THREE CAMERAS and a spotlight are trained on a Scrabble board. A cordless phone, a microphone, and a copy of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (Fourth Edition) sit on an adjacent table. These are the tools of Totally Scrabble Tuesday, a late-night call-in show broadcast from the studios of the Minneapolis Television Network (MTN), which has thrust Scrabble, if not into prime time, then at least into an hour when callers jam the phone lines, vying to play word games with a TV host. The show’s host, Hamil Griffin-Cassidy, a stubble-cheeked 25-year-old clad in a hooded sweatshirt and corduroy pants, paces about the studio. Griffin-Cassidy, who shoots and edits video for MTN by day, has more responsibility than the average letter-turning eye candy: he actually plays against live callers.
At 11 p.m., Griffin-Cassidy takes his seat at the board and hits the speakerphone button. “Heh-loo! You’re on Scrabble,” he crows, in a deep bass voice. Television viewers see an overhead shot of the Scrabble board and a split screen showing “their” tray of tiles. On screen, Griffin-Cassidy is nothing more than a voice and a pair of hands. (When the show began in 2004, some callers, hearing only his first name, thought they were playing against the town of Hamel.) Callers, often college students, but also, according to Griffin-Cassidy, “businesspeople, stoners, PhD candidates, and racists,” are collectively dubbed “Team Minneapolis.” Each caller takes one turn, suggesting a word to spell with the public tiles, which an assistant places on the board.
Totally Scrabble Tuesday is, in Griffin-Cassidy’s words, “sometimes fun, often boring, and beset by technical difficulties.” (Once, the entire game was broadcast without sound.) Caller skill varies widely. OXIME, a chemical compound, earned an impressive 28 points in one game; a misspelling of SNAIR, as in snare drum was rejected, as was an attempted play of YAB, as in yabba-dabba-do. Griffin-Cassidy, who rarely loses, maintains a relaxed attitude about the rules, once allowing a caller to score a hefty sum of points by playing the word F-CK.
Though most of the show consists of waiting for call-in players to “think” and accommodating the host’s idiosyncrasies (one evening Griffin-Cassidy left the set, mid-game, to use the restroom), Scrabble is punctuated with its own brand of color (and off-color) commentary. An evening’s show might include flattering remarks about the host’s hands, banter about his upcoming trip to the Wisconsin Dells, a random shot of his crotch, the re-telling of Laffy Taffy jokes, and curious bubbling sounds from the call-in team known as Tour de Bong. MTN’s content is not subject to FCC standards, and Griffin-Cassidy doesn’t screen calls. Predictably, crass language and vulgarity abound, though Griffin-Cassidy prefers to casually defuse inappropriate comments in lieu of hanging up. A caller expresses interest in sleeping with Griffin-Cassidy’s girlfriend? “Hey, I want to, too,” he says. “We have something in common.”
Ironically, Griffin-Cassidy says that he doesn’t particularly like playing Scrabble. But he does appreciate the way the show’s popularity has created more awareness of public-access television. Perhaps Scrabble viewers will tune in to some of MTN’s other shows. For Griffin-Cassidy, public access, and Scrabble itself, represents an uncensored forum for free expression, even when it sometimes spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E.