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25 years later, Max bandits are still at large

The Max Headroom bandit incident occurred Chicago night Nov. 22 1987.

The Max Headroom bandit incident occurred in Chicago on the night of Nov. 22, 1987.

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Updated: December 24, 2012 7:08AM



Twenty-five years ago, bandits interrupted the Chicago TV airwaves, and replaced the regular programming with a phony Max Headroom getting his bare keister spanked with a flyswatter.

It was Nov. 22, 1987.

The bandits first struck during Chicago Bears football highlights on the 9 p.m. newscast of WGN-TV (Channel 9). The pranksters evidently used some sophisticated equipment to interrupt the news with a satire of “Max Headroom,” then a television series on ABC.

However, WGN was able to fend off the invasion before the flyswatter segment aired, and the interruption only lasted 25 seconds.

Later that night, the bandits entered the realm of the Time Lord himself. They interrupted a broadcast of “Dr. Who” on WTTW-TV (Channel 11). Their prank lasted 1 minute and 28 seconds — long enough for the infamous “Headroom-and-Tails” spanking sequence.

After the incident, officials with the Federal Communications Commission were seeking the airwave bandits, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that week. The penalties mentioned were up to $100,000 in fines and a year in jail.

To this day, the bandits have never been caught.

The WTTW incident can be viewed on YouTube and is truly disturbing. Imagine yourself in your living room on that fateful night: You’re kicking back and relaxing to some PBS. One moment, you’re watching a genteel bloke in a tan turtleneck, fetching a spot of tea. The next moment, a fake Max Headroom emerges from a fuzzy cauldron of white noise and starts talking about Chuck Swirsky. Just surreal.

In a heavily distorted voice, the pseudo-Max then does a plug for the soda companies, hums the theme to “Clutch Cargo,” and complains dolefully about being afflicted with “piles.”

Max picks up a glove and says his brother is wearing the other one. And that’s fair enough, because let’s face it: It’s not really a prank unless your brother is in on it.

Nevertheless, a Sun-Times article brings up a sobering point about pranks: They may seem funny, but they can go terribly wrong. Instead of entertainment, the pranksters could have interrupted something that was extremely important, one viewer said. And the penalties, as mentioned before, can be serious.

Today, the Max Headroom incident has its own Wikipedia article and its own entry on the Internet Movie Database. As always, IMDb is careful not to give away plot spoilers, but we’re going to take some liberties here.

The conclusion has the faux Max crying, “They’re coming to get me,” while being spanked by a flyswatter-wielding female. Some have theorized that the female is spanking his caboose with a kitchen utensil, but this theorist rejects that postulate as bare nonsense.

Some have theorized that the female is dressed like Annie Oakley. However, this theorist suspects it was Heidi, the literary character of the Swiss Alps.

Indeed, this same Heidi — almost exactly 19 years earlier — interrupted the NBC broadcast of the big Raiders vs. Jets football game, on Nov. 17, 1968.

Now that was no laughing matter.

Sun-Times Media contributed to this report.



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