January 08, 2007

Max Headroom vs. 1987

Stumbled onto this little beauty earlier this evening.

Apparently, in November 1987, a video pirate in the Chicago area hijacked several local stations (WGN-TV and WTTW, a PBS affiliate) several hours apart, wearing a rubber Max Headroom mask and engaging in vulgar and stupid tomfoolery before dropping his pants and getting spanked with a flyswatter. Direct from YouTube, here's the full version from WTTW, the second and final broadcast, interrupting an episode of "Doctor Who":

Hilarious. Being that he's unavailable on home video, I'm largely unfamiliar with Max Headroom and his TV series, but for a character that appears to be some kind of 1984 thoughtcriminal for the age of modern media, it seems a little hypocritical that he would be pimping for Coca-Cola.

The prank was apparently intended to air over WGN's sports report: Headroom Pirate states that "this guy's better than Chuck Swirsky," referring to another sports reporter for the news station. It worked, but WGN switched transmitters, and the first broadcast only lasted twenty seconds without sound.

A brief look at responses from the "Modem World" found within contemporary hacker mag THE TOLMES NEWS SERVICE (found in transcripts of issues #14 and #15--scroll all the way down on #15) seems to imply that there was some kind of rabid Max Headroom underground. ("We'll strike again," one comments. "I can guarantee it.") Maybe it was just the work of a perturbed fan, angered that Headroom's titular series had just been cancelled? The fact that the rebroadcast interrupts "Doctor Who" seems to fall in step with that theory--if you can't hit your original target, who better to release your frustrations on than the warhorse sci-fi series that outlasted yours? Gotta love the moment where "Doctor Who" re-enters: "far as I can tell, a massive electric shock; he died instantly."

Still, the whole incident seems more orchestrated as a big fuck-you to the cultural establishment--the way that Headroom Pirate takes the piss out of the Cola Wars and Headroom's sell-out involvement (misappropriating Coke slogan "catch the wave" to Pepsi, then indifferently tossing the can), how he invokes nostalgia, presumably out of escapism (he sings the theme from anti-animation classic "Clutch Cargo"), and of course, how he flips society off--with a dildo on his middle finger, no less. He's aware of the low humor, so when he mimics "piles" and comments that he just "laid a giant masterpiece," he implies that maybe the '80s just needed to be dumped on. Headroom Pirate did indeed craft something of a little masterpiece: he's a rebel without a cause, so desperate to express discontent in his cultural era that his "allegiance" switches sides countless times--between channels, programs, and brand names--until he finally concludes that it's all just screwed up.

Here's a CBS news report filed the following night:

In a lot of ways, it's funnier than the clip itself. Dan Rather's stiff, humorless intro; the fact that the only scenes from the clip featured are those that could potentially offend audiences (dildo flip-off and flyswatter spanking); the Marv Albert lookalike who got so upset that he wanted to bust the TV set. (He really did.) THE TOLMES NEWS SERVICE lodges in a few more examples of public outrage and FCC threats. So in other words, the plastic-fantastic '80s receive disruption in their status quo with a massive electric shock of flyswatters smacking buttocks, and they die instantly. He was never caught, and he's still unidentified; I'm sure Headroom Pirate beams with pride.

On the mothersite: Overwhelming! Incredible! Told the untamed way! THRILL as Travis Hoover attacks a schlocky double-bill of King Dinosaur and The Jungle; meanwhile, Walter goes head-to-head with Takeshi Kitano's ego and Takeshis'. If you missed it, be sure to check out the post below this one -- Friday talkback, Alex's year-end wrap-up, and discussion of the nature and necessity of Bottom 10 lists.


Bill C said...

I remember this! Being in Canada, I didn't actually see it live, but I recall the post-mortem as delivered by various news outlets the following day. It occurs to me they only succeeded in allowing Headroom Pirate to hijack more airtime.

I never got the "Max Headroom" TV series but it was so inexplicable that I watched it anyway. The only things I remember about it are that it was so darkly lit you couldn't follow the already-unintelligible storylines to save your life; having a crush on Amanda Pays; and finding the placard that preceded every episode--"20 Minutes Into the Future"--kinda witty.

Rick said...

She should have gone underhand on the swatting, she was hitting his back

Rick said...

In reference to what Walter posted a few blogs ago, on Jan 26th Toby Keith is coming to the Casino I go to in upstate NY (Turning Stone) I am going to be there that weekend, maybe I could have him sign a brick for me?

The Captain said...

That was fantastic - you are a worthy addition to the team, Mr Pugh!

Though, if it were I, interrupting a broadcast in modern times, I'd like to interrupt something truly godawful (I'm looking at you, Prison Break) with quick, unnerving flashes of one of the creepy long haired yūrei of Ringu kin. Maybe with some screaming noises. Mmm, yes...

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