Max Headroom is a fictional British artificial intelligence, known for his wit and stuttering, distorted, electronically sampled voice. It was introduced in early 1984. The character was created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, 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. 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 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. ‘I particularly wanted to get that phony bonhomie of Baxter,’ Frewer said in an 1986 interview, ‘Max always assumes a decade long friendship on the first meeting. At first sight he’ll ask about that blackhead on your nose.’
Max’s presenter character in ‘The Max Headroom Show’ had an origin story developed in the television movie ‘Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future’ which in turn became the pilot for an American series which ran from 1987 to 1988. The first episode was presented in an extended edition to American audiences in 1986 on Cinemax. Though officially two seasons, only fourteen episodes were created, and only thirteen aired. The background story provided for the character presents a dystopic look at a run-down near-future dominated by television and large corporations. Max Headroom was shown to have been created from the memories of Edison Carter, a hard-hitting TV news reporter. The character’s name came from the last thing Carter saw during a vehicular accident that put him into a coma: A bar with a sign warning of low clearance, marked ‘MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M.’
On November 22, 1987, two Chicago television stations had their broadcast signals hijacked by an unknown person wearing a Max Headroom mask. The first attack 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 a ‘Doctor Who’ episode. 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.