It was an unusual interview. One of television's top programming executives sitting down in a reflective mood and contemplating with candor the future of the stylish kind of comedy that we have come to expect from MTM.
My own guess is that Tinker and MTM are not going out of vogue, and that they are not slowing down so much as shifting into another gear. For a very long time they have been a class act. And even in this cynical town, it is recognized that, in the long run call will prevail.