Max Headroom is a fictional British artificial intelligence (AI), known for his wit and stuttering, distorted, electronically sampled voice. He was introduced in early 1984. The character was created by George Stone,Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton in the mid-1980s, and portrayed by Matt Frewer as "The World's first computer-generated TV host" although the computer-generated appearance was achieved with prosthetic make up, as the computer technology of the time was not sufficiently advanced to achieve the desired effect. Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half hour session in make-up, which Matt Frewer described as "gruelling" and "not fun", likening it to "being on the inside of a giant tennis ball".
The classic look for the character was a shiny dark suit—which was actually a fibreglass mould—often paired with Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Only his head and shoulders were depicted, usually against a "computer-generated" backdrop of a slowly rotating wire-frame cube interior, which was also initially generated by analogue means—in this case traditional cel animation, though later actual computer graphics were employed for the backdrop. Another distinguishing trademark of Max was his chaotic speech patterns—his voice would seemingly randomly pitch up or down, or occasionally get stuck in a loop. These modulations, achieved with a harmonizer, also appeared when the character was performed live.
The character's personality was partly intended as a satire of insincere and egotistical television personalities—what Rocky Morton described as the "very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host", but also was "media-wise and gleefully disrespectful" which appealed to young viewers.
Matt Frewer was chosen for his ability to improvise, and his—according to producer Peter Wagg—"ideally exportable" Mid-Atlantic accent. The actor decided to model Max's personality after what he saw as the smarmy, self-important goofiness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ted Baxter. In a 1986 interview, Frewer said: "I particularly wanted to get that phony bonhomie of Baxter ... Max always assumes a decade long friendship on the first meeting. At first sight he'll ask about that blackhead on your nose."
The background story provided for the Max Headroom character in his original appearance comes from a dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations. The AI of Max Headroom was shown to have been created from the memories of crusading journalist Edison Carter. The character's name came from the last thing Carter saw during a vehicular accident that put him into a coma — a warning sign marked "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" (i.e., a clearance of 2.3 metres) suspended across a car park entrance.
Max Headroom originally appeared in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into The Future which was broadcast in 1985. After its success, the titular character was spun off into a veejay in the British music video program, The Max Headroom Show, whose first episodes unusually featured no introductory title sequence or end credits. The spin-off show was an immediate cult hit, doubling Channel 4's viewing figures for its slot. A second season was ordered in 1986, which broadened the original concept to include celebrity interviews and a studio audience, and was renamed to The Max Talking Headroom Show.
A further spin-off from the original film was the dramatic television series, Max Headroom, which was British produced, but broadcast in the United States, running for two seasons from 1987 to 1988. The first episode was presented in an extended edition to American audiences in 1986 on Cinemax.
The original movie was rebroadcast on More4 on 21 October 2007 as part of the 25th birthday celebrations of Channel 4.
"Shout! Factory" released Max Headroom: The Complete Series on DVD in the United States and Canada on August 10, 2010.
Max became a celebrity outside the television series. He was the spokesman for New Coke (after the return of Coke Classic), delivering the slogan "Catch the wave!" (in his trademark staccato, stuttering playback as "Ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-catch the wave!"). In the UK, Max appeared in television commercials for Radio Rentals. He also hosted an interview show on the Cinemax cable channel, called The Original Max Talking Headroom Show.
In 1987, Frewer appeared as Max Headroom in a segment for Sesame Street. He recites the alphabet with selected commentary on some of the letters.
An older-looking Max has been used in a campaign to inform UK households of the impending digital TV switchover. As he is looked after by a caretaker, he moans about being with the other "relics", and then talks about digital TV. He says that Channel 4 is now suddenly "20 years into the future", making a subtle reference to 20 Minutes into the Future. His sense of humor remains intact.
Art of Noise featured an overdubbed Max on the song "Paranoimia". Max was also featured on a single titled "Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You're a Lovely Guy)" released by Chrysalis Records.
Max Headroom also showed up at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In 1986, Quicksilva released a Max Headroom game, which was sold in the UK for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. The game's plot was to protect Edison Carter from criminals armed with guns, whilst rescuing Max.
The NewTek "Demo Reel One" featured a Max Headroom grab. Newtek was a company that developed Commodore Amiga hardware and software, including a digital video sampler
Notwithstanding the publicity for the character, the real image of Max was not computer-generated. Computing technology in the mid-1980s was not sufficiently advanced for a full-motion, voice-synchronized human head to be practical for a television series. Max's image was actually that of actor Matt Frewer in latex and foam prosthetic makeup with a fiberglass suit created by Peter Litten and John Humphreys of Coast to Coast Productions in the UK. This was then superimposed over a moving geometric background. Even the background was not actual computer graphics at first; it was hand-drawn cel animation produced by Rod Lord, who created similar "computer-generated" images for the TV series Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Later, in the United States version, the backgrounds were generated by a Commodore Amiga computer.
The series pilot won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for graphics.
The rights to the Max Headroom character are currently held by All3Media.
Signal intrusion event
On November 22, 1987, two Chicago television stations had their broadcast signals hijacked by an unknown person wearing a Max Headroom mask. The first incident took place for 25 seconds during the sportscast on the 9 O'Clock news on WGN-TV Channel 9 and two hours later around 11 o'clock on PBS affiliate WTTW Channel 11 for about 90 seconds during a broadcast of the Doctor Who episode "Horror of Fang Rock". The hacker mumbled nonsense during his interruptions, including the phrase "The Greatest World Newspaper nerds", a reference to WGN's call letters, standing for World's Greatest Newspaper. A homemade Max Headroom background rocked back and forth as he talked. The video ended with a pair of exposed buttocks being spanked with a flyswatter. The culprits were never identified.
In late 1987, following the cancellation of the American TV series, it was announced that a feature film titled Max Headroom for President would be produced. Frewer, quoted in a Marilyn Beck column in December 1987, indicated the plan was for the film, which at that point had no finalized script, to be shot in early 1988 in order to capitalize on the 1988 United States presidential election. The film was never made, possibly due to the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike which erupted three months later.
In popular culture
- Late Night with David Letterman regular Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) parodied Max Headroom phenomenon with a "Larry 'Bud' Headroom" segment.
- In the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II, in a scene set in the year 2015, the main character Marty visits a stylized 1980s-themed diner. The "waiters" are interactive electronic monitors showing the faces of Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini, portrayed in a Max Headroom-like manner, notably pitching Pepsi products, in response to Max Headroom's Coca Cola spots.
- The comic strip Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau had a character fashioned after Max Headroom named Ron Headrest. He was to be a temporary replacement for a vacationing or napping Ronald Reagan.
- The season 4 episode of Farscape, "John Quixote" featured the actor Ben Browder appearing as a Headroom-type version of his character, John Crichton.
- The Canadian rock band Sum 41 wrote a song called "Second Chance for Max Headroom" for their album Half Hour of Power.
- In the 1987 film Spaceballs, a parody of Max Headroom appears as the character Vinnie, henchman of mobster Pizza the Hutt. Vinnie also appears in 2008's Spaceballs: The Animated Series, but without Max Headroom's characteristic stutter.
- In the music video for Italian DJ Gigi D'Agostino's song "Another Way", the main character bears Max Headroom's appearance, stuttering and robotic motion.
- During the final season of the educational television series Square One Television, another parody of Max Headroom named FAX HEADFUL had his own segment. FAX's monologues typically involved statistics and estimation, such as his musing on population density, or average yearly doughnut consumption.
- Channel 8 of Sirius Radio, which features songs from the 1980s, will sometimes have a character called "Less Headroom" between songs. He is billed as Max's "younger, more sophisticated brother".
- Usher's video for OMG pays homage to him in the beginning scene.
- In the music video of Selena Gomez's song, "Love You like a Love Song" she appears in Max Headroom-like scenes.
- In the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the main character uses Max Headroom as the avatar and personality representation of his personal assistant.
- Within the episode "A Clockwork Hammer" of the Sledge Hammer series, there's a fake Max Headroom Sledge Hammer lookalike.
- In the YouTube video series titled "Baby Cakes" by Neely Comics, Max Headroom is mentioned in Diary #4
- In the late 1980s, activists in the Social Democratic Party re-cut a video interview with the Right Hon David Owen MP (now Lord Owen) in Max Headroom style, presumably in the hope of attracting the interest of young voters.
- The video for Eminem's single Rap God has him portraying Max Headroom.
- A CinemaSins YouTube video based on the film Batman and Robin included a reference to Max Headroom, replacing Alfred's appearance as a computer generated AI triggered by Barbara Wilson's discovery of the bat cave.
- In a Nostalgia Critic review of Captain N: The Game Master, Doug Walker makes fun of a CGI character seen when the main character crosses from real life to animation, saying it is like "Max Headroom meets Kermit The Frog". A MH ad is then seen, with the voice of Doug imitating him, saying, "It's not easy being g-g-g-g-green!"
- Interview with Matt Frewer
- Max to promote Digital TV — The Times Online
- Video of the Art of Noise featuring Max Headroom singing Paranoimia
- the Max Headroom project - Comprehensive Max Headroom information site