Max Headroom

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Max Headroom
Max Headroom character
MaxheadroomMpegMan.jpg
First appearance
Last appearance
Created by
Portrayed byMatt Frewer
Voiced byMatt Frewer
In-universe information
SpeciesArtificial intelligence
GenderMale
OccupationTelevision host

Max Headroom is a fictional artificial intelligence (AI) character portrayed by actor Matt Frewer. Advertised as "the first computer-generated TV presenter",[1] Max was known for his biting commentary on a variety of topical issues, arrogant wit, stuttering, and pitch-shifting voice. The character was created by George Stone,[2] Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton. Max was advertised as "computer-generated" and some believed this, but he was actually actor Frewer wearing prosthetic makeup, contact lenses, and a plastic molded suit, and sitting in front of a blue screen. Harsh lighting and other editing and recording effects heighten the illusion of a CGI character.[3] According to his creators, Max's personality was meant to be a satirical exaggeration of the worst tendencies of television hosts in the 1980s who wanted to appeal to youth culture yet weren't a part of it. Frewer proposed that Max reflected an innocence, largely influenced not by mentors and life experience but by information absorbed from television.[3]

Max Headroom debuted in April 1985 on Channel 4 in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, his origin story. In the movie, Edison Carter (portrayed by Frewer) is a journalist fleeing enemies into a parking garage, crashing his motorcycle through the entrance barrier reading "Max. Headroom 2.3 metres". At the time, UK clearance height signs used the phrase "Max. Headroom" as opposed to "Max. Height". While Carter is unconscious, an AI program based on his mind is created. The AI develops a personality identified as "Max Headroom", and becomes a TV host who exists only on broadcast signals and computer systems. Like Carter, Max openly challenges the corporations that run his world, but using commentary and sarcastic wit rather than journalism.[4]

Two days after the TV-movie was broadcast, Max hosted Channel 4's The Max Headroom Show, a TV program where he introduces music videos, comments on various topics, and eventually interviews guests before a live studio audience. During its second and third year, it also aired in the US on Cinemax. Max Headroom became a global spokesperson for New Coke, appearing on many TV commercials with the catchphrase "Catch the wave!". After the cancellation of The Max Headroom Show, Matt Frewer portrayed Max and Carter in the 1987 American TV drama series Max Headroom on ABC. The series returns to Carter and Max challenging the status quo of a cyberpunk world, now portraying them as allies and providing a slightly altered version of Max's origin. The series was canceled during its second year.

Max's appearance and style of speech has influenced and been referenced by different media, such as Ron Headrest, a fictional character in the comic strip Doonesbury a political parody of Ronald Reagan (who also appeared in Back to the Future Part II) and Eminem's 2013 "Rap God" video wherein the rapper resembles Max.[5] He was emulated by an unknown person in a Max mask while hijacking a local broadcast signal in 1987, later referred to as the "Max Headroom incident".[6][7] To advertise and promote Channel 4 and its subsidiary channels shifting from broadcast to digital signal, an aged Max Headroom (again portrayed by Frewer) appeared in new commercials in 2007 and 2008. Max cameos in the 2015 film Pixels.

Development[edit]

Concept[edit]

With the rising popularity of music videos with youth culture, and stations such as MTV, Channel 4 hosted a music video programme. Rocky Morton was tasked to develop a graphic to play before and after the videos, clarifying to audiences these were features of a special show and not just random music videos between TV advertisements. Taking inspiration from MTV video jockeys (VJs) and US TV hosts, Morton decided a graphic or "bumper video" would not appeal to youth nearly as much as a host with a loud personality.[3] He thought British youth would be suspicious of a youthful personality attempting to appeal to them and might instead appreciate the cynical irony of a host who appeared to be a conservative man in a simple suit and tie attempting to appeal to youth but lacking a true understanding of their culture. He saw the host as "the most boring thing that I could think of to do... a talking head: a middle-class white male in a suit, talking to them in a really boring way about music videos".[3] Morton thought the host should be computer-generated or animated. When this proved impractical, an actor was cast with the illusion of a computer generated host. Channel 4 executives enjoyed Morton's pitch and introduced Max as a character in an hour-long TV-movie before presenting him as a programme host.[3]

Producer Peter Wagg hired writers David Hansen and Paul Owen to construct Max's "whole persona",[8] which Morton described as the "very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host".[9] The background story provided for the Max Headroom character in Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was rooted in a dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations, devised by George Stone and eventual script writer Steve Roberts. The character's name came from the last thing Carter saw during a motorcycle accident that put him into a coma: a traffic warning sign marked "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" (an overhead clearance of 2.3 metres) suspended across a car park entrance.[3] The name originated well before other character aspects from George Stone, who remarked "[the phrase] 'max headroom' was over the entranceway of every car park in the UK. Instant branding, instant recognition."[10] It was decided "Max Headroom" was a comically ironic name for a host who implied he knew and understood everything, as the name indicated his head was actually empty of true knowledge and wisdom.[3]

Canadian-American actor Matt Frewer tested for the role after a friend of his had already auditioned and then suggested him instead.[3] Producer and character co-creator Annabel Jankel thought Frewer would be a good choice to masquerade as a person whose appearance was designed by a computer, seeing from his casting Polaroid photo that he had "unbelievably well-defined features".[3] Frewer was given "a few lines" of dialogue and then encouraged to improvise. His comedic improvisation of more than ten minutes impressed the production crew.[3] He was inspirated by character Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, recalling in 1987, "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."[11]

While Hansen and Owen continued writing Max's lines in the TV movie and music video programme episodes, Frewer always improvised more dialogue during filming and was encouraged to do so.[8] Hansen and Owen later wrote the 1985 book Max Headroom's Guide to Life from Max's personal perspective.[12]

In discussing Max's fictional origin story, it was first proposed that he could be an AI created to stand in for a human TV host who was late for his own show. The backstory would be revealed through different five-minute segments during the first season of The Max Headroom Show.[3] When Channel 4 decided Max's origin would be featured in an hour long TV movie instead, an expanded story was developed and the origin was altered to now involve a crusading journalist named Edison Carter. On 4 April 1985, the TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future introduced Max to television audiences.[4] On 6 April 1985, Channel 4 aired the first episode of The Max Headroom Show.

Production[edit]

The character's classic look is a shiny dark suit often paired with Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Other than the publicity for the character, the real image of Max was not computer-generated. Computing technology in the mid-1980s was not sufficiently advanced yet for a full-motion, voice-synchronized human head to be practical for a television series.[13] Max's image is actually that of actor Matt Frewer in latex and foam prosthetic makeup with a fiberglass suit created by Peter Litten and John Humphreys.[13] Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half-hour session in makeup, which Frewer described as "gruelling" and "not fun", likening it to "being on the inside of a giant tennis ball".[14] Only his head and shoulders are shown, usually superimposed over a moving geometric background. This background is a piece of CGI footage that had been generated for one of Morton and Jankel's ad agency's commercials,[3] and later, in the United States version, generated by an Amiga computer.[15] His chaotic speech patterns are based upon his voice pitching up or down seemingly at random, or occasionally becoming stuck in a stuttering loop. These modulations also appear in live performances.

The rights to the Max Headroom character were held by All3Media as of November 2007.[16]

TV history[edit]

TV movie[edit]

Max Headroom debuted in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which was broadcast on 4 April 1985.[3] It consists of material originally planned to be broken into five-minute backstory segments for The Max Headroom Show, later expanded to one hour.[3]

Set in a near future world, it focuses on Edison Carter (Frewer), a crusading and witty journalist who openly challenges the corporations that rule the world, including his own employer Station 23. Max Headroom is a secondary character, an AI created from Carter's basic brain patterns and memory fragments. As Carter exposes corruption in Station 23, Max rises as a host on independent, public access television. In the movie, Max and Edison Carter never meet.[4]

The Max Headroom Show series[edit]

Premiering on 6 April 1985, it features music videos with Max Headroom as video jockey (VJ or "veejay"). Early episodes unusually feature no introductory title sequence or end credits, beginning and ending instead with a cold open of static as if Max Headroom is hijacking the broadcast signal to speak to the audience. Channel 4 advertised Max as the "first computer-generated TV presenter" and Matt Frewer was initially under contract to withhold his identity in the role.[3] Many believed Max was a computer animated puppet, manipulated and voiced by an actor. For this reason, the series pilot won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for graphics in 1986, though the show has no computer generated graphics beyond Max's simple background lines.[17]

The show was an immediate hit in the UK, doubling Channel 4's viewing figures for its time slot within one month.[11] In its second year, the programme broadened the original concept to include a live studio audience and celebrity interviews. Frewer did not appear in-person before the audience or share the stage with guests. Instead, he filmed in another room as Max Headroom and appeared before the audience and guests on television screens via a live feed, maintaining the illusion of an AI living in broadcast signals and computer systems.[3]

The second and third years of the show were also broadcast on the US cable channel Cinemax.[3] A Christmas special was written by George R.R. Martin, later famous for his book series A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for Game of Thrones.[3]

Channel 4 ended The Max Headroom Show after its third year. Cinemax then produced six more episodes for US audiences in 1987, rebranded as The Original Talking Max Headroom Show.[3]

Dramatic Max Headroom series (ABC)[edit]

American TV station ABC acquired the rights to create an ongoing series titled Max Headroom. Rather than a music program, this is a prime time dramatic series based on the story and concepts of the original TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. By this time, it was known to the general public that Max was not a computer generated character or puppet but rather actor Matt Frewer in prosthetics, so press for the show openly spoke of him as a lead cast member in both roles of Max Headroom and Edison Carter. Amanda Pays reprised her role from the original film.

The pilot is largely based on the original movie. The hacker who creates Max Headroom is innocent and manipulated rather than overtly villainous and callous. Max's origin is slightly different and he more strongly shares Carter's drive to expose corruption rather than only comment on it. In the pilot, Max and Carter meet, leading them to work as allies for the rest of the series. It regularly parodies and criticizes media corporations and topical news events.

Max Headroom was broadcast for two short seasons from 1987 to 1988. Producer Peter Wagg attempted to sell a movie concept called Max Headroom for President, but it was not picked up.[3] Shout! Factory released Max Headroom: The Complete Series on DVD in the United States and Canada on August 10, 2010.[18]

Television hijack[edit]

An unidentified man wears a Max Headroom mask during the broadcast signal intrusion.

On November 22, 1987, an unidentified person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume carried out broadcast signal hijacking of two television stations in Chicago, Illinois. During each signal interruption, the hijacker speaks with distorted audio and stands before a swiveling corrugated panel to mimick Max Headroom's geometric background effect.[19] He referenced Max Headroom's endorsement of Coca-Cola, the TV series Clutch Cargo, WGN anchor Chuck Swirsky, and "all the greatest world newspaper nerds" (a reference to WGN's call letters, which stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper").

The first "Max Headroom incident" was 25 seconds during the sports segment of WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. news broadcast. Approximately two hours later, the second signal hijacking was about 90 seconds during PBS affiliate WTTW's broadcast of Doctor Who ("The Horror of Fang Rock").[6][7][20] The second video ended with the hijacker apparently exposing buttocks and being spanked with a flyswatter. Normal programming then quickly resumed. These video pirates have never been identified.[21]

Planned reboot[edit]

On July 29, 2022, AMC announced a series reboot, with Matt Frewer as Max.[22]

In other media[edit]

Max made celebrity cameos and sampled appearances in other TV series, books,[23] the Art of Noise song "Paranoimia" and its video (which became a top-40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100),[24] and advertisement campaigns.[16] He was the spokesman for New Coke (after the return of Coca-Cola Classic), delivering the slogan "Catch the wave!" (in his staccato, stuttering playback as "C-c-catch the wave!").[11] After the two TV shows and the Coke advertising campaign ended, Peter Wagg attempted to sell a movie concept called Max Headroom for President but did not find a company willing to produce it.[3]

In 1986, Quicksilva released a Max Headroom video game, developed by Binary Design, originally for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and ported to the Commodore 64, Amstrad, and Amiga.[25] In 1987, Comico announced a thirty-two page Max Headroom 3-D comic, written by Mike Baron and illustrated by Arnold and Jacob Pander[26] but the issue was never published.

Max returned to television TV in 2007. He appeared in an advertisement series for Channel 4 to raise awareness for the digital switchover. These advertisements were directed by original creator Rocky Morton. Matt Frewer portrayed Max, with make up that showed the AI had aged considerably and was in ill-health, implying he belonged to obsolete analogue television and had no place with new digital technology.[16] Matt Frewer played Max Headroom for a brief cameo scene in the 2015 movie Pixels, a narrative that featured many digital characters from 1980s video games.

In popular culture[edit]

Max Headroom has inspired many imitations and spoofs:

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wogan, Terry (host) (14 August 1985). "Max Headroom". Wogan. BBC1.
  2. ^ "YouTube video at the ICA with Stone, Morton and Jankel". Archived from the original on 22 March 2016. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Live and Direct: The definitive oral history of 1980s digital icon Max Headroom". The Verge. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
  4. ^ a b c Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. Channel 4 TV-movie (April 4, 1985).
  5. ^ a b "See Eminem as Max Headroom in Lewinsky-Referencing 'Rap God' Video". Spin. 27 November 2013. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
  6. ^ a b Ross, Andrew (1990). "Techno-Ethics and Tele-Ethics: Three Lives in the Day of Max Headroom". In Mellencamp, Patricia (ed.). Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Indiana University Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-253-33617-1.
  7. ^ a b Schwoch, James; White, Mimi; Reilly, Susan (1992). Media Knowledge: Readings in Popular Culture, Pedagogy, and Critical Citizenship. SUNY Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-7914-0825-4.
  8. ^ a b Ward, Brian (2010). Live On Network 23: The Story Of Max Headroom [Max Headroom: The Complete Series bonus feature] (DVD). Shout Factory.
  9. ^ "TV's Hall of Flukey Fame". People. 25 August 1986. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  10. ^ Ward, Brian (2010). Live On Network 23: The Story Of Max Headroom [Max Headroom: The Complete Series bonus feature] (DVD). Shout Factory. Event occurs at 3:20.
  11. ^ a b c "Mad About M-M-Max". Newsweek. 20 April 1987.
  12. ^ Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Photo essay: the wildest Max Headroom merchandise of the 1980s". The Verge. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  13. ^ a b Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Photo essay: how make-up and visual effects brought Max Headroom to life". The Verge. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  14. ^ "Max Headroom's Matt Frewer Interview". G4tv.com. Retrieved 3 March 2010 – via Internet Archive.
  15. ^ Foust, John (October 1987). "Max Headroom and the Amiga". Amazing Computer Magazine. Vol. 2, no. 10.
  16. ^ a b c Sweney, Mark (29 November 2007). "Channel 4 resurrects Max Headroom to promote digital channels". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  17. ^ "Explore the Awards | BAFTA Awards". Bafta.org. Retrieved 29 October 2013.
  18. ^ "Max Headroom: The Complete Series". Shout! Factory. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  19. ^ Knittel, Chris (25 November 2013). "The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack". Motherboard. Vice.
  20. ^ Forester, Tom; Morrison, Perry (1994). Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. MIT Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-262-56073-9. [S]everal other instances of uplink video piracy have occurred [...] WTTW (Channel 11 in Chicago) was also overridden by a 90 second transmission, this time by a man in a Max Headroom mask smacking his exposed buttocks with a fly swatter.
  21. ^ Gallagher, Sean (22 November 2017). "Thirty Years Later, "Max Headroom" TV Pirate Remains at Large". Ars Technica. Retrieved 14 December 2021.
  22. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (29 July 2022). "'Max Headroom' Series Reboot Starring Matt Frewer In Works At AMC Networks From Christopher Cantwell & Elijah Wood's SpectreVision". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 31 July 2022.
  23. ^ Loder, Kurt (14 September 1986). "Max Mad Max Headroom, Who's Getting His Ccomputer-Generated Smarmy Mug on Everything from TV Shows to T-Shirts, Has the Video Generation Going..." South Florida Sun Sentinel. Retrieved 29 March 2020. [T]here was a book market for what had become Max mania: Steve Roberts whammed out a picture-book novelization of his film script, and Owen and Hansen came up with Max Headroom's Guide to Life (the most suitably pompous title they could concoct), and both sold well.
  24. ^ "Paranoimia (Remix)". Billboard. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  25. ^ Mclaughlin, Robert (19 March 2008). "Max Out: The Max Headroom computer game remembered". Den of Geek. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  26. ^ Elliot, Brad (Summer 1987). Thompson, Kim (ed.). "Max Headroom 3-D". Amazing Heroes Preview Special. No. 5. Fantagraphics. p. 78.
  27. ^ Trudeau, G. B. (October 1995). Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury. Andrews and McMeel. p. 217. ISBN 0-8362-0436-0.
  28. ^ Boyar, Jay (22 November 1989). "'BACK TO FUTURE II' ANOTHER GOOD TIME WITH TIME". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  29. ^ Libbey, Dirk (1 April 2018). "5 Ready Player One References From The Book We Missed In The Movie". Cinema Blend. Retrieved 12 July 2020.
  30. ^ Suellentrop, Chris (24 July 2015). "All These Things Actually Happen In Adam Sandler's Pixels". Kotaku. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  31. ^ Wilson, Tim. "Pixels: Going From 8-bits to Epic is No Game". Creative COW. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  32. ^ Knight, David (17 May 2017). "Muse 'Dig Down' by Lance Drake". Promo News. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  33. ^ "Selena Gomez & the Scene: When the Sun Goes Down | PopMatters". Archived from the original on 10 November 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2021.
  34. ^ "Meet the people who will make your life miserable in a new Wasteland 3 trailer". PC Gamer. 10 June 2020. Retrieved 22 March 2021.

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