Max: Parodies

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A satirist must often suffer the same slings and arrows in return. Max Headroom has been parodied, satirized and paid homage in a surprisingly broad variety of ways.

David Letterman: "Larry Bud Headroom" (September & October 1986)

David Letterman of Network 66 unveils his answer to Max.

A few months after David Letterman had Max as a guest on his show, he jumped into signature parody mode and brought out "Larry Bud Headroom" - his regular "court jester" Larry Bud Melman (played by Calvert DeForest) transformed into a computer-generated talking head. More than just a brief joke, Letterman gave over a significant segment of his show to parody Max's talk show, with his "Headroom" answering audience questions and giving away absurd gifts (a package of fluorescent light tubes).

Letterman ran the skit twice, once on September 15, 1986, and then again on October 8. The first appearance had a very approximate version of Max's background (mostly neon-green stripes), while the second one used a bouncing lines background that may well have been borrowed from the ABC series video archive.

The joke does not appear to have been repeated a third time, and even Letterman alludes to the waning popularity of Max humor in the introduction to the second.

Tracey Ullman (with her baby) was a guest on the October show, and had been a guest on Max's show just weeks before.

Neil Young: "Pressure" (1986)

It's hard to imagine a singer/songwriter who would be less affected by the Max phenomenon than Neil Young, and something of a tribute to Max's pervasive influence that Young referenced him in a song on the "Landing on Water" album, released on July 28, 1986. It's much more homage than parody, but the lyrics about the pressures of television influence and its drive of consumerism - at least, as I read them - include:

You watch the box and the video jocks
If you could talk that could even be you up there
That's why you need Max Headroom
Too much pressure for peace on earth
Too much tryin' to get your money's worth
Too much dying
The eldorado, the mercedes benz
The job security that never ends.

The lyrics sheet has it as three words - "max head room" - but the song clearly pronounces it as Max's name. The associated video, directed by Tim Pope, also has a very Max-like vibe in Young's performance - if Max had existed around 1940.

"Maxine Legroom" (January 1987)

Maxine Legroom, tastefully cen-cen-censored here.

When Max was interviewed for Playboy magazine, the editors accompanied the interview with a layout for a rather hot blonde (female, of course) equivalent named Maxine Legroom. It's an absurd self-parody of their usual Playmate pictorials, complete with a "biography" listing Maxine's interests. It ran under the subtitle, "Max, have we got a girl for you!"

The model was Playboy regular Sondra (Sandy) Greenberg, who also appeared in Playboy Video Magazine #12, doing four Max-like segments. I haven't seen those yet...

(There is also a series of workout videos under the "Maxine Legroom" name, but if there's a connection - to either Max or this Maxine - it's escaped me.)

This issue of Playboy is in the MaxRchives; inquiries about the pictorial and interview are welcome.

MAD Magazine (March 1987-1990)

(March 1987) One of Max's two national magazine covers - this and Newsweek appeared within almost the same publication month.
The inside content of the March 1987 issue.
(September 1987) The on-the-heels Newsweek cover did not escape MAD's editors. (Newsweek even had MAD's cover in their writeup!)
(December 1987) Max's strange obsession with golf irritated even MAD's readership.
(March 1988) This comparison of Max and Don Johnson had special sting in that "Miami Vice" was one of the two shows that tanked time-slot companion Max's ratings.
(January 1990) Max's last appearance in MAD was this jab at Matt Frewer's difficulty in moving on to other roles.

Max famously appeared on the cover of the March 1987 issue of MAD, albeit wearing his Alfred E. Neuman mask. An inside sidebar was the only related content, showing that the decision to go with Max was probably a late decision by The Usual Gang of Idiots.

MAD ran a few Max items over the next few years, probably stuff that was in hand, in prep or in press as Max started to fade from the scene. Most are fairly sharp, even unkind observations... but still funny.

(Ah, MAD, I miss you...)

All images ©1987-1990 EC Publications. Thanks, guys.
This issue of MAD is in the MaxRchives; inquiries about the content are welcome.

Doonesbury & "Ron Headrest" (April 1987-1993)

The first two "Ron Headrest" strips from April 27 & April 28, 1987.
Doonesbury ©1987 G.B. Trudeau. Reprinted courtesy of the creator and Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Gary Trudeau was one of many comics artists to latch onto the Max meme, turning then-President Ronald Reagan into a digitized parody of himself, Ron Headrest. The gag outlived Max's run, as well as Reagan's. "Ron Headrest" makes 77 appearances through about 1993, which (subscribers only, sorry) can find in the online archives.

Garry Trudeau is quoted as saying that this was one of his least popular characters... but damn if it isn't the most spot-on parody of them all. Trudeau clearly "got" what made Max interesting and a little scary, and found the ideal candidate to carry the joke...

My thanks to Garry Trudeau and UPS for permitting me to include these sample strips.

The Dingo Principle (April-June 1987)

Australian PM Bob Hawke Max-Max-Maxified.

This short-lived, extremely hard-hitting Australian political satire show, loosely modeled on a television news format, lasted just ten episodes amid uproar that reached the Australian Parliament and caused international repercussions. Its working motto was "Every Bastard For Themselves."

It's thus not surprising that it had a Max-like vibe in its theme music, titles and presentation, extending all the way to a Maxified presentation of then Prime Minister Robert Hawke.

Thanks here to Blank Andrew from downunda for bringing this forgotten gem to my attention.

Sledge Hammer: "A Clockwork Hammer" (September 1987)

"Sledge Hammer" being processed by a "Clockwork Orange"-like system to become an uncontrollable AI strangely similar to someone we know.

This sitcom was a running parody of tough-guy cop shows, especially "Mike Hammer," and ran on ABC in the same years as Max's show. It was fueled by the broad humor of a punning title that used "sledge," "hammer" or both to establish a parodic theme for each episode of its two-season run. It is probably inevitable that an episode would be based on the title character becoming Max-Max-Maxified.

Some reports have the episode, which premiered on September 17, 1987, originally being titled "Max Sledgeroom" and being much more Max-focused. Objections from either the Max Headroom producers or parent ABC turned the episode as-run into a mashup of star David Rasche's over-the-top Mike Hammer parody, elements of Max, and added elements from the film A Clockwork Orange.

The Max-ish elements included the evil head of another network, VVC, "Landon Smartikoff" - a very blunt swipe at NBC's young and very successful programming head Brandon Tartikoff; Max Headroom had been prevented from naming the net of Network 66 Brandon Grosman/Grossberg but somehow this briefer, lighter poke was allowed to pass. There are also sneers at the notion of a "fourth network" coming along... in the earliest years of Fox, which no one in the industry thought could crack the monopoly of ABC-CBS-NBC (and poor stepchild PBS). Had they only kn-known...

Sesame Street (1987-8)

Mup-Mup-Muppet M-Max. What a ham.

Along with his brief appearance reciting the al-al-alphabet, Max made two appearances in the Muppet universe.

  • "Muppet Babies: 'This Little Piggy Went to Hollywood'" (1987)
Max was briefly impersonated as 'the weirdest guy on TV' by 'Baby Gonzo' in Episode 406 of "Muppet Babies," 24 Oct 1987.
  • Sesame Street Magazine (1988)
Max was portrayed as "Max Hogroom," by 'Link Hogthrob' in the Spring 1988 issue of Sesame Street magazine.

Maxine (1988)

Maxine: Allison Carter gets dig-dig-digitized, in more ways than one.

It's Rule 34 before anyone conceived of a Rule 34, much less an internet. Yes, it's Max-themed porn starring Porsche Lynn as both Allison Carter and Maxine Bedroom.

Gawd help me, here's a synopsis:

"Porsche Lynn stars as Maxine, an intrepid reporter for a busy metropolitan TV news show. She's hit upon the story of a lifetime when she meets a couple of couch potatoes who claim that by watching network television that were turned into a pair of feverishly frolicking sexual animals. Rather than just enjoy the situation, though, the couple feels the need to expose the networks nefarious scheme — to entice viewers into sex through subliminal manipulation. How causing sex among your viewers is supposed to boost ratings is a mystery, but Maxine lays bare the whole sordid story on her nightly broadcast. But now she's run afoul of the powerful network execs who created the whole plan! They plot to assassinate Maxine, but little do they suspect that her personality will be transplanted into the network's own central computer. She becomes more powerful than ever, beaming her sexy shenanigans into homes from coast to coast. A take-off on the one-time hit series 'Max Headroom,' this video uses flashly effects, gorgeous women and plenty of white-hot action to keep you intrigued from start to fiery finish. It's a cyber-sexual trip to the far side of sexual bliss — a trip you'll be happy to take again and again."
This video is in the MaxRchives; inquiries are welcome.

Back to the Future II (1989)

Back to the Future II: Ronald Rea-Rea-Reagan (Jay Koch).

The second installment of the time-traveling movie franchise took Marty McFly to, uh... 2015, where among our flying cars, rehydrated food and other wonders he encountered several Max-like characters on the service screens of the old diner.

(I have to say that I am beyond embarrassed not to have realized, until it was pointed out to me, that in an additional layer of satire these t-talking heads were pitching The P-Word... Pepsi.

Excuse me, I'm going to go ride my hoverboard around to look for flying cars and self-lacing shoes...)

Back to the Future II: Michael Jack-Jackson! (E. Casanova Evans).
Back to the Future II: Ronnie joined by Khomei-meini (Charles Gerardi).

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (1994-1999)

Mhcom carmensandiego chief1.jpg
Mhcom carmensandiego chief2.jpg
Mhcom carmensandiego chief3.jpg

The animated series based on the popular geography-exploring computer games featured Carmen's boss, the Chief. Although he was supposed to be a real person who had once worked with the nefarious Carmen, he was only seen as a talking head on TV, with some very Max-like tics.

He may well have been a mashup of Max and the mysterious "Charlie" of Charlie's Angels - supposedly running things but never seen by either the audience or the women of his detective agency.

Batman & Robin (1997)

In what is regarded as the nadir of the Batman film franchise, director Joel Schumacher shoehorned in a brief Max reference as an AI made from Alfred Pennyworth's computerized mind.

(It made me laugh when I saw it, but the movie still stank.)

T-Mobile Germany's "Robert T-Online" (2001-3)

Mhcom roberttonline tv.jpg

One of the more bizarre Max spin-offs was the use of a very Max-like character to pitch Deutsche Telekom's mobile service, branded T-Mobile after the US service of the same name, logo and signature color (magenta). Unlike Max, "Robert T-Online" was a full-figure character with hands and arms and legs and everything, but otherwise, he was the same kind of strange plasticky robot/computer image avatar. Like Max, he was portrayed by an actor in prosthetics, Matthias Kostya, and with additional video processing.

Mhcom roberttonline.jpg

In 2002, he appeared in a television ad with the well-known VJ/presenter Enie van de Meiklokjes, who was known for her bright red-dyed hair (much like that of "Lola" in Lola Rennt / Run Lola Run). For the commercial, her hair was T-Mobile's trademark magenta instead.

Rebranding of T-Mobile as T-Com in 2003 brought the "annoying" spokesbeing to an end.

Channel Four "Get Ready for Digital" ads (2007)

It's worth noting here that the 2007 Channel Four ads could be called parodies... or at least self-satire.

Music Videos

For some reason, Max and his stuttering-head trope continue to be popular on the music video scene...

  • In the Gigi D'Agostino's video for "Another Way" (1999), the main character resembles Max's appearance and movements. However, as a full-body figure with gloved hands, and appearing in a European artist's video, "Robert T-Online" might have been the more relevant influence.
  • The Canadian band Sum 41 wrote and performed a song called "Second Chance for Max Headroom" on their album "Half Hour of Power" (2000). The lyrics have no connection to Max, though.
  • In the beginning of Tony Yayo's video for "Pass the Patron" (2010), 50 Cent appears as a Max Headroom-like character who drags two nerds (Yayo and another band member) into the video.
  • Selena Gomez appears as a Max-like character on video screens in her video, "Love You like a Love Song" (2011).
  • Eminem's single "Rap God" (2013) features an extended homage to Max with the singer in full costume and on a signature moving-lines background, and seen in stacks of old-style TVs.
  • NEW! - UK band Muse has released a video for their 2018 song "Dig Down" that features not just a Max Headroom impersonation, but one based closely on the 1987 TV piracy video (complete with corrugated aluminum backdrop). (Thanks to Blank Anna for this item!)

Cultural Appearances

Bobby Davro as Max.
  • In 1986, British comedian and impressionist Bobby Davro did a Max Headroom parody as part of one of his shows on ITV. (Date and show uncertain.)
  • On September 11, 2008, the internet group Anonymous posted a video on YouTube, continuing the "Project Chanology" attack on the Church of Scientology. An armless figure wearing Anonymous's trademark Guy Fawkes mask breaks into a recorded Scientology address and delivers threats to Scientology in a stuttering, processed voice on a Max-like background.
  • Max is mentioned in the episode "Diary #4" of the Neely Comics YouTube video series Baby Cakes.
  • The YA TV series Eerie, Indiana, in its third episode, "The ATM with the Heart of Gold," had a spoof of Max as "Mr. Wilson," the talking head in a "friendly" ATM. (Matt Frewer appeared in a later episode written by ABC series story editor and writer Michael Cassutt.)

Unverified References

Most of these popular culture references, taken from the Wikipedia entry and elsewhere, have not been verified. They will be deleted or added to the more complete listings above as time permits.

  • The season 4 episode of Farscape "John Quixote" featured the actor Ben Browder appearing as a Headroom-type version of his character, John Crichton.
  • In the 1987 film Spaceballs, a parody of Max Headroom appears as the character Vinnie, henchman of mobster Pizza the Hutt. There is also a TV reporter who resembles Max.
  • During the final season of the PBS educational television series Square One Television, another parody of Max Headroom named FAX HEADFUL had his own segment.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In a Season 2 episode of Family Matters, Steve Urkel appears as a Max Headroom version of himself.
  • In 1988 the Mexican TV show Estrellas de los 80's had a Max-like VJ named Boris, sponsored by Sprite.
  • A 1987 episode of D.C. Follies had a puppet caricature of Katharine Hepburn seen on a television exhibiting Max-like behavior, and calling herself "Kate Headroom."
  • The main antagonist in the computer games System Shock (1994) and its 1999 successor is an Artificial intelligence named SHODAN, which uses a stuttering, discordant speech resembling that of Max Headroom.
  • In a 1987 episode of The Charmings, "The Charmings Go Plastic", the Magic Mirror (Paul Winfield) appears with a blonde wig and Max Headroom-style background in an IRS agent's computer.
  • In the 2007 Dr. Who Christmas Special, "Voyage of the Damned", the owner of the company running the Cruise was called Max Capricorn, and at times when projected as a hologram began stuttering. The BBC's episode page states that Max Headroom was the inspiration for the character's image.
  • The Steven Spielberg miniseries Taken (2002), which starred Matt Frewer, includes a Max Headroom cameo on a laptop computer near the end of the series.