Max Headroom

  (Redirected from Max Headroom (character))

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 to be true, but he was actually actor Frewer wearing prosthetic make-up and contact lenses while wearing a plastic molded suit and sitting in front of a blue screen. Harsh lighting and other editing and recording effects were used to 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. Matt Frewer proposed that Max also reflected the innocence of a person whose views were largely influenced not by mentors and life experience but by information absorbed from television.[3]

Max Headroom
Max Headroom character
First appearanceMax Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1985)
Last appearancePixels (2015)
Created by
Portrayed byMatt Frewer
Voiced byMatt Frewer
In-universe information
SpeciesArtificial intelligence
OccupationTelevision host

Max Headroom first debuted in April 1985 on Channel 4 in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which provided an origin story. In the movie, Edison Carter (portrayed by Frewer) is a journalist fleeing enemies in a parking garage when he is forced into a motorcycle crash, causing him to break through an 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. Developing its own personality, the AI identifies 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 through commentary and sarcastic wit rather than journalism.[4]

Two days after the TV-movie was broadcast, Max appeared as the host of Channel 4's The Max Headroom Show, a TV program where he introduced music videos, commented on various topics, and eventually interviewed guests before a live studio audience. During its second and third year, The Max Headroom Show also aired in the US on Cinemax. Max Headroom became a global spokesperson for New Coke, appearing on many TV commercials with the catch phrase "Catch the wave!" After the cancellation of The Max Headroom Show, Matt Frewer portrayed both Max and Edison Carter in the 1987 American TV drama series Max Headroom on ABC. The series returned to the idea of 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 since, 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 II) and Eminem's 2013 "Rap God" video wherein the rapper resembles Max Headroom.[5] He was also emulated by an unknown person who wore a Max Headroom mask while hijacking a local broadcast signal in 1987, later referred to by some 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 Headroom also makes a cameo in the 2015 film Pixels.



With the rising popularity of music videos with youth culture and stations such as MTV, Channel 4 decided to host its own music video programme. Rocky Morton was tasked to come up with a graphic that would play before and after the videos, make it clear to audiences these were features of a special show and not just music videos airing at random between TV commercials. Taking inspiration from MTV video jockeys (VJs) and US TV hosts, Rocky Morton decided a graphic or "bumper video" would not appeal to youth nearly as much as a host with a loud personality.[3] He also 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 not having 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 also thought the host should be computer-generated or animated. When this did not prove practical, it was decided to cast an actor who would present the illusion of a computer generated host. Channel 4 executives enjoyed the idea Morton pitched and decided to first introduce Max as a character in an hour-long TV-movie before then presenting him as a programme host.[3]

Producer Peter Wagg hired writers David Hansen and Paul Owen to construct Max Headroom'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 his original appearance 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 vehicular 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 the other aspects of the character 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 also decided "Max Headroom" was a comically ironic name for a host who implied he knew and understood everything, as the name indicated his brain/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 Max Headroom 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 as he saw it. Frewer did a comedic improvisation that lasted for more than ten minutes, impressing the production crew.[3] The actor took inspiration from character Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, saying in a 1987 interview, "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 lines for Max's appearances in the TV movie and music video programme episodes, actor Frewer always improvised more dialogue during actual filming and was encouraged to do so.[8] Hansen and Owen later wrote the 1985 book Max Headroom's Guide to Life in the voice of Max, as it was meant to be his 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.


The classic look for the character 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 was actually that of actor Matt Frewer in latex and foam prosthetic make-up 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 make-up, 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 were depicted, usually superimposed over a moving geometric background. This background was 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 a Commodore 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 historyEdit

TV movieEdit

Max Headroom originally appeared in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which was broadcast on 4 April 1985.[3] The TV movie consisted of material originally planned to be broken into five-minute backstory segments for The Max Headroom Show. The story was expanded once it was decided to introduce Max via an hour long movie.[3]

Taking place in a near future world, the story focuses on Edison Carter (also portrayed by Frewer), a crusading and witty journalist who openly challenges the corporations that rule the world, including his own employer Station 23. Max Headroom is actually a secondary character, an AI created from the basic brain patterns and memories of Carter. 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 seriesEdit

Premiering on 6 April 1985, this programme featured music videos with Max Headroom serving as video jockey or VJ ("veejay"). Early episodes unusually featured no introductory title sequence or end credits, beginning and ending instead with static as if Max Headroom were hijacking the broadcast signal in order to speak to the audience. Channel 4 advertised Max as the "first computer-generated TV presenter" and Matt Frewer was initially under agreement not to reveal he was the actor behind the role.[3] Many believed Max was essentially 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, despite there being no computer generated graphic in the show beyond the simple background lines that moved behind Max.[17]

The show was an immediate hit in the UK, doubling Channel 4's viewing figures for its time slot within a 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 that Max was 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 which served as the basis for the television show Game of Thrones.[3]

Channel 4 ended their production of The Max Headroom Show after its third year. Cinemax then produced six more episodes for US audiences in 1987, under the rebranded title of 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 simply titled Max Headroom. Rather than a music program, this was 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 who would play two roles (Max Headroom and Edison Carter). Amanda Pays returned to reprise her role from the original film.

The pilot was largely based on the original movie while changing a few elements. The hacker who creates Max Headroom was now portrayed as innocent and manipulated rather than overtly villainous and callous. Max's origin is slightly different and he is shown to more strongly share 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 show's run. The show regularly parodied and criticized media corporations as well as 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 hijackEdit

Unidentified man wearing a Max Headroom mask, as seen 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, a video broadcast featured the unidentified person speaking with distorted audio and standing before what appeared to be a corrugated panel that swiveled back and forth (mimicking Max Headroom's geometric background effect).[19] The hacker made references to 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" took place for 25 seconds during the sports segment of WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. news broadcast. Approximately two hours later, the second signal hijacking occurred for about 90 seconds during PBS affiliate WTTW's broadcast of Doctor Who ("The Horror of Fang Rock").[6][7][20] The second "Max Headroom incident" video ended with the unidentified person apparently exposing their buttocks before being spanked with a flyswatter. Normal programming then quickly resumed. The culprits behind these acts of video piracy have never been caught or identified.[21]

Planned rebootEdit

On July 29, 2022, AMC announced a series reboot, with Matt Frewer once again returning to play Max.[22]

In other mediaEdit

Max became a celebrity in other media, making cameo 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 the project.[3]

In 1986, Quicksilva released a Max Headroom video game, created by developers 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 a series of advertisements for Channel 4 aimed to raise awareness for the digital switchover. These advertisements were directed by original creator Rocky Morton. Matt Frewer once again portrayed Max, now with make-up that showed the AI had aged considerably and was in ill-health, implying he belonged to analogue television and had no place with new digital technology.[16] Matt Frewer played Max Headroom once again for a brief cameo scene in the 2015 movie Pixels, a narrative that featured many digital characters from 1980s video games.

In popular cultureEdit

Max Headroom has inspired many imitations and spoofs:

  • Late Night with David Letterman (on which Max Headroom made his US network television debut), parodied the concept with their own character Larry "Bud" Mellman, in a sketch called "Larry 'Bud' Headroom".
  • In the 1980s, Garry Trudeau created the character Ron Headrest for his political comic strip Doonesbury. The character combined the concepts of Max Headroom and then US President Ronald Reagan.[27]
  • Back to the Future Part II also featured a Max Headroom inspired Reagan, and computer-generated versions of Michael Jackson and the Ayatollah Khomeini as waiters at the fictitious Cafe '80s.[28]
  • In Family Matters Season 2 Episode 10 "Science Project" Steve Urkel builds an atomic bomb that has a Max Headroom like computer interface that looks like him. It gives the countdown before detonation, but fortunately it was all in Laura's nightmare.[29][30]
  • In the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, protagonist Wade Watts has a Max Headroom AI in his OASIS account, a detail omitted from the film.[31]
  • In the music video for "Another Way" by Gigi D'Agostino, D'Agostino turns into an animated character that looks similar to Max Headroom.[citation needed]
  • Eminem's 2013 "Rap God" video features himself portrayed as Max Headroom.[5]
  • Max Headroom appeared in the film Pixels in a cameo as manipulated footage seen in a message just before the final showdown between the Arcaders and the leader of the aliens.[32] Matt Frewer reprised his role, but unlike Max's other appearances, he was entirely computer-generated from a facial capture of the performance, which led to the visual effects team needing to manually reduce the accuracy to mimic the immobility of the facial prosthetics.[33]
  • Mel Brooks' 1987 sci-fi spoof movie Spaceballs features Pizza the Hutt's robotic subordinate Vinnie, a parody of Max Headroom.
  • BoJack Horseman Season 2 Episode 1 "Brand New Couch" (2015) includes a flashback from 1988 where BoJack invites his mother to a taping of Horsin' Around. Frustrated by her criticism, BoJack visits his friend, show's screenwriter Herb Kazzaz who tells him, "Like Max Headroom would say, your m-m-m-mom is a b-b-b-bitch!"
  • In Muse's video for their 2017 single "Dig Down", lead vocalist Matt Bellamy appears through cathode ray tube television sets as a Max Headroom styled character.[34]
  • In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the 7th season episode "The Totally Excellent Adventures of Mack and the D" the mind of Agent Coulson is trapped in a 1980s' television set that has "Max Headroom Lines" behind him, though his voice does not skip.[citation needed]
  • In the music video for "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8" (1987) by Italo disco artist Ken Laszlo, Max Headroom makes a few brief appearances on the bar's TV screen.
  • Sir Keir Starmer is portrayed as Max Headroom in his spoof Private Eye column.[citation needed]
  • In the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player Two, Wade Watts once again has a Max Headroom AI in both his ship, The Vonnegut, and in his mansion outside of Columbus, Ohio.[citation needed]
  • Neil Young's song "Pressure" from his 1986 album Landing on Water makes reference to Max Headroom.[citation needed]
  • Pop artist Selena Gomez briefly appears in costume as Max Headroom during her music video for "Love You Like a Love Song", notably criticized by critic John Bergstrom as having a "stuttering, Max Headroom non-chorus."[35]
  • In the video game Wasteland 3, a digitized version of Ronald Reagan is displayed on a computer screen in a similar manner to Max Headroom.[36]


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  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]several 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.
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  24. ^ "Paranoimia (Remix)". Billboard. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
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  32. ^ Suellentrop, Chris (24 July 2015). "All These Things Actually Happen In Adam Sandler's Pixels". Kotaku. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  33. ^ Wilson, Tim. "Pixels: Going From 8-bits to Epic is No Game". Creative COW. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  34. ^ Knight, David (17 May 2017). "Muse 'Dig Down' by Lance Drake". Promo News. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  35. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 November 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  36. ^ "Meet the people who will make your life miserable in a new Wasteland 3 trailer". Retrieved 22 March 2021.

External linksEdit