The concept behind Hustling America was to follow in the footsteps of history’s most notorious road hustlers. Con men would travel from town to town, fleecing the locals by offering to bet on anything from the colour of the next car to drive past, to the number of melons on the back of delivery truck. These bets were always heavily skewed in the hustler’s favour – thanks to the help of accomplices or insider knowledge.
Presenter Alexis Conran and I had already made four series of The Real Hustle together and shared an appreciation of magic and art of pulling the wool over people’s eyes, so the opportunity to take those skills on the road in the US was very appealing.
For the writing process we researched the work of two hustlers in particular: Titanic Thompson, a legendary trickster and gambler; and Amarillo Slim, a professional poker player. Between them they’d won money by outrunning racehorses on foot; challenging Al Capone to throw a lemon over a high-rise building and getting a dog to fetch a marked stone from the bottom of a river.
From the very beginning we wanted to film a mixture of historical bets and some brand new ideas that were in the same spirit but updated for the modern world.
One of Amarillo Slim’s most famous bets involved him claiming that he knew someone that could eat quail every day for a whole month. Apparently this is impossible because quail’s strong flavour will turn anyone’s stomach after eating it several days in a row. Amarillo did indeed find someone that managed to eat quail for thirty days straight. Or rather he managed to make it look as if that person had managed to do it.
Our updated version of the bet involved Alex taking part in an all-American eating competition to eat 7lbs of seafood in a diner. We won’t spoil the surprise of how we did it, using the same technique as Amarillo did in the quail bet. It’s good to know that a clever trick can still work half a decade later.
The hustles we filmed may have been crooked, or heavily skewed in favour at the very least, but they definitely weren’t foolproof. We knew that we were likely to lose some of the time and we wanted to make the most of that jeopardy. It meant that if something went wrong it would potentially have a big impact on the rest of the journey.
The first bet in the series is one of Titanic Thompson’s: challenging someone to throw a walnut over a building. Alex offered this wager to the manager of a car rental company in order to get a free upgrade. Of course there was a trick: not all walnuts are created equal. Benny, the dealership manager, was throwing a regular walnut. Alex’s walnut on the other hand was filled with lead, which made it fly considerably further. As it turned out Benny was a very athletic chap with a formidable throwing arm.
Thankfully Alex did indeed win in the end, managing to throw his dodgy walnut clear over the dealership building.
But instead of a very photogenic yellow Dodge Challenger we could have ended up filming a battered old Nissan for the whole show… Thank God for “heavy” walnuts.
Production company: Icon Films
TX details: 9th, 16th 23rd September 2013, Channel 5
Commissioner: Michelle Chappell
Executive producer(s) Matt Cole for Icon Films
Tony Mousdale & Melanie Darlaston for Group M
Series Producer & Director: Martin Turner
Presented by: Alexis Conran
Post-house: Films at 59
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