Did Max Headroom Warn Us About the Future of AI?

Image via YouTube

The time setting? Sometime in the near future/ The place: A dystopian world dominated by television and large corporations. The character? A cyborg–driven by artificial intelligence–challenging the corporations and systems, while at the same time, creating its own persona to influence the public.

This may sound like a description of Tron, 1984, or BladeRunner, but it is in fact a fabricated personality used to parody the changing world of television networks and warn us about the future while going on to become a defining part of the 1980s.

There are certain defining images from the 1980s that have gone on to represent the decade. Acid wash jeans, perms, and ALF, these are just a few of those images you may be picturing.  and then there’s Max Headroom. As long as you owned a TV during the 80s, flipped through‌ a magazine, or looked up at a billboard, it was difficult to not see him.

Max headroom was a fictional, artificial intelligence character considered to be the first computer-generated TV host. And you could make the case that this character–from a commercial standpoint–is the spokesperson for the entire decade.

You may remember Max headroom from Coke commercials or Back to the Future 2, but the character was much more than that and actually had a full backstory, mythology, and even a TV show and movie. This was a creation that was equal parts performance art,  ingenuity, creativity, commerce, prediction, and a lot of absurdity. 

But what are the origins of this character, and how would he fit into the pop culture landscape during the 1980s?

The Early Conception Of Max Headroom

We live in an age now with an endless amount of entertainment channel “personalities” that seem to be a dime a dozen. Mix that with social media influencers and we are flooded with cookie-cutter personas bombarding us on all forms of media. Our networks are filled with talking heads and even in regular life, it seems as if everyone wants to be a star.  

This was no different In the ‘80s–but there were just fewer platforms to appear on. But with the growth of cable tv, entertainment programs, and news channels, there was more demand for perfectly manicured presenters to appear on TV. The 1980s gave us this big explosion of insincere and egotistical TV personalities and this created an idea that would develop into the character of Max Headroom.

Max Headroom was a group collaboration and was actually created in the UK by a few people, including George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton. The latter two were part of an animation studio that created trendy commercials and ads. The intent was to create a unique character to introduce music videos for Channel 4 in the UK and hopefully spin it off into its own TV show.  

While trying to come up with an idea, the group noticed that in the US, TV presenters were much different from the UK. American airwaves were filled with these sterile, one-dimensional, insincere, and arrogant presenters that seemed to be on every channel. Maybe they could create something similar–but it needed to be different and unique.

A general concept was put together of a dystopian future where networks controlled everything and ratings were king. This future was all ruled by the evil Network 23. But who would this character be? From the creator’s perspective, All of the networks seemed to have these artificial talking heads staring straight at us. What about an actual artificial character? American television presenters seemed robotic, maybe the character should just be a robot. These are the foundations of Max Headroom. 

But who could play such a unique, fictional, and manufactured character? 

Matt Frewer was an American performer with a ton of improv ability. You may remember him as Russ Thomson Sr, the next-door neighbor from Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Frewer was filled with wit and was able to convey that sense of self-importance and general arrogance. But despite being an artificial character, Max headroom needed to have quirks and a personality of his own.

Frewer was the ideal choice to play this fictional robotic character that was jittery, stuttering, and cyborg-like but still emitted a sense of identity and expression–not just a robotic monotone delivery. Fewer created an extremely unique, and era-defining character, and if you watch his work, you’ll probably notice how Frewer looks to have influenced Jim Carrey, especially with his speaking style and physical mannerisms. 

But the performance of Max headroom was just part of the equation. Who exactly was this character and what made him the way he was?

The “Backstory” On Max Headroom

Like any good character, their “computer creation” needed to have a proper backstory for their TV show. There needed to be a mythology that would not only give their creation more depth and legacy, but could have a lot of spin-off opportunities into movies or comic books. This would be a true intellectual property and not just a bumper used between music videos. 

They had that basic story that Max Headroom comes from a dystopian future that is dominated by television and large corporations similar to BladeRunner. As far as the character’s origin story, The artificial intelligence used in Max Headroom is from a crusading journalist named Edison Carter. 

Carter is a hard-hitting reporter for Network 23 and tends to uncover things at the network that his superiors wish he hadn’t. Eventually, he learns that a lot of death takes place in the interest of television ratings and when he finds this out, he has to flee from his work. While making his escape, Carter journeys through an underground parking lot which leads to him getting injured in a motorcycle crash, which puts him in a coma. 

Max Headroom is the computer reincarnation of Edison Carter. He’s an artificial intelligence based on the mind and memories of Edison Carter. But why the name Max Headroom? This comes from the last thing that Carter saw before getting hit in the parking lot: A sign that said “Max Headroom: 2.3 meters”.

How the Look of Max Headroom Was Created

The story is in place, but how would they create the look of a robotic humanoid that appeared to be computer generated? A lot of people always believed that Max Headroom was a genuine computer-generated image, but there’s nothing animated or CGI based at all, which makes their creation pretty remarkable. Remember, this is the 1980s and CGI is still in its infancy. it would still be years until people even become familiar with the term computer-generated imagery.  Digital effects were also very complicated and incredibly expensive to use at this point in the 80s. They would go for more practical effects. 

To create the look of Max Headroom, they used a dark shiny suit that was actually made out of fiberglass mold. He would also wear Ray-Ban sunglasses and prosthetic molds of latex and foam makeup would enhance Frewer’s natural appearance, giving his face that more robotic look. In all future appearances, you would only ever see Max Headroom shot from the shoulders up so that the attention was focused on his head. 

Frewer would be put in front of a “computer-generated” background. This computer-generated background had nothing to do with computers and was actually the inside of a slowly rotating wire cube. This was a completely analog creation and was controlled manually.

Most of the backgrounds you see with Max Headroom were actually hand drawn. These hand-drawn animation cells were created by Rod Lord, who would also create “computer-generated” images for Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

The image of Max Headroom would then be superimposed over cell-drawn backgrounds and with extremely bright lights, it helped to give everything a true computer-generated look. In future releases, they would use actual computer-generated images that were created by the Commodore Amiga, but up until then, everything you saw was straight-up analog. In the coming years, the production team would give no clues that Max Headroom was created with practical effects to let the public think he was indeed a digital creation. 

And this was all an extremely time-consuming process. It would take four and a half hours to get all the makeup and prosthetics onto Matt Frewer, who said it was not fun and “grueling”. He also compared the entire outfit and makeup to feeling like he was on the inside of a giant tennis ball.

The Voice Of Max Headroom

The only bit of technology used with Max Headroom would be with his voice. Max Headroom spoke in a very stuttery and glitchy manner. He had a distorted and electronically sampled voice, which is what led many to believe that he was a genuine robot. 

His chaotic speech patterns had his voice pitching up and down randomly. Sometimes he would get stuck in an electronic stuttering loop.

All these different modulations were achieved using a harmonizer, which is a digital effects processor. This, combined with Matt Frewer’s performance, created the distinct speaking style of Max headroom. The Harmonizer could be used in real-world settings to allow Frewer to give an authentic live performance of the character. 

Max Headroom Makes His First Appearance

Channel Four loved the creation of Max headroom. They thought it was a perfect idea to introduce music videos, but they thought there was enough backstory and narrative that the character deserved its own introduction before the public saw him introducing videos. But without a big enough budget to make a film, they approached HBO in the US. A script was put together that included influences from the movies Network and BladeRunner–and then it was an absolute race against time to put this thing together. 

Max Headroom first appeared on British TV on April 4th, 1985 in a cyberpunk movie called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future. The movie gave us the full backstory, mythology, and state of the world that Max headroom found himself in. We learn how the artificial intelligence ingrained in Max Headroom taught him how to develop a personality that leads him to become one of the most popular TV personalities in the world. 

The Max Headroom movie was a hit and the public–now familiar with the essence of this character–saw him star as the VJ  in the music video show for Channel Four. the music video show was simply called, the Max Headroom Show and debuted just three days after Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future

When it debuted, the Max Headroom show was an instant hit, doubling the ratings of what was normally in its time slot. It ran for 3 seasons and would include celebrity interviews and a studio audience. 

The second and third seasons were then shown in the US on Cinemax. The Max Headroom show finished in England in 1986 but even won a Bafta award that year for graphics. Cinemax would create a fourth American season on its own made up of seven episodes. These were never shown on British TV. And There was even a Christmas special that first aired in the US before being shown in the Uk and was called “Max Headroom’s Giant Christmas Turkey.”

So Max Headroom was quietly appearing on North American TV, but he was about to really make a splash in pop culture as a 100-year-old beverage company was about to make one of the biggest blunders in consumer history 

The Disaster of New Coke

I’ve covered the story of New Coke in a previous article if you want to go back and check that out, but this all-time marketing disaster can be summed up as an incredibly fortunate accident. 

Here’s a quick recap: Coca-Cola was losing traction in the market and Pepsi was breathing down their necks. They decided to relaunch Coke but with a whole new flavor. Some say this was a way to start using high fructose corn syrup, and some say it was to compete with the taste of diet drinks, but, either way, they ended up changing it.

It was testing pretty well, but when they rolled it out, people HATED it. They might have liked it if it was a separate product, but it had totally replaced normal Coke. Coca-Cola wasn’t banking on the nostalgia factor when they took away a beloved favorite. 

Within less than five months, they got rid of New Coke and rebranded regular Coke as Coca-Cola Classic. Some say this was their intention all along to create a renewed interest in an old product, but who really knows?

the big commercial campaign launches for New Coke needed to be hip and fresh. Pepsi was starting to be seen as the cool cola, and Coke needed to MTV things up. The kids seemed to be into these cool music videos, veejays, technology, and counterculture and New Coke needed to capture this. What perfectly combined all these variables? Max Headroom. The company wanted New Coke to follow this new wave attitude and music that was popular in the mid-80s and take an MTV-type approach to their advertising.

Max Headroom was perfect for this advertising campaign, as it really was something fresh and different. He told everyone to catch the wave and perfectly captured this period in the 80s. We know now that New Coke failed, but Coca-Cola classic came back stronger than ever, and Max Headroom had perfectly infiltrated North American Pop Culture. 

There was now demand for more Max Headroom. The fourth season of the Max Headroom show that only appeared in the US was rebranded as the Max Talking Headroom Show. 

The Max Headroom Series

And then to further capitalize on the popularity of Max Headroom, a new Max Headroom series was created by ABC. This was an adaptation of the UK movie, but reintroduced in a pilot for American audiences. But the new writers weren’t able to exactly capture the mythology of what was created years earlier.  Eventually, things got back on track and the original Max Headroom mythology and characters were introduced to American audiences. The new Max headroom series launched on March 31st, 1987, and only lasted for two seasons of 14 total episodes wrapping up on May 5th, 1988. 

Were audiences not prepared for the satire, mythology, and striking commentary of what they thought was a seemingly one-dimensional character? Maybe, but also, this series was very expensive to make. 

The series was rerun during the writer’s strike of 1988, along with two never before seen episodes. So, Just like

  • Three’s Company
  • House of Cards
  • Who Wants to be a Millionaire
  • Sanford and Son
  • All in the Family
  • Shameless
  • American Idol
  • Dancing With the Stars
  • Whose Line is it Anyway
  • and The Office, Max Headroom is just another example of an original British creation that ended up being adapted for American audiences.

But despite the short-lived series, Max headroom was everywhere in the second half of the 1980s. He made appearances on David Letterman, Sesame Street, Back to the Future 2, and was even parodied in Spaceballs. There was also a Max Headroom video game, and he appeared on every type of merchandise you could imagine. 

The Bizarre Max Headroom Incident

And then there was an appearance that had nothing to do with Matt Frewer or anyone to do with the character and this is the infamous max headroom incident. If you’ve never heard of this before, it’s extremely bizarre. 

On November 22, 1987, two different TV stations in Chicago had their signal interrupted by an unknown person who was wearing a rubber Max Headroom mask,

The first hijacking took place on WGN-TV, Channel 9 in Chicago, just 25 seconds into a sports highlights broadcast. Two hours later, at 11 pm on a PBS affiliate, another station hijacking happened. This was during a broadcast of Dr. Who, and this time, the intrusion lasted for 90 seconds.

Through the different hijackings, the person in the Max Headroom mask and sunglasses went on some bizarre rants. He talked all about the involvement with New Coke, talked about an old TV series from the ‘60s called Clutch Cargo, and ripped on WGN sports news anchor Chuck Swirsky.

There was a homemade Max Headroom background made of corrugated metal being rocked around as the hacker spoke in a distorted voice. 

The second hacking is not PG but involves a French maid’s outfit, a flyswatter, and someone’s pants pulled down. It actually gets worse than this, but I’ll spare you the details.

WTTW had their transmitter on top of what was then the Sears Tower and desperately tried to cut the signal, but because there weren’t any engineers on duty, were unable to do so. They basically had to watch helplessly until the video hijacking ended. 

To this day, it’s never been discovered who did the hacking, but there are theories it was a disgruntled former employee of WGN. 

Max Headroom and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

The essence of Max Headroom feels more relevant today than it did in the 80s. Back then, there was the concern that the rapid growth of network television and cable channels was creating a world of information we had never encountered before.

Looking back, our technology and media influences seem quaint by today’s standards, but the lessons still remain. And Today, the growing awareness of AI and technological infiltration seems closer to home than ever, as we are absolutely inundated with tech and media influences. Back in the mid-80s, Max Headroom seemed nothing more than a futuristic parody, but with some warnings of those commercial and technological influences. Little did they know how much the tech and media world would grow and evolve, and worries of potential AI intrusion don’t seem as far-fetched as they did in the 80s. Are we living in this future that the creators of Max Headroom were worried about? 

The story and legacy of the Max Headroom character is much more profound than you may realize. The essence of this creation was a lot more than just selling new coke and introducing music videos, and now, nearly 40 years later, we’re in the midst of the artificial intelligence that Max Headroom was based on–and even warning us about.  

And this is such a deep topic as the field of (AI) is rapidly advancing and has made significant progress in recent years. There are a variety of different approaches to AI, including things like machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing. Many companies and research organizations are actively working on developing and applying AI technology, and there is a growing interest in the potential of AI to transform industries and even society as a whole. Very Max Headroom-ish. But there are also significant challenges and ethical considerations associated with the development and deployment of these AI systems.

Then it’s natural to wonder what the future of AI will look like compared to what it looked like in the 80s. 

And The truth is the future of artificial intelligence is highly uncertain and still debated among experts in the field. Some predict that AI will continue to advance rapidly and have a profound impact on society and even the economy. Potentially, this could lead to large-scale job displacement, but it could also create new opportunities and improve many aspects of our lives.

One area of AI that is likely to see significant progress in the future is in the field of  what is called “AI alignment.” This is the problem of how to ensure that AI systems will act in ways that are aligned with our human values. Another area of focus is AI explainability, which is the problem of how to make AI systems transparent and understandable to us.

And then another area of growth is AI in healthcare, which is expected to improve diagnosis, treatment, and drug discovery. 

But On the other hand, some experts are more cautious and argue that the current hype around AI is overblown, and that many of the most ambitious predictions for the technology are unlikely to come to pass in the near future.

Overall, it’s likely that AI will continue to be an area of intense research and development, with the potential to transform many industries and aspects of our society. But as the creators of Max Headroom warned, it’s important that we consider the potential risks and challenges associated with the technology and we’ll need to work to ensure that it’s developed and deployed in a responsible and ethical manner.

Just to further illustrate this AI point, and demonstrate that we seem to be living in the mythology of Max Headroom, the last few paragraphs you’ve been reading were 100% created by ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is the language model developed by OpenAI, which is an artificial intelligence company trained to generate human-like text but in a conversational model. Basically, Max Headroom without the sunglasses. Was this the future we were being warned about? It’s hard to tell, but this technology is pretty mind-blowing and even kind of frightening. 

Final Thoughts on Max Headroom

I think one of the underlying messages of the story of Max Headroom is, do we control the technology or does the technology control us? Do all our advancements hinder or benefit humanity? I think a case can be made for both. 

The story of Max Headroom is also a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of advanced technology and the loss of privacy and control that can result from its unchecked use.

The character also highlights the power of media and the way it can shape our perceptions and influence our behavior–this seems more real now than they ever could have imagined in the 80s. But even in the midst of all this, all of Max Headroom’s bizarre quirks, wit, and personality are a reminder to be yourself and to stand out in a world saturated with media. That’s a pretty timeless lesson.

The story and creation of Max Headroom was very ahead of its time, but the character remains a significant, strange, creative, and definitive part of the 1980s.